How to sell gun rights

by Harry Browne

June 13, 2001

From time to time the press reports a tragic event in which a child is killed in a gun accident. It provides an opportunity for politicians and reformers to speechify about the need to pass stricter gun laws -- laws that will require safety locks on guns, laws that will force gun owners to keep all guns in locked storage, even laws to make it harder for someone to buy a gun.

But why does the press bother to report the tragic gun accident?

Because it is an extraordinary event. Like an earthquake big enough to cause fatalities, the rarity of a gun accidentally killing a child makes it newsworthy. It's the legendary "Man Bites Dog!" story.

But thousands of children are killed in car accidents every year. Why don't you see reports of those auto accidents on the TV News? Because they are too commonplace to be news -- events no more unusual than "Dog Bites Man."

The death of any child or adult is a tragedy. Life is the most precious gift a human being possesses. But if the death of a child from a gun accident justifies taking away freedoms from people, why doesn't the death of a child from an auto accident justify laws that would keep children away from cars?

Rights & Freedoms

The answer stems from a simple truth: Few people care about the rights and freedom of others. Most of us care only about the rights and freedoms that affect our own lives.

Almost every adult drives a car and accepts the risks that go with driving an automobile. To forcibly keep children away from cars would inconvenience most families so much that the idea could gain the support of almost no one -- except perhaps the Vice-President of the United States.

But only about half of American families own guns. The other half includes people who, for one reason or another, see no need to own a gun -- in some cases because they are afraid of guns. Those people can easily believe that reducing gun ownership will save lives without inconveniencing them in any way.

Politicians are particularly prone to this attitude. Most of them work in buildings with heavy security; many of them have armed chauffeurs and armed guards; and if they want to go into a dangerous area of a city, they can requisition an armed escort. So they don't feel imposed upon when restrictive gun laws prevent average citizens from defending themselves.

Also, politicians respect the political influence wielded by many gun-control advocates. Some of those advocates run America's biggest newspapers, or are pundits on the Washington Sunday-morning talk shows, or are wealthy Hollywood celebrities. Why shouldn't politicians pander to these gun-controllers who can do so much to help their careers -- especially when the politicians feel no need to own guns themselves?

Appealing to Non-Gun-Owners

We may never change the minds of the politicians or the gun-control advocates. So our efforts should be directed toward the rest of the people who don't own guns.

And the first point to keep in mind is this: You will get nowhere by proclaiming your right to keep and bear arms. Very few people care about rights they don't plan to exercise themselves.

To them, it doesn't matter that the Founding Fathers meant the 2nd amendment to provide unqualified gun ownership for citizens, and it doesn't matter that the right to be armed against a potential tyranny may be the most important right of all.

You might be able to win debates asserting such arguments, but you won't win converts. And what's the point of winning debates if you don't convert anyone, and if winning a debate simply encourages your opponents to look for new ways to defeat you?

I know of only one way to bring non-gun-owners over to our side: by showing them that widespread gun ownership makes them safer than they would be among a disarmed populace.

Here are some examples of points that can help you persuade them ...

  • If you're ever in a restaurant and a maniac starts shooting people at random, I hope someone in that restaurant will have a gun that can stop the assailant.

  • I doubt that I would take advantage myself of a law allowing people to carry concealed weapons, but I feel safer in a community where anyone I see might be carrying a concealed gun -- so that any criminal has to wonder whether I have a gun.

  • Although you hear about unusual accidents in which guns have killed children, or cases where a maniac has fired on a bunch of children, you don't hear of the thousands of commonplace events in which a home containing children was defended from an intruder by a gun owner -- or even defended by a child with a gun. Nor do you hear about the criminals who were deterred from entering a neighborhood where they didn't know which houses might contain guns. Your home is safer if some of your neighbors happen to have guns.

  • Criminals rarely buy guns in gun stores or at gun shows, because they don't want guns traced back to them. They buy their guns in the underworld or simply steal them. So they are rarely affected by gun-control laws. The number of criminals nabbed by such laws is microscopic compared to the number of innocent citizens who were prevented by waiting periods from buying guns when threatened by a stalker, a violent ex-spouse, or a crazy person. Like most laws, gun control hurts the innocent far more than the guilty. And since the criminals will have guns no matter what, the more the innocent are deprived of owning guns, the less safe you are.

  • Women especially need access to guns to protect them from stronger men who might assault them in parking lots, on city streets, or in their own homes. To prevent them from carrying guns is to deny them the only way to resist an attacker.

  • The police can't stop an intruder, mugger, or stalker from hurting you. They can pursue him only after he has hurt or killed you. Protecting yourself from harm is your responsibility, and you are far less likely to be hurt in a neighborhood of gun-owners than in one of disarmed citizens -- even if you don't own a gun yourself.

  • It is unrealistic to say such things as "But no one needs an assault rifle." How can we know that? If you were a store owner during the Los Angeles riots and a mob was about to enter your store to destroy your life savings, which would you have wanted in your hand -- a knife, a 6-bullet revolver, or an assault rifle? Giving politicians the power to decide what you need and don't need is to force you to live your life according to their needs and circumstances -- making you vulnerable to any whim that strikes the politicians during a period of temporary hysteria.

Understand that none of these points is likely to convert someone overnight. But your prospect will actually listen to you when you discuss these things, because you're talking about matters that affect his life directly. And as he considers more and more of these matters, he is likely to become less adamantly opposed to gun ownership, then grow even more open-minded, and eventually become your ally.

That's how so many people have come to want an end to the Drug War -- a step at a time -- and not out of concern for someone else's right to take drugs, but to make one's own life safer.

The ability to keep and bear arms is one of the most important rights you can have. So it's essential that you be as persuasive as possible when you get the chance to talk to someone about it. Don't waste the opportunity by preaching about your right to do what you want.

Instead, agree with the person's concern for safety -- so he knows you want a more peaceful society, not a more violent one. Then you can help him understand how much safer he'll be in a society of armed citizens, rather than living in one where only criminals and government employees have guns.