Gun Violence Messaging

 

Any time you talk about gun legislation you need to lay out the problem and your solution in very simple terms. While pro-gun advocates know (or more accurately think they know) a lot about gun laws, persuadable Americans have no idea how easy our system makes it for dangerous people to buy handguns, assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Be aware that if you get into a debate about gun policy you will spend most of your time trying to steer the conversation back to the legislation at hand. The main strategy of pro-gun advocates is to sidetrack the debate so that you’re talking about something other than the need for background checks or the advisability of limiting access to the most dangerous types of guns. 

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Gun control

Stricter gun laws

You oppose the 2nd Amendment

Preventing gun violence

Stronger gun laws

Support for the 2nd Amendment goes hand-in-hand with keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people 

Why . . .

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has done a good job of making people think that gun control or even stricter laws means banning the possession of handguns or the confiscation of guns. Of course, no one is proposing that. You need to make it clear that you are taking what voters perceive as a moderateposition. Like them, you support the 2nd Amendment. Like them, you don’t have a problem with NRA members in your community. (If the situation requires you to attack the NRA, then condemn “NRA lobbyists” or the “NRA’s out-of-touch leaders.” Never attack average NRA members or local NRA leaders; that doesn’t work.)

To introduce your argument, start with the fundamentals: 

Say . . .

We need to do everything we can to keep our community safe and secure from violence. But every day, far too many of us are victims of gun violence. Dozens of Americans will be murdered, hundreds of others will be shot, and nearly one thousand will be robbed or assaulted with a gun—today. (If you can, tell a personal story here.) 

Why . . .

Don’t skip the universally shared values we are fighting for—safety and security. And then, don’t ignore the fundamental facts that motivate us to fight: there are about 10,000 gun murders, about 100,000 people shot, and about 350,000 Americans robbed or assaulted with firearms—every single year. Let people recognize that every day, wherever we go in America, we are all at risk of gun violence. And then: 

Say . . .

It is obvious why so many people are killed or victimized with guns, day after day—we have some of the weakest gun laws in the world. To make us, our families and our communities safer, we need to change a few of those laws—now. 

Why . . .

Don’t assume people understand why we need new laws. Link the problem to the solution.

To require background checks for all gun sales—this is your basic argument: 

Say . . .

Our community can’t be safe if we allow guns to be sold to felons or the dangerously mentally ill. That’s why current law requires that no gun can be sold by a licensed gun dealer without a criminal background check. But millions of guns are sold by unlicensed sellers at gun shows and through Internet sites with no background check. We need a simple change in the law in order to cover all gun sales. The few minutes it takes to complete a computerized check will save lives. It’s just common sense. 

Why . . .

Since 1968, federal law has banned the possession of firearms by convicted felons, domestic abusers and people who are dangerously mentally ill. The Brady law, enacted in 1993, requires a criminal background check before any licensed dealer can sell any firearm. (Some states require more.) A National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for gun purchases, operated by the FBI, began in 1998. Poll after poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly support background checks for all gun sales.

The only direct argument against background checks by the pro-gun lobby is that “criminals will get guns anyway.” 

Say . . .

The federal background check law has blocked more than 1.5 million illegal gun sales over the past 15 years. It works. The problem is that the law doesn’t apply to private sales, so felons can currently avoid a background check and get any kind of gun, no questions asked. Both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the national Fraternal Order of Police have endorsed mandatory, universal background checks because they know it will save lives. It’s time to close the private sales loophole. 

Why . . .

Nobody suggests this law will stop all criminals. To be successful, it doesn’t have to. No law stops allcrime. It’s simply common sense to block as many illegal sales as possible.

All the other arguments raised in this debate are designed to change the subject: background checks will create a gun registration list that will lead to confiscation; they will keep women from defending themselves in the home; they would put us on a “slippery slope” leading to extreme laws in the future; they’re the first step toward fascism; they would violate the 2nd Amendment. We deal with such arguments below. But the most important thing is for you to quickly bring the conversation back to the question of whether we should sell firearms at gun shows and in parking lots with no documentation and no questions asked. Don’t be diverted from the simple matter of background checks when nearly every persuadable voter is already on your side.

To ban military-style assault weapons—this is your basic argument: 

Say . . .

Our community can’t be safe if any unstable person can walk into a gun store and walk out with military weapons. That’s why, for nearly 80 years, federal law has banned machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, silencers, very high-caliber firearms, grenades and bombs. Military-style assault weapons—like the one used to murder defenseless children in Newtown—are semiautomatic versions of military weapons that are designed for rapid fire. They are weapons of war and our communities will be safer if we stop their manufacture and sale. 

Why . . .

It’s important to point out that we have been banning particularly dangerous guns for years.

Keep in mind it is okay to be emotional about assault weapons. Just consider the three most prominent school massacres: Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—20 children and six faculty murdered with a semiautomatic copy of the U.S. military’s M-16 rifle; Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado—13 killed and 23 wounded with four guns, including 55 rounds fired from a TEC-9 semiautomatic assault pistol; Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California—five small children killed and 30 wounded with a semiautomatic copy of the Soviet military’s AK-47 rifle.

What makes these guns different is they were originally designed for military, not sporting, use. So they have features—like large-capacity magazines, pistol grips and barrel shrouds—that enable the shooter to fire a lot of bullets very rapidly and still keep control of the gun. In the hands of someone with practice, an assault weapon can fire almost as fast as a machine gun. Search YouTube for “bump-fire AR-15” and see for yourself.

There’s really only one direct argument made by pro-gun debaters against an assault weapon ban: “There is no proof the 1994-2004 federal ban on assault weapons prevented crimes.” 

Say . . .

In the ten years that the federal ban on assault weapons was in effect, the percentage of assault weapons traced to crime fell by 66 percent. The ban worked and countless lives were saved. 

Why . . .

Gun tracing statistics provide the best measure because they cover all types of crime and accurately distinguish assault weapons from other guns.

The rest of the arguments against an assault weapon ban are designed, once again, to change the subject: women won’t be able to defend themselves in the home; these guns aren’t really called assault weapons; the Swiss and Israelis have military weapons in their homes; British gun control doesn’t work; military rifles are useful for shooting coyotes and varmints; veterans like them because they’re used to them; this is what Hitler would do. 

To ban high-capacity ammunition magazines—your basic argument: 

Say . . .

To protect our families and communities, we need to keep the most dangerous gun accessories out of the hands of felons and the dangerously mentally ill. This is not unusual. Silencers have been banned for nearly 80 years. The fact is, high-capacity ammunition magazines are designed to shoot a lot of people, fast. There is no hunting or sporting purpose for them. Just like silencers, high-capacity magazines should be banned to make our communities more secure. 

Why . . .

Like assault weapons, it’s important to show that we have banned particularly dangerous gun accessories for years. And high-capacity magazines are very common in mass shootings. The killer in the Newtown, Connecticut massacre used at least three 30-round magazines. The shooter in the Tucson, Arizona massacre—in about 15 seconds—fired 31 shots from one magazine, hitting 19 people, including Rep. Gabby Giffords, and killing six, including a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge. The shooter in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater had a 100-round magazine.

Again, there is only one direct argument against the proposal: “A magazine ban wouldn’t save any lives.” 

Say . . .

The Tucson massacre, where Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot, is a good example. The shooter had an ammunition magazine with 31 bullets. He was tackled after he shot out his clip and was trying to reload. If the magazine had only 10 rounds, a lot of people would have been saved. 

Why . . .

Our past six Presidents—Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush—all endorsed a ban on high-capacity magazines. It’s just common sense.

As we’ve explained above, the standard pro-gun tactic when arguing against gun laws is to change the subject. Whatever else you say, bring the debate back to the specific legislation on the table. Here are some examples:

Right wing argument: The Second Amendment forbids the proposed gun law. 

Say . . .

I support the Second Amendment. Hunting and shooting are part of our national heritage. But the Supreme Court ruled, just a few years ago, that reasonable gun laws, like this one, are constitutional. The Court explicitly upheld the current ban on possession of guns by felons. There is no constitutional difference between having that ban and enforcing it with a background check. The Court affirmed the current ban on sawed-off shotguns. There is no constitutional difference between that ban and one on semiautomatic assault weapons or large-capacity magazines. Over the last few years, federal and state courts have consistently ruled that modest gun laws like these do not violate the Second Amendment. 

Why . . .

The 2008 Supreme Court opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller guarantees Americans the right to have a handgun in the home for self-protection. The Court also said: “[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” And that ruling explicitly reaffirmed the Supreme Court’s 1939 U.S. v. Miller opinion that upheld a law banning sawed-off shotguns (the same law bans machine guns, silencers and grenades) and also agreed that lawmakers have the power to prohibit “dangerous and unusual weapons.”

Right wing argument: The assault weapon law wouldn’t have stopped Newtown or other claims that one particular gun law wouldn’t have prevented one particular crime. 

Say . . .

We don’t make any laws that way. The law against murder doesn’t stop all murders; we don’t expect it to. The law that lowered the blood alcohol level for driving didn’t stop all drunk driving; we didn’t expect it to. The question is not whether this law would have certainly stopped any particular crime, it is whether our communities would be safer with this law. They would be safer; it’s common sense. 

Right wing argument: This proposed law puts us on a slippery slope that will lead to worse laws down the road. 

Say . . .

You can make that argument against any law. Why not claim we shouldn’t have driver’s licenses because it might lead to bicycling licenses, walking licenses, and the confiscation of cars? Let’s return to the real issue: isn’t it simple common sense that we should stop selling these guns to just any adult, no questions asked? 

Right wing argument: This law will give the federal government the data to create a gun registration list, and that’ll lead to us getting our guns taken away. 

Say . . .

There is nothing in the background check proposal that creates a registry. In fact, existing law forbids the federal government from establishing a gun registration list. 

Right wing argument: That gun law will inhibit the right to self-defense. 

Say . . .

I support the right to self-defense and nothing in this legislation would prevent law-abiding citizens from defending themselves with a gun. Americans will still have access to thousands of different kinds of guns. 

Right wing argument: We should provide armed guards/do something about mental health/make parents take responsibility/ban violent video games instead. 

Say . . .

We should make our communities safer. If you’ve got a good proposal, that’s fine. But this is not an either-or debate; one policy does not exclude another. Can we get back to the legislation on the table—why should we sell these guns to just any adult, no questions asked? 

Right wing argument: The answer to gun violence is to have more guns. An armed society is a polite society. 

Say . . .

The states with the highest gun ownership rates have more gun violence—by far. But more important, this legislation will not prevent law-abiding Americans from buying or owning guns. The point is irrelevant; let’s return to the real debate. 

Right wing argument: The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Say . . .

It just doesn’t work that way. Columbine High School had an armed deputy sheriff. Virginia Tech had an entire police force, including a SWAT team. At the Tucson shooting, not only was there an armed civilian who failed to stop the shooter, but he almost shot one of the brave unarmed people who tackled and disarmed the shooter. The Fort Hood massacre happened at a military base filled with soldiers. President Reagan and his press secretary Jim Brady were surrounded by armed police and Secret Service, and yet both were shot. Let’s get back to the real debate. 




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