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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 and 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
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
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 Second
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 six-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
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
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.
Harry Browne was the 1996 Libertarian presidential candidate. More of
his columns are available at his
website. You can also hear his Sunday
night radio broadcast at that site.