Sometimes, we get a chance to talk to people opposed to gun ownership. Debates turn into angry arguments and, more often than not, the two sides part failing to convince the other. Yet, from the advertising point of view, debates with individuals or small groups are ideal for transmitting ideas, changing hearts and minds. What can we do to succeed?
We can begin to succeed by not insulting the opposition. Can you imagine a Coke commercial which would call Pepsi drinkers degenerates and try to shame them into giving up their loathsome vice? It would hardly be the vehicle for conversion of the target market. Yet people on our side often say: “I really gave that damn anti a piece of my mind!” and then wonder why the other party failed to reform.
Personal contact with other people gives us certain opportunities denied to mass marketers and media. The foremost advantage is the ability to find out exactly what the other person thinks. Instead of launching into a rant, why not begin by asking questions? Most people are very fond of telling their views to others, especially if the questions are open-ended and non-adversarial. “What do you thing about…” or “How would…” are good basis for such inquiries. Formulating the answers to such questions also allows the other person some soul-searching in the privacy of their own mind. Showing a genuine interest in the foundations of someone’s views provides us with a good understanding of his thought process and background. It also puts that person in charge of the conversation and emotionally comfortable.
The answers provided would give you a good idea of the others’ views. When facing a staunch and active opponent, debating to impress the onlookers would be a more realistic option than trying to convert a person set in his beliefs. Conversely, if facing a fence-sitter, you should help that person arrive to his own conclusions by supplying facts and posing logical questions. The first step to succeeding in a task is knowing the goal, be it persuasion of the other debater, impressing the audience, or convincing an opponent to cease a particular activity without necessarily endorsing your views.
For your efforts to yield positive effects, you must conduct yourself in a polite, cordial and civil manner. Scaring or annoying the audience into quitting is a loss of an opportunity. Because we and “them” do not always speak the same language, avoid hyperbole in your explanations. The listeners may take an exaggeration for effect quite literally. Likewise, avoid slang or argot terms, such as “perp” or “goblin”. Those may sound fine to us, but would emphasize the divide between you and your audience. Speak their kind of language instead.
When it comes to marketing methods, several standard approaches can work. One of the simplest and most effective is authority endorsement or reference. Keep in mind that the definition of authority has little to do with competence on a specific subject. Although an obvious and respected figure for us, John M. Browning would not be known or well-received by people who are not firearms enthusiasts. Conversely, Dalai Lama or the Pope or some popular entertainer may know little of the topic but be influential by the virtues of other credentials. Since many anti-gun folks defer to the experience of other, “more enlightened” countries, it helps to know the laws elsewhere. For example, support for suppressor restrictions often fades once the example of New Zealand with over the counter sound suppressor sales and minimal violent crime is brought up. The info would, of course, be phrased as a question: “Does silencer availability cause much crime in countries where they are unregulated?”
Another approach centers around benefits to the person with who you are debating the issue, or to his immediate family or friends. Illustrate relevant points, using simple analogies, such as the comparison of seat belts, fire extinguishers, firearms and other emergency management tools. Demonstrate how long it takes to dial a cell phone compared to drawing a sidearm. For the demonstration, a cell phone would make a fine stand-in for a pistol.
Remember that our opponents don’t care about the finer technical points. A 8-shot pistol bothers them as much as a 12-shot one, a small as much as the large, and they seldom know the difference between actions or calibers. In the end, they mainly object to firearms usable as weapons. Even more so, they object to “untrustworthy” people having access to such firearms. Even anti-gun activists would be ok with a President or a Senator having a gun, fewer would grant that right to people they know, and fewer yet to a stranger. Moving the discussion to address respect for individual self-determination instead of focusing on technology is more likely to yield useful results.
Group responsibility comes into play. A person who misuses some other common objects – knives, gasoline, vehicles – is seldom used as an argument to punish or restrict everyone else. When a muscular bully uses his strength to oppress, no one in their right mind suggests a prohibition on exercise for the rest of us. By using examples dealing with less emotionally charged objects, we can sometimes prompt a more even-handed response.
Since emotion, rather than logic, drives many decisions, appeal to that. Prompt an ethical stand on such topics as equal treatment before the law, right to personal safety from harm and coercion, the evils of collective responsibility and prior restraint. Point out the lack of logic in the laws. A typical logical chain can go like this: “Do you think that off-duty or retired police officers should be able to carry side arms for self-defense?” If they reply in the negative, that off-duty carry does not serve the interest of the state, then you know that the respondent cannot be converted and endeavor to impress the bystanders instead. If the answer is “yes”, then ask if it is the training, rather than the badge, that makes a person eligible to carry a weapon. Then suggest that similarly trained people who are not cops ought to be able to protect themselves also. Tailor the specific question and answer sequence to the situation at hand.
The main advantage of the Socratic method is that it allows a polite, non-confrontational debate with people who agree only on the most basic of concepts. Do not press the others to admit to being influenced by you or to changing their minds. The process is usually gradual, and tends to come as a part of a greater philosophical re-alignment towards greater respect for individual freedom. In my case, the evolution from an ignorant person with neutral to negative views towards gun ownership to an educated positive view took about six years. The change came from the combination of conversations with friends, reading books and personal experience. We can help others learn at their own pace.
About Oleg Volk
Oleg is a creative director and advertising photographer living in Nashville, Tennessee. He creates ad campaigns and produces widely popular images for over sixty brands in the firearms and self-defense industry. Companies he’s worked with include Kel-Tec, Coonan, Boberg, Viridian Laser, Nightforce, and many others. Besides doing commercial work, he writes illustrated articles for Shooting Illustrated, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Women & Guns, Canadian Firearms Journal and several Harris Publications titles – and now The Sear.