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by Dr. Michael S. Brown


The first election of the millennium has delivered mixed results and some hard lessons to gun owners. The NRA was able to generate modest influence in the presidential and congressional races, but ballot measures that further restrict legal firearms commerce at gun shows easily passed in Oregon and Colorado. In both states the margin of victory was so large that many gun owners must have voted in favor. This represents a failure of the gun rights community to present a compelling message to the voters.

These ballot measures passed largely due to the ingenious use of the sound bite: "gun show loophole". It only takes ten minutes on the internet to realize that this term is grossly misleading. Unfortunately for gun owners, the typical voter doesn't care enough about the issue to look beyond the shallow veneer of media coverage.

The gun rights movement can turn out the vote among its own members, but is completely outclassed when it comes to influencing overall public opinion. The truth is that most people have more immediate things to worry about than the debate over gun rights. The average person who keeps a firearm in the home for protection does not understand how the slow erosion of rights will effect her, since gun rights advocates have not presented their message in a way that makes most people care.

Pro-rights groups point out that gun laws have never reduced crime. They offer statistics that show the importance of civilian gun ownership in crime prevention. They explain that criminals rarely obtain guns from gun shows and they discuss the disturbing history of gun control. They are absolutely right, but it makes no difference if most voters aren't listening.

Sound bites and superficial arguments are the most effective way to mold public opinion. Who is going to take the time to investigate the facts when frightening television commercials say that their children's lives are in danger right now? A real understanding of the gun control debate requires time and energy that most people don't have.

Those who voted yes on the gun show measures were mislead by the false, but skillful portrayal of gun shows as illegal arms bazaars where normal laws don't apply and sinister arms smugglers distribute machine guns to children. Since few voters have ever seen a gun show first hand, they naturally believe the frightening images and absorb the subliminal messages they see on television. Fear is a powerful propaganda weapon and will almost always override logic.

Handgun Control Inc. is already using the passage of the Oregon and Colorado measures to claim that there is support for more federal gun laws. We can expect a renewed offensive from the gun control lobby soon. Judging by their past efforts, they will not hesitate to use lies and distortions to manipulate public emotions. Their clever sound bites will be repeated without question by the media. They can't lose as long as pro-rights groups try to fight them with facts or vague appeals to patriotism like: "Vote freedom first".

The lesson for gun rights organizations is clear. They must tailor their message to break through to the voter who is busy, unpatriotic and has no interest in history. They must use simple slogans that counteract the fear of guns created by the gun haters, while promoting the ideas that self defense is a basic human right and guns are a good defensive tool. They must organize their own street demonstrations and rallies to gain media attention.

The NRA has already taken a big step forward with their successful infomercials that expose the frightening progression of gun control in other countries. This has proven to be an excellent way of reaching gun owners who have a fear of government oppression. They should now use that technique to convince a wider cross section of society that civilian gun ownership is a critical part of crime prevention.

It is time for the "Armed Citizen" column to make an appearance on television. These new infomercials could be partially financed by the sale of gun safety and personal defense courses on videotape along with NRA memberships.

The gun rights community must emulate and surpass the marketing techniques of the opposition. Only when equality has been achieved in the emotion-based propaganda wars can facts and logic be used to tip the balance.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is a member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws:  He may be reached at His archive on our site is available at


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Allowing riflery training while decrying gun violence doesn't send a mixed message any more than does supporting a wrestling team while opposing schoolyard brawls. CHICAGO TRIBUNE

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