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News & Editorials

Epiphanies and gun rights.
A suggestion for gun-rights advocacy.

by Jeff Dege

Just what is an epiphany, anyway?

3 a (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery b : a revealing scene or moment

-- From Merriam-Webster's Online.

How does this relate to gun rights?

When you have an argument that appeals to the emotions, you can rant and rave, shout slogans, wave flags, gather crowds, etc. All the well-known tools of the propagandist are at your disposal.

When all you have is the truth, you have none of this.

Gun rights supporters have the truth.

I've been thinking about how people change their minds about gun-control. When people do change their minds, it's almost always from pro-control to pro-rights, but why does this happen?

I have to admit that I, once, while not an advocate for gun-control, sort of vaguely accepted the some of the underlying premises of gun-control, that gun-control laws would reduce gun violence, etc. I learned better. I've seen others open up to the truth, and I've been musing about how this happens, and when it happens. And it seems to me that it is a very gentle thing.

You can enrage a crowd with propaganda. Wave the bloody shirt and cry "it's for the children". And it works, for those who aren't thinking.

But to convince them that they are wrong, to get them to recognize that their preconceptions are mistaken, to get them to begin to think, is something very different. We need to trigger a small and quiet epiphany in each individual, one at a time.

That is the task we are faced with.

The question is, how do we achieve it?


How epiphanies happen.

How do we make people step back and realize the truth?

The answer is clear. We can't.

They will happen when people are ready for them to happen, and not before.


So what do we do?

This question is what started me pondering my own conversion.

Because before we can understand how to change the opinions of other people, we need to understand how our own opinions changed.

And in me, the critical change was when I went from vaguely disapproving of guns to recognizing that for one individual, keeping a handgun for self-defense could be a rational response to circumstances.

My own experience.

A few years ago I was visiting my grandmother and stopped by her next-door-neighbor's, whom I had known since I was a kid. He invited me into his living room, but before I sat down on the couch he took a holstered revolver from under a pillow and moved it to a bookshelf.

I had handled guns in the Army, and even done some plinking as a kid (before my family moved from rural Illinois to a suburb of Boston, when I was 10.) But I had never considered keeping a gun for self-defense. I had never lived anywhere where I was at more than a minimal risk of crime, and I'd never really thought much about people who did.

But this gentleman was over eighty. He'd had heart bypass surgery twice. His wife was so crippled with arthritis she could hardly walk. He wasn't going to fight anybody hand-to-hand, and he wasn't able to run away.

And he lived in a neighborhood where crime was a problem. It was a small-to-middlin sized farming town, in what had always been one of poorer neighborhoods. It was right on the edge of town, on the main road in, which was well-suited for my grandfather's small-engine repair shop. But it was never really a great place to live.

Across the street was a mobile home that always seemed to be occupied by a bunch of young kids who threw parties all night. I've seen the police there as often as five times in one night. That after being hassled by the police some drunken biker there would see a light on in this gentleman's window, and decide that it must have been he who had made the call, and that he needed to be taught a lesson, struck me as being far too likely for comfort.

So when I saw that this gentleman kept a handgun ready for self-defense it was clear to me that he was at some risk, that he had few effective alternatives, and that for him to keep a gun was a reasonable and rational thing to do.

And that was the beginning of the end for my anti-gun preconceptions.

Not a major reversal, nothing to do with media campaigns. No exposure at all to twisted propaganda from the evil NRA. Just a simple observation based on personal experience.

My descent into gun-nuttery.

It was a few years later, as I was listening to politicians and pollyanaish dogooders ranting about the evils of guns, and about the new restrictions on gun purchases that they were going to implement, that I began to realize that while obtaining a handgun might be only moderately difficult now, it might well be quite a bit more difficult in the future.

And while I didn't consider myself at risk at the time, (and still don't, for that matter), I knew that circumstances could change in the future. And obtaining a gun when they did might well take more time than I might have.

To tell the truth, I didn't know much about self-defense handguns. Types, models, choices of ammunition, safe use, safe storage, on all of that I had no idea. I figured it would Take some time to learn.

So I spent a couple of months reading, and I rented a number of different types of handguns at a local range. I attended a self-defense course. Eventually, I picked out a handgun that suited me (a Beretta 8040). I then spent a couple of months at the range familiarizing myself with it and seeing how well it worked with different types of ammunition. When I had settled on one type of ammunition for self-defense use (165-grain Remington Golden Saber), I fired through a couple of hundred rounds, just to make sure it was a reliable combination, then put the gun away in the fireproof lock box I had purchased to secure it, and got on with my life.

Or so I had planned. But in the process I had let it leak to a few friends and acquaintances that I had purchased a gun. And one had been participating in an informal target league, and asked me to join.

So I did.

I'd never had trouble hitting center-mass on a silhouette at 21 feet. But hitting a three-inch bullseye at 75 was another matter entirely. I was lousy. But I'm getting better.

While I was going through all of this, there were a couple of incidents that helped influence me. A close friend was mugged, badly beaten, when she didn't immediately release her purse to a couple of purse-snatchers, in broad daylight, with thirty-some people standing around not getting involved. A check of the police department's web site told me that these two had done the same more than twenty times in the three months prior to their attack on my friend. Always in public, and the police hadn't caught them and none of the bystanders had done a thing.

So when I heard about a local shall-issue advocacy group (Minnesota Concealed Carry Reform, Now!), I started attending their meetings. After a while, I was handing out literature at gun shows. And writing letters to legislators. And attending committee hearings with a "Have Gun, Will Vote" button on my shirt.

And now here I am, a full-fledged reactionary gun-nut of the worst kind.

And why am I telling you this?

Because if we are going to prevail on the issue, we need to understand how people change their minds.

There are three sides to the gun-control issue. Don Kates describes them as pro-gun, anti-gun, and pro-control.

The anti-gun side is the smallest, the loudest, and the best funded. Every legal, logical, scientific, and philosophical foundation of their position has been completely discredited over the last thirty-five years, but since they are driven by an irrational fear, it doesn't seem to bother them much. The pro-gun side is much larger, but still a minority. They are much more disorganized, and much less understood. They have the right on their side, but the right doesn't matter if people won't listen to it.

The pro-control side is by far the largest segment of the population. They generally don't think about guns at all. They vaguely recognize a right to own firearms, even handguns, and support the right to self-defense. But they also vaguely support various gun control measures, without really understanding how they would work, or even what the current laws are. The vast majority, for example, tell pollsters they support trigger locks, without ever having seen one, or ever having tried to fit one to a handgun.

Some in the media are anti-gun, more are pro-control. They don't know anything about guns, or gun owners, or the NRA. They completely swallow the anti-gun groups' characterizations of the "gun lobby" as a small group of extremists funded by the "gun industry", and the anti-gun groups' characterizations of themselves as a wide-spread "grassroots" movement, when the truth is nearly the opposite.

If we are going to succeed, we need to change the minds of the middle. We aren't going to change the minds of the anti-gunners. They suffer, most of them, from a real phobic fear of guns, and we're not going to change that.

But the middle, the vast majority that vaguely recognizes gun rights but also vaguely supports gun control, they we can reach.

I should know, I used to be one of them.

I moved from supporting gun control and not seeing a use for guns, to believing that someone else who kept a gun had good reason for doing so, to believing that I should keep a gun in case a need might arise, to believing that nearly everyone should keep a gun, unless they had demonstrated themselves to be a danger to society.

And while I walked this path, I've seen others make the same trip. I've seen someone who one day was screaming at me "I hate guns. Nobody should have guns", to three months later telling me quietly "I suppose if more people carried guns crime might go down."

How can we make it happen?

We can't.

It will happen in its own time and in its own way. All we can do is keep the information out there. Make sure people know that there are sane, rational people, who believe that an individual who keeps a gun for self-defense is making what may be a rational choice.

Part of this is personal behavior. I worked a gun show at the state fairgrounds, and I saw people carrying guns in and out who looked furtive, embarrassed. There's no need to be embarrassed. Yes, there are people who are terrified of guns, but that is their problem, not ours.

I'm not suggesting that we be argumentative, but I am suggesting that we shouldn't hide. Every time we act as if gun ownership is something to be embarrassed about, we help convince the people in the middle that the anti-gunners are right.

It took me a while to build up the nerve, but eventually I "outed" myself as a gun owner at work. Told a co-worker that I was shooting in a pistol league after work one evening. After a year, pretty much everybody knows. And nobody seems to be troubled by it. The hunters have started talking about hunting with each other in the lunchroom, and that some of us are gun owners is generally taken for granted.

The couple of anti-gunners are either moderating or keeping quiet. The turning point may have been a recognition of how seriously I, like most gun owners, take the issues of security and safety. When I was asked if I wasn't afraid that a kid would get my gun, I could truthfully say that I bought a lockbox before I bought the gun, and that since I picked it up at the store there has never been an instant where it was not either been under my direct control or securely locked.

But what we do by our own personal example only reaches a few people. It may be our most effective tool, but it is limited.

And if I am right in believing that mass media and in-your-face advertising doesn't work, what do we do to reach a larger audience?

I think I have an idea.

My idea.

I truly don't think mass-market, big issue campaigns work with the people we need to reach. They never had worked with me.

We need to reach individuals, when they are alone. When they are open to contemplation. And we need to convince them of one small thing: that for one specific individual, in one specific situation, keeping a handgun for self-defense is a responsible, sane, and rational thing to do.

Out of all the pro-gun web sites out there, the one that may get this message across best is Oleg Volk's:

It has a lot of good content, and some wonderful images:

Everyone deserves protection
Are you pro-choice?

I had seen Oleg's work, and respected it, well before I knew who he was, that he lived in the same city as I, or that he was active in the same concealed carry group. But back before the election he showed up at a meeting, with a new poster for people to see. I asked him if it would be OK if I were to run off some posters using his images, and hang them around the University. The University has a number of billboards placed for people to post whatever they feel like posting about. He said sure, but noted that I shouldn't expect them to stay up for long.

I ran off a couple of hundred, and spent an evening wandering the campus with a stapler. I went back a few days later and Oleg was right, the posters were gone.

Some had been torn down, many had simply been covered by other people's posters. I posted more, and went back every couple of days until I had used up what I had printed.

While I was doing this, I noticed a form of postering that I had not seen before. Some groups were running off small peel-off stickers, and placing them on street-lights, telephone poles, etc. These were so small that you had to get very close to read them. But they stuck, they didn't seem to have the same short lifespan as the billboards.

And I'd been thinking about epiphanies - what sort of message would be most likely to trigger the sort of quiet change of heart that seemed to me to be the focus of what we needed to do, and I thought that a small sticker, that someone noticed, got curious about, and walk up to to read, would be more likely to work than something larger and more in-your-face.

So I stopped by a local office supply store to look at labels. I found that Avery sells undivided label material in 8 1/2 x 11, in assorted bright fluorescent colors. ( Avery #5975, Assorted Fluorescent Labels for laser printers, 1 label/sheet, 8 1/2"x11", 15 sheets, 5 sheets each: Yellow, Magenta, and Green - cost me $10.99).

A bit of work with the computer, the laser printer, and the paper cutter, and I had what I wanted. A pack of fifteen sheets, printed four per sheet, gave me sixty labels.

Since I wasn't going to be playing the "let's fight for bulletin board space", (which to be effective means stapling enough posters to cover every inch of the bulletin board), sixty would be plenty.

I started with Oleg's comix.jpg, printed four-to-a-page on fluorescent green.
(click on the image to see the full comic.)

If your life was in danger

I put up only a few, some by the bulletin boards, other places where I thought people might be walking by. I didn't try to be in-your-face. I aimed more for places where you would see the label, but would have to walk over to see what it said.

After the election, I got involved in other things, carried on with my life, etc. The legislative session started, and the carry group got quite active in supporting a shall-issue reform bill. But in early spring (March, here in Minnesota), I stopped by the campus to see how the stickers had fared over the winter.

Most of them were still there. On some, you could see where an anti had made a serious effort to deface them, but they were clearly far more durable than paper on the bulletin boards.

And I began to think about where I might do the same thing. Where else I might post where posting would be accepted, and where pedestrians walk by. The warehouse district, at the edge of downtown, is full of clubs, has a great deal of foot traffic, and the streetlight poles are already plastered with posters advertising this or that new band. It might be next.

What do I expect this to accomplish?

Not a lot, in a hurry.

I have to expect that out of the thousands of people who walk by only a few will bother to look at the stickers. And of those few, on most they will have no effect.

But every once in a while, someone will notice one while in the sort of contemplative mood in which these small epiphanies are possible, and maybe we'll have started one on the road to enlightenment.

For the anti-gunners who read them, I don't expect I'll change their minds. At best, I'll remind them that their beliefs are not gospel truth, accepted by all right-thinking people, and I may weaken their certainty a bit.

For the pro-gunners, I don't expect to change their minds, either. But perhaps I'll convince some to be a bit more open about their opinions.

And as for the vague middle? Maybe I'll convince someone that guns have a purpose, and that the anti-gunners do not have all of the story.

The nation's colleges and universities in particular are home to strong forces of stringent political correctness, and it's rare for any alternative voice to be heard. I'd like to think that my posters on campus may weaken that some.

And perhaps they have. I have no reason whatsoever to believe that my actions on campus last fall had anything to do with it, but to my amazement, the campus newspaper printed a pair of editorials supporting the right of women to carry firearms in self defense.

They were written by Robert J. Woolley, a staff physician at the University's Boynton Health Service. The first, Guns effective defense against rape, appeared in the Minnesota Daily on February 20th, the second, Current gun laws restrict women's defense, appeared on February 21st.

In succeeding days, the Daily printed some favorable and some unfavorable responses: Letters to the Editor for February 22, and Letters to the Editor for February 26.

I have to say, this is not something I would have ever expected. That someone on campus would submit such editorials to the Daily I would have never considered, and that the Daily printed it is simply flabbergasting.

Did I have anything to do with it?

Could it be that Dr. Woolley wrote the editorials, at least in part, because he had seen my posters, and realized that he was not the only pro-gunner on campus? Or could it be that one of the editors at the daily printed the editorials, at least in part, because he had seen my posters, and had begun to realize that there was another side to the story?

I'll never know.

Probably not.

But I'd like to think so.

Where do we go from here?

I met Oleg at a meeting of the concealed carry group this spring. I told him about my postering effort, and he was quite supportive. He said that I should give some to other people, because they travel in places that I do not, and the posters would then reach people they otherwise would not.

I couldn't argue with the logic, so the next time I met some of the folks from the carry group (at Jason Lewis's annual Tax Cut Rally), where we were handing out flyers on the shall-issue reform bill we are supporting), and passed out what I had printed and hadn't gotten around to placing.

But if this sort of advocacy works, and if suggesting to people a few pro-gun people I know that they might post these little posters in places that I do not is a good idea, then it's just as good an idea to suggest it to the pro-gun community on the net.

Or so I hope.

The process is simple. Take an image you think would make a good poster, load it up into your favorite image-editing software, resize it, add margins (it's a lot easier cutting them if there are margins between the images), place as many images as you want on a page, and print them. On Avery #5975 fluorescent full-page label material, as I do, or on anything else you think might work. Cut the posters apart, and place them where you think they might be seen.

Or use somebody else's images, or your own, or plain text, on whatever size you think will work. It's a free society, after all, and you can do as you will.

But I'd like to suggest that personal, individual messages are more likely to be effective than statements about Constitutional Rights or the general level of crime. Not "we all have a right to have guns", or "society would be better off if more people carried guns", but "for her keeping a gun is a rational response to a real threat:"

Call later

If you choose to do as I did, the link below includes a number of images from Oleg's site that I have pasted four-per-page.

Oleg's Images in four-per-page

Keep in mind that there are plenty of places where posting this sort of stuff is illegal. People have property rights, and that includes the right to not have people plaster their property with hard-to-remove stickers. If some store owner sues you because he didn't appreciate having to scrape one of these posters off of his window, I'll be on his side, not yours.

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