The National Symposium on Handgun Violence was held at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, on April 9, 2008. Ten of the leading gun-control advocates in the nation were scheduled for a coordinated review of “reasonable” limits on the right to keep and bear arms, led by Jim Brady himself, along with David Hemenway of Harvard and a host of others. News of the event and its surprise ending (covered at the end of this report) has not made national headlines.
A courageous decision was made to provide “balance,” which meant the organizers eventually found me (thanks to a referral from Alan Gura, Dick Heller’s attorney in the D.C. gun-ban case). They got me last-minute non-stop tickets from Phoenix, a room (a very nice room I might add), and 15 minutes at the podium. Ten against one. Hah. I had them outnumbered.
I’ve been studying persuasion skills for a long while now, and here was an acid test. Was it possible to address an audience like this and not get booed off stage? Could I manage civil discourse with the participants at the luncheon beforehand, maintain composure through the staging, and end up sociable at the afterglow dinner at a fine restaurant?
It’s my belief that the words exist in the universe to convince anyone of anything true, regardless of their predispositions. The trick is in finding those words, in the moment, and delivering them in a way that works, with the proper aplomb. You may not always find the words, but the words are always there. Think of it this way. What would Jesus say. The words are there. Could I find enough of them?
They scheduled me near the end, which was a good thing. I got to hear the keepers of the faith, the bearers of the sacred messages, tell 700 people and a gaggle of camera crews and reporters that -- guns are bad; crime is caused by guns; every gun-control scheme you’ve ever heard of is good; gun confiscations will solve the crime problem; we the people are too dangerous, irrational, unpredictable and incompetent to be allowed to bear arms; and that people on government payrolls (they didn’t frame it that way but it’s what they were saying) should have all these deadly dangerous malevolent guns. I’m putting this all more bluntly than they did, or than I ever would when wearing my hat of tasteful persuasive moderation.
We were briefed at lunch beforehand on how to handle hecklers, if any. Everyone took turns genuflecting in the direction of civility, and calm affirmation of a desire to tactfully handle any outburst in the unlikely event we faced any. The antis might attract some guff, but it was pretty obvious, though unspoken, that it was me, in my nice navy blazer and sharp red tie, who might face some opprobrium. I disarmed their fears by saying I didn’t want to hear anyone cry out, “Don’t taze me bro,” and we all had a good laugh. When one of the black women asked why I love guns, I looked at her and asked sheepishly, “Are you stereotyping me dear?” We laughed some more.
Metal detectors were installed at the entrance, a precaution we were told, because five athletes were shot on campus several years ago (none fatal thank God), which was a motivator for the conference in the first place. I’ve seen this before -- pro-rights gun conferences, walk right in. Anti-rights conferences, bristling with armed security and pat downs. What’s wrong with that picture?
I counted at least 14 crisply uniformed campus police, bearing 9 millimeter semis with a pair of double-stack extra mags on their duty belts. We had some great conversations, though the other speakers seemed to avoid these people. I had them laughing about all the guns in this anti-gun conference. As more showed up I kept telling them that now I REALLY felt safe. We swapped gun talk, war stories, a few thanked me for being there. I knew I had at least a few people on my side -- the ones with the guns.
When my turn came, I was pretty choked up. Tom Mauser, who came before me, had lost his 15-year-old son at Columbine. No matter where you stand on the RKBA issue, that is just hard to endure. I have a daughter in school. I worry for her every day. No amount of even fascist controls can stop a psycho bent on destruction.
He had put on his son’s shoes for his speech, and took them off to show the crowd. He was walking in his murdered son’s shoes. I’m getting choked up just writing this. It was awful, compelling, deeply moving. The photographers crowded in to get that shot, and it’s the image that ran in all the papers the next day. He had used his dead son’s shoes effectively.
I walked the steps to the lectern and thanked the university for being courageous and including me. It was gutsy of them to have a speaker on the other side of the fence at a symposium like this. And I told them it was really hard for me to do, in the face of the tragedy and mind-numbing statistics we had been hearing. It was the right place for me to start, the right words to use, all deeply heartfelt. The audience quietly absorbed my opening remarks.
The university asked me here, I told them, so you could have some measure of balance, so you could see that this conference is only half the equation. I’m here, and I held up the sign I had used at the Supreme Court case a few weeks ago, to make sure you keep in mind that Guns Save Lives too. Guns Stop Crime (and another matching sign). Guns Protect You. Look how many guns there are in this room. You know why they’re there -- because guns have a purpose, a social utility that’s important and should not be overlooked.
Their emotions had been played upon all afternoon, so I continued the trend. I told of a woman awakened to find a knife-wielding, ski-masked intruder in her home, and how she had to shoot him while crouched behind her bed, after having called 911. She had to keep firing until the big guy finally collapsed. The police arrived only nine minutes later. You could hear a pin drop.
Would you deny this woman her right to live, by taking her gun away? Isn’t the message, “If it saves one life...”? Do you have the moral authority, or a sense of self righteousness that says she must die because you think guns are bad? I pressed on.
Mary Ann Watkins got an award here in Arizona at our tenth anniversary CCW banquet. We passed our discreet-carry law against a backdrop of hysterical clamor about blood in the streets, shootouts at traffic lights, and dead bad waiters. Ten years had proven that was nonsense, a concoction of irrationally scared uneducated minds and a compliant media. None of it happened (and no news corrections were printed).
Mary Ann had stopped at a lonely desert rest stop on the way to Phoenix from Yuma. A burly trucker followed her into the ladies’ room. Maybe he just wanted to borrow her lipstick? (It didn’t get the laugh I thought it would). When she pointed her sidearm at him he left, muttering, “Bitches with guns, bitches with guns.” Did she save her life, or prevent a rape? We don’t know, we can never know. But that’s how most of these encounters take place, the gun isn’t even fired. Would you condemn this slight-of-build history teacher to death because you have no stomach for the other side of the equation?
The audience was mine. I had achieved my primary goal. Show a roomful of fearful anti-rights activists that guns are good sometimes, and not get yelled at for it. Bring reason and insight to a crowd, steeped in ignorance and fear, that sorely needed it. I had found the words, and the demeanor, and made the most of it. The university had done good finding me.
While I was on a roll, I mentioned something about me that’s true, that most people don’t realize. I’m actually a utopian pacifist. I look forward to and hope for a world with no weapons of any kind, in an era of enduring peace, prosperity, abundance and harmony. You should too, it would be a good thing. Until then I say disarm everyone -- bad guys first. And I held out my Disarm Criminals First sign.
We can’t get to that world because of what I call the Four Horseman of Human Havoc -- Angry, Hungry, Stupid and Wicked. Oh, we might be able to solve Hungry someday, but the other three? And that’s the rub. Until there is a fundamental change in human nature, the good guys need the guns to protect themselves from the bad guys. That’s why you have all those armed people in the room, right? No one disagreed. If guns suddenly disappeared, the good guys would have to invent them all over again. That’s because Guns Protect You.
It’s easy, I told them, to imagine a gun-free world. It’s very easy. Guns are a relatively new invention -- just go back in time a little ways. What do you get? Genghis Kahn, Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, and my favorite, Xena the Warrior Princess (again, no laughs). They wiped out entire towns, raped plundered and pillaged, all without guns. When they came to town, that’s when you really needed a gun -- and not just a six shooter.
Which leads to a counterintuitive truth. We’re safer now than we were then when there were no guns. The ability to effectively project force keeps us safer. You couldn’t ride the highways back then, now you can. For all the crime you hear about, things aren’t all that bad.
Those of you who just want guns to go away, you don’t want to take guns away from the police do you? Heads shake no. Of course you want the police armed... and that’s a very pro gun position. You instinctively understand the value of guns. You just want someone else to hold it for you. But Jeff Snyder, in his landmark book Nation of Cowards, suggests it is unethical, immoral and politically corrupt to entrust your right to and precious gift of life to someone else.
And this brings us to one of the really ugly truths about the “gun problem” that no one wants to look at. If you really want to cut down on the crime and “gun deaths” as they like to call it, you’ve got to start recognizing that there is a demographic component to this problem.
There are social, economic and geographic aspects to the issue. But no one wants to confront that. Well if you keep sweeping it under the rug, you can kiss your chances of really making headway goodbye. And as you encroach on the human rights of innocent people instead of the root problems, you can expect fierce resistance to your plans, and that resistance is justified.
Also, if you want to cut the “gun deaths” in half, recognize that many if not most are actually “war deaths,” killings in the war on some drugs. The government wages this war, encouraging armed camps, and they shoot at each other and themselves. Declare an armistice and stop the killing. You’ll reach your goal faster than fighting the civil rights lobby that protects the Second Amendment.
Ask a politician when we can declare victory and stop, or just declare defeat and stop, and you’ll learn it’s a perpetual war, like Orwell warned us about. The analogy to alcohol prohibition couldn’t be clearer. While the ban is on, the killings continue. Stop the war, the killings go away, even though all the problems caused by the vegetable products continue.
The speakers railed about the availability of guns. But guns are less available now than they used to be. Before 1968, anyone could buy guns through the mail. There were no national age limits, waits, papers, no controls of any kind on guns in the Sears Roebuck catalog (12 pages worth), the hardware store, or even in comic books I used to read. Some of the malevolence we see, that all of us in that room want to see end are not about the guns, they’re about the social factors we would rather ignore.
When I asked the hotel front desk, the doorman, and the cops I saw if it was safe to take a walk while I was in downtown, they all said sure, but don’t go in THIS direction, or walk in THAT part of town. Nebraska and Montana have tons of guns, but not the problems downtown Pittsburgh is wrestling with. You all better start looking at that part of this. People were listening.
It was getting near time to close. I asked for show of hands: “How many of you really really hate guns?” At last, some audience heckle energy, and a few shouts with a lot of raised hands. One guy stood up to spew how much he hates guns. I luckily found the words again, and told him I’ll stay afterwards and we can talk as long as you like (he didn’t stay, but I would have enjoyed testing my mettle against a died-in-the-wool gun bigot like that).
I waited till they settled back down. Softly, slowly, I breathed into the microphone, “It’s not good to hate.”
Some nervous squirming and some snickers from those who suspected I had prepared that remark in advance. Hey, I prepared all my remarks, it took me days. I used this as a lead-in for my message about hoplophobia, the morbid fear of guns.
There’s a lot of hate and anger in the anti-rights movement (I mostly avoided saying anti-gun anything, it was all about anti rights and pro rights). A lot of the anti-rights debate is actually a medical issue, not a policy debate. I tried to get everyone in touch with the hatred in their hearts, the hoplophobic undercurrents. People who suffer from this pernicious phobia are deserving of sympathy, and in need of treatment. I don’t think they liked that. But they heard it. Now they can just wander around in denial (a symptom of the condition by the way).
I summarized my main points and, since Duquesne is a Catholic school, I closed with “God bless and keep America, the ten Commandments and the Ten Amendments. Thank you.” The applause was as good as any other, except for Tom who, choking back tears, got an ovation.
Oh yes, the surprise ending. James Brady didn’t appear, because his wife Sarah fell critically ill and was hospitalized. News of the medical emergency was first announced publicly at the end of the symposium, but has not traveled far. There has been no word on her condition, said to involve pneumonia.
I learned some things, not the least of which was how to handle such an event. Getting into shouting matches is easy. Getting your point across is easy too, but the tactics are totally different, rather alien, and quite satisfying. There’s a lot of sit quiet and listen, hold your disagreement to yourself, bite your tongue, gain trust, and choose your moment for low hanging fruit -- the basket will fill in due course.
It also became apparent from conversation that Mr. Hemenway hates the NRA, for he sees them as intractable and unyielding on any common-sense (to him) gun proposals. He couldn’t hear, or perhaps I couldn’t find the words to let him know, that they want crime to go down as much as anyone, it serves their purposes perfectly, makes their battle to preserve rights so much easier.
He outright rejected the idea that if a rule would disarm criminals without adversely affecting we the people, they would be there as quickly as I would. Of course his proposals, which seem reasonable to him, would place draconian repressions on your freedom, but he doesn’t see it that way. He counts numbers of dead, draws conclusions from his stats, and to paraphrase Will Smith in I Robot, may be the dumbest smart person around. Highly intelligent with a tremendous command of statistics, he seems to clutch at ignorance of underlying causes, where solutions lie.
Pittsburgh collected 990 crime-associated guns last year. Of these 70 were possessed by their owners, and 80 had been reported stolen. nearly 70% though had been bought by straw purchasers and here’s the chilling part. The buyers were the drug-addicted girl friends of the men who wanted the guns, the women’s drug suppliers. Do you see? Arresting the women does little, they’re victims, not habitual gun runners, and unlikely to make another buy except for another boyfriend (and jail space is too valuable to waste on them). The bad guys are rarely caught with the guns, so prosecuting them is virtually impossible. I have no idea how to stop that, without banning gun sales altogether and putting 700,000 to 2.5 million defensive gun users a year at unacceptable risk.
C-SPAN recorded the whole thing, along with several local stations. As soon as any of you hear when the broadcasts are scheduled, you’ve got to let me know, and I’ll spread the word. My arms are tired and my nose is sore (a line from my tune Miguel Row Your Coke Ashore), time to stop.
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