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Shotgun News, December 1, 2004, p. 9

Persuading Other Gun Owners

It is election night as I write this, and the results are looking good for President Bush to win re-election--but it is still a horse race. Watching Fox News coverage, I saw a piece of data that just floored me--and reminded me that before we persuade the general public that gun prohibition is a bad idea, we first need to persuade gun owners.

Do you know what exit polls are? On election day, pollsters ask people coming out of polling places how they voted, for whom, and why. The goal is to figure out what the election results are going to be, without having to wait for the final results. These exit polls, while they do not work perfectly, often provide useful information about why people vote for particular candidates. One of the pieces of exit polling data that I saw that upset me so much showed that in Pennsylvania, 38% of gun owners voted for Kerry.

As I mentioned in this column at the beginning of November, this was not a choice between two pro-gun candidates, or two anti-gun candidates. Bush was generally a pro-gun candidate (although one who promised to sign an assault weapons ban renewal bill that he knew would never make it to his desk), while Kerry was fiercely anti-gun--someone with a 100% rating from all the gun prohibition groups. So why did more than 1/3 of gun owners in Pennsylvania vote for this guy?

There is probably more than one reason. I would expect that there are gun owners who considered other issues more important than their right to own a gun. Since you are reading this column, in this magazine, this probably sounds a bit strange to you, but I will confess, I can imagine candidates so repugnant that I might vote for an anti-gun opponent, or more likely, not vote at all. (Think of David Duke, a neo-Nazi who started off his political career parading around a college campus in a Nazi storm trooper uniform.)

I suspect, however, that most of those gun owners who voted for John Kerry are like the guy that came by a table at a gun store where I was organizing pro-gun activities in California some years ago. He looked at a picture of a Colt AR-15, pointed at it and said, "No one needs guns like those." This was not a guy who randomly walked up to us on the street. He had paid $5 to get into a gun show--and one can therefore presume that his interest in guns was a bit more than casual curiosity. In my experience, there are a surprising number of gun owners like this, who draw a distinction between "good guns" such as the ones that they own, collect, or use, and "bad guns," of the type that John Kerry and friends want to ban.

We need to be putting some energy into talking to these gun owners. We need to get the message across to them that the gun prohibitionist strategy of drawing artificial distinctions between classes of gun owners is very dangerous. "No one needs guns like those" is a very easy approach to wiping out one class at a time. I've met more than a few hunters who argue that assault weapons are evil, because they are designed to kill people--and yet relatively few hunters would find this argument plausible with respect to handguns, which are also designed to kill people. A lot of hunters imagine that their bolt-action rifle was designed for hunting. Nope. The granddaddy of many bolt-action rifles is the Mauser 98--a military weapon, designed for killing people.

Many years ago, I had a friend, a fellow gun rights activist, who described the gun prohibitionist's "one class at a time" strategy as the whiny Goldilocks approach: the porridge is too hot, or too cold; the bed is too hard, or too soft. Unlike the real Goldilocks, who finally found a bowl and a bed that was just right, gun prohibitionists never seem to run out of reasons to ban a class of guns or ammunition. Handguns are bad because they are, according to the prohibitionists, too inaccurate and underpowered for hunting. The fifty caliber rifles just banned by California, on the other hand, are bad because they are capable of high accuracy and enormous destruction. (I expect that rifles chambered in .375 Winchester and similar rounds are going to be the targets in a few more years.) High effectiveness hollow point ammunition (such as the Black Talons a few years back) is bad because it is too destructive to people. Full metal jacket, on the other hand, penetrates too far to use in cities. I've seen every one of these rationales used by gun prohibitionists. Think about it for a while--I am sure that you can imagine some more.

The next time you talk to a gun owner who starts to make excuses for why he is not a member of the NRA and says, "The NRA is too extreme about assault weapons," ask them one simple question: Which is more dangerous? A convicted felon with a single shot .22 rifle? Or a law-abiding adult with an AR-15? The real issue is not the type of gun. It is the type of person holding the gun. People like John Kerry keep talking about the gun--not the criminal holding it.

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His last book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His web site is