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The Toxic Conversation About Guns

April 14, 2013

It is a well worn cliché that sex and religion are forbidden subjects at dinner parties.  Well, add armed self-defense to the list of unmentionables.  Why is self-defense such a toxic subject that people usually talk past each other when they try to discuss it?  Here is one reason we can’t communicate; most people have strong opinions without facts.  They know what they read in the headlines, yet have only a vague opinion about violence, self-defense and firearms.

Those subjects may be your passion or your biggest fear, but that means you are a small minority.   Violence and self-defense remain confusing and emotionally charged subjects for most of us.  You and I can only change the culture when we move the majority to our side with each small step in that discussion.  First, let’s look at the extremes.

On one hand, violence is hard to ignore.  It drew our attention from a young age as demonstrated by anyboys fight fight on the school yard.  We feel compelled to watch.. and we should.  There is survival value as we avoid being the next victim!  Why is violence often hard to watch while it is hard to ignore at the same time?

Violence is psychologically toxic to all of us.  Soldiers in combat will become disabled by prolonged exposure to violence.  For civilians, even seeing a single violent crime can be devastating if the witness is emotionally close to the victim.  We react strongly to deliberate malevolence when we identify with the victim.  We turn away and cannot bear to watch a violent act if our empathy with the victim is strong enough.  Some people go so farHave-Gun-Will-Travel-2010 as to deny that violence occurred if their psychological aversion to violence is overpowering.

Taken to extremes, some people pretend they did not see what happened.  It is no use arguing about facts if the other person can’t perceive them.  That is where the dinner party conversation about self-defense breaks down.

The gun is an inanimate tool to most of us, but not everyone sees it that way.  The violent sociopath and the overly sensitive empath invest this inert piece of metal with meaning.   Both of them see the gun as a tool of violence, though the sociopath is drawn to it and the empath shuns it.  Only the person in the middle can see firearms as a tool of self-defense.  The average armed_response_6293webperson can see that violence exists and that tools might make us safer.



We like to think of ourselves as that reasonable person who sees things clearly, but the toxicity of violence affects all of us.  The refusal to understand violence comes in varying degrees.  Our perspective towards self-defense changes by small steps rather than changing all at once.  Let’s label a few of the steps.


  • At one end of the spectrum, we pretend that interpersonal violence doesn’t exist.  No one needs tools for self-defense since threats don’t exist.
  • Someone might grudgingly admit that violence happens, but violence is caused by objects rather than people who look and act just like us.  Guns are always evil while people are always good.
  • OK, violence happens and people cause it, but violence only happens to other people.  Violence does not happen to nice people like you and me.
  • Some people are violent and they could prey on anyone.
  • We intellectually accept that violence could happen to us and we start to educate ourselves about violence and self-defense.
  • We emotionally refuse to be a victim and plan to avoid violence.
  • We accept the responsibility of self-defense when violence is unavoidable.
  • We physically train to defend ourselves and our family.
  • We psychologically prepare for self-defense.
  • We defend the political right of self-defense for ourselves and others.

That is a huge change from one extreme to the other.  To make the dinner conversation more difficult, each extreme thinks their position is both obvious and correct.  We need to do more than exchange sound bites from each extreme!

Go back to the party where we began this discussion.  Maybe the other guest at the party isn’t yet convinced they should park their car under a bright street light to avoid being robbed at night.  In that case, you are coming from different worlds and speaking different languages.  There is a chasm of assumptions lying between the two of you.   Don’t tell them to carry concealed and practice regularly.  You cannot jump that gap in a few sentences.  Shame on you if you try because you are not talking to the other person.

Personal violence is so toxic, so emotionally charged, that no one moves from denial to preparation in a single encounter.  No one!  It probably took you a long time to settle on your beliefs too.  The other person needs to change their opinion one step.. one small step.. at a time.. the same way as you did.

Though our current beliefs now seem obvious to us, our beliefs are a conclusion.  Our current beliefs are not a convincing argument to others.  We will simply produce a loud disagreement and convince those around us that we’re ranting gun nuts if we demand that others immediately agree with our final position.  There are more effective ways to change minds.

First, find out what they believe if you and the other guest wants a real discussion.  You don’t have to back down from your beliefs, but focus on the next step they have to take rather than focusing on the end argument.   See if you can take them one small step further because that is the only place change happens.

For example, “I hear you.  I used to support gun registration, and then I changed my mind.  I decided I trust my neighbors with a gun more than I trust the politicians.  Who would you rather trust?”

One step is far enough.  Anything more is a noisy debate contest rather than trying to change hearts and minds.  Sure, you and I might wonder whether the book case is concealment or cover, but save that conversation for another audience.

The longest journey begins with a single step.  The hors d’oeuvres over on that table are great, so enjoy the party.

Reader response requested.  Please rate, like, share and comment.
Rob the prepared

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013 12:28 pm

    This is really good, Rob!


  2. pluschap permalink
    April 15, 2013 5:06 pm

    A very interesting perspective.

    Whichever side of the issue one finds oneself, can one really afford to advance the agenda with such glacial slowness? And yet it is readily apparent that any other approach can only push one’s interlocutor further away. Are we doomed to an interminable stalemate on this subject?


    • April 15, 2013 6:03 pm

      Hello, Jennifer. Thanks for your comment.

      Hello, Plus.
      It takes most of us several years to go from ignorance to dedication. It is ridiculous to expect less of others. That said, culture leads politics. We can advance simultaneously on many fronts.
      I hope you come by again and leave a message.


  3. Virginia Ross permalink
    April 18, 2013 7:36 pm

    Interesting perspective! I just posted this on my FB Tmeline; hope many eyeballs see it, Rob.


  4. April 21, 2013 5:04 am

    Excellent article, and so very true.

    My journey to understanding self defense took a number of years, though I never had anything against guns and had used them on the farm. One night I had to shoot a man to save my life, and that was a life changing experience.

    I’ll be posting a link to this at my own blog, and at several fora I visit frequently. We must understand how others think before we can hope to influence them.


  5. Gerry Cronin permalink
    April 21, 2013 11:27 am

    Excellent essay Mr.Morse. Just a couple months ago I asked a cousin if she saw guns as nothing more than instruments of death, she answered yes that’s how she sees them. It’s sad there is so much misinformation about guns in general, like when V.P.Biden commented that NFA items like machine-guns are illegal when in fact their not. I’ve noted one of the sad things about our federal government is, when it comes to owning and carrying guns, the government is more inclined to tell us what we can’t do than what’s allowed. I’ve asked a few people what’s the difference between ‘the right of the people’ as written in the second amendment and the first and fourth amendments. It’s sad that guns are seen only as instruments of death by some.


    • April 21, 2013 11:35 am

      Welcome, Gerry. Thank you for your comment. NFA arms are way down the list for most people. We have to explain that guns are useful tools to most people. To do that we have to listen and have a conversation without surrendering the moral high ground. There may be a better way, but that is the best I’ve found.

      Have you offered to take your cousin shooting a 22 rifle outdoors?



  1. Toxic Violence part 2 | SlowFacts
  2. The Toxic Conversation About Guns | Give Me Liberty

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