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Educating the Enemy

By Andy Barniskis
Bucks County Sportsmen’s Coalition
Legislative Committee Chairman
adbco@netaxs.com

December 9, 2002

KeepAndBearArms.com -- A fundamental item of faith among most in the gun rights community is that it is our job to provide education about firearms and the right to keep and bear arms to the masses, the politicians and the media. It would be difficult to argue that persuading the masses to agree with our point of view is not a worthy goal – if they can be reached. But, some time ago I began to suspect that the efforts we direct toward politicians and the media are often counterproductive. Specifically, I suspect all we do is provide our opponents with the information they need to lie to us more convincingly.

"I suspect all we do is provide our opponents with the information they need to lie to us more convincingly."

I first became sensitized to the word “educate,” in the political context, several years ago when our local gun rights group was preparing to support a challenger for a state senate seat. We had met with him briefly, he had expressed solidly pro-gun views, and he had returned a candidates' questionnaire that was perfect in every way. As I was telling a friend about the surprisingly gun-friendly candidate we had just discovered, he chuckled and asked if I had seen the League of Women Voters candidates’ questionnaire results that had just been delivered to the local library. Our gun-friendly candidate had answered the League of Women Voters questionnaire exactly the opposite from the way he had answered ours, on every major firearms issue. He favored assault rifle bans, Saturday Night Special bans, gun rationing, and every form of restriction on firearms that had occurred to the League of Women Voters to ask about.

Recognizing instantly that what we were dealing with was a particularly bold liar, instead of calling him to confront him with the discrepancy between the two questionnaires, we prepared a press release questioning the contradictions and faxed it, along with copies of the conflicting questionnaire results, to all of the local media. Surprisingly, they took up the issue as a significant news story, and instantly the candidate was on the phone trying to smooth things over. When I asked what possible explanation there could be for totally opposing answers on two questionnaires, he explained, “Oh, well, I answered the League of Women Voters questionnaire before I met with you guys, and you educated me. Now I completely agree with your positions!”

I told the candidate congenially that we were very relieved to hear that, and that all he had to do was call the media and tell them. As soon as we saw his position clarified in a public medium, we’d support him. Needless to say, that never happened. Key reporters told us they never heard another word on the gun issue from his campaign, and he would not answer their questions regarding his conflicting statements.

"If one not-too-bright politico had pegged gun rights activists as suckers who could be flattered and taken in by a claim that they had educated him, how many others had already embraced that tactic?"

The lying candidate lost, and while we took some satisfaction from contributing to that outcome, I had my first doubts about the value of “educating” politicians. If one not-too-bright politico had pegged gun rights activists as suckers who could be flattered and taken in by a claim that they had educated him, how many others had already embraced that tactic?

In the case in question, there was no doubt the candidate was lying, because we in fact had not spent any time persuading him to our position; he came to us already primed with what we wanted to hear. He already knew his subject matter well enough to lie convincingly, to opposing groups. Where had he learned that? It was at that time I began to cast a jaundiced eye on many of my compatriots’ claims of how effectively they had educated this or that candidate or legislator to the benefits of gun ownership.

My suspicions grew over several years, until I encountered an example that proved my theory, during the election season just past. An activist from another state organization called and told me of one candidate who had returned rather poor answers on their questionnaire. That did not surprise me at all, because I knew of the candidate, and that he styled himself as a moderate in most things – and in his ultra-liberal district, “moderate” usually means “leftist.” But, in the name of “education,” my associates had called him and asked why he had answered some of the questions as he had. They then explained to him why his answers were wrong, he readily agreed, and incredibly, they allowed him to submit new answers to their questionnaire, for a higher rating!

" For example, a clip of an expert firing a 9mm Glock may cut to a clip of a watermelon or milk jug being vaporized by a 7mm Remington Magnum hunting round."

That incident could have been regarded as almost comical, except that its effects didn’t stop there. Subsequently, the same candidate who had been educated by my associates after returning anti-gun answers to their questionnaire, returned perfect pro-gun answers on Gun Owners of America’s questionnaire, and also received an A-rating from the NRA. With all respect due my talented and persuasive friends, it was just too much of a stretch to believe that on the strength of a phone call or two, a candidate would be totally won over from espousing anti-gun sentiments, to expressing support for 100 percent of GOA’s hard-line positions. Unfortunately, the only objective evidence available to the NRA, GOA, and gun rights voters was the quality of the answers the non-incumbent candidate provided on questionnaires, for which another group may have already supplied him the answers.

Another article of faith with many education advocates in our fold is that the media are a worthwhile target for their educational efforts. I have known people to go to great personal expense to bring in notable gun rights experts and spokesmen for audiences with their local editorial boards and reporters, and there are dozens of superb writers of letters-to-the-editor who respond to media misstatements in the hopes of enlightening the journalists as well as the public. I began to question the effectiveness of these efforts even before I began to question the value of attempting to educate politicians.

In the early 1990s my gun club in southeastern Pennsylvania hosted a day of concentrated educational firearms demonstrations for both the media and legislators. The motivation for the event was to support the efforts of our members and fellow gun owners in nearby New Jersey, who were attempting to block further expansions of their state’s already heinous gun control laws. The event was held in Pennsylvania, because many of the guns to be demonstrated could not be legally transported into New Jersey, for any purpose.

The event featured firearms experts explaining and demonstrating fundamental facts about guns, including the differences between semiautomatics and true “assault rifles,” and the relative power of various calibers. Seminars were provided on the evolution of firearms and military tactics, with a good deal of minutia about the ways different firearms and ammunition functioned. Demonstrations of various sporting events were provided, to show why someone might “need” a semiautomatic handgun or an ugly gun that looked like an assault weapon. The event was well attended, and politely or even enthusiastically received by the reporters, many of whom said they had great fun shooting a variety of firearms. 

The initial coverage fell a little flat, however. While little or none of it was negative, what filtered through to print and screen was mostly superficial, making no persuasive points at all. A few reporters with whom we already had friendly relationships said that what they had written was edited into pablum before it saw print. The event had no detectable positive effect on New Jersey’s gun laws.

"From experience it must be assumed neutral and innocuous information provided in good faith will be twisted into anti-gun propaganda."

It took a year or more for the downside of the event to come to light. From time to time since then, heavily edited footage filmed on the club’s range at the “educational” event has turned up in media anti-gun “hit” pieces. For example, a clip of an expert firing a 9mm Glock may cut to a clip of a watermelon or milk jug being vaporized by a 7mm Remington Magnum hunting round. Film clips of a demonstration of a full-auto Thompson submachine gun or military M-16 will be shown in such a way as to imply that’s what goes on at all gun club ranges every day. 

As a result, the club resolved several years ago that never again will media photographic or recording equipment of any kind be permitted on the grounds, since there is no control of how information thus acquired will be used. From experience it must be assumed neutral and innocuous information provided in good faith will be twisted into anti-gun propaganda. The club is even reticent about publishing photographs of its facilities in its own newsletter. It may be summarized that the club, whose officers for the most part are not political activists, arrived at the conclusion that educational efforts served principally to provide ammunition for our unethical enemies, while having little or no positive payoff with the public. The media they once naively hoped to educate has proven it has other motives.

None of the above should be taken as disparaging the efforts of those in our ranks who have scored brilliant successes in persuading a few high-profile public figures to support and argue for the gun owners’ position. It can happen. But I believe the greater majority of activists should undertake such efforts with a great deal of caution, cynicism, and certainly, humility. If a politician expresses awe and amazement when you explain the difference between a full and semiautomatic firearm, watch out. He’s known the difference between standard and automatic transmissions since he was ten years old, and that concept is more complex than the difference between full and semiautomatic guns. If he pretends that basic firearms facts are new revelations to him, chances are that you are the one being taken for an ignoramus.

Andy Barniskis chairs the Legislative Committee of the Bucks County Sportsmen’s Coalition. When spirit moves him, from time to time, he offers a few words via www.KeepAndBearArms.com/Andy.

 

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