01/11/2013 05:08 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

How to Talk About Gun Violence

If there's one thing about the gun debate that everyone seems to agree on, it's that we're going to have a national conversation on the subject. Great news! I've been a gun control advocate for 30-plus years, and believe me -- it's lonely. I'd love to have a meaningful dialogue on the subject right now, because those who're opposed to change count on the majority who want it to move on with their lives and forget. But the ultimate goal has to be consensus, and action. With that in mind, I humbly offer this Gun Conversation Primer:

First and foremost: Don't waste your breath on the unpersuadable. Even NRA President David Keene recognizes that the White House just had him over to be polite. Leaders of the gun lobbying group, which constitute roughly 1.3 percent of all Americans, truly believe that they're going to die if they can't have access to all guns at all times in all places, and until now, the depth of their passionate paranoia has more than compensated for their limited numbers. You can't argue with their magical thinking; the last time I wrote about gun control for this site, I heard from a number of them, and they made comments along the lines of "If I'd been in that darkened, teargas-filled, panic-stricken Aurora movie theater being sprayed with bullets, I would have nailed that shooter from the back row." Ignore these people, and save the conversation for the majority of Americans who want common-sense solutions like universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. You'll recognize reasonable people by the way they don't yell or get red in the face when they talk about guns.

Stop parroted nonsense in its tracks. So much of it has been reflexively repeated over the years that it can be taken as gospel, and the antidote is a quick, proactive Google search. For example, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre pithily announced that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." But, as The New York Times recently noted, "In the 62 mass-murder cases over 30 years examined recently by the magazine Mother Jones, not one was stopped by an armed civilian." Or if your conversational partner says that the Second Amendment disallows regulation, you can refer him to Justice Antonin Scalia's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which he states that like most rights, the right to bear arms is not unlimited. If the default response to every fact you cite is "That's why we need more guns," you're talking to a true believer (see above) and you're wasting your time.

Recognize when someone tries to change the subject. Who can argue with statements like "First we need to do something about mental health," or "The culture needs to change," or "Parents need to act like parents"? They're all true, but that's not what you're talking about. If you were discussing drunken driving and someone said, "Yes, but we need to design safer cars," you'd know a non-sequitur when you heard one.

Get off the defensive. It's easy to get in that position when you're speaking to someone who's emotional about not changing the status quo. Ask him to explain why civilians should have assault weapons, and why they should be able to buy them without background checks. Other countries have experienced mass murders with guns and done something about it; what's different about us that we can't, too?

Talk to legislators about what they need to buck the NRA. As a piece on pointed out, their candidates lost big in 2012; the organization had a less than one percent return on its more than $11 million investment. But money's not everything; their fear motivates them enough to make life a living hell for anyone who stands in their way. Your representatives need to know that they won't lose their jobs over this issue, so write to them pledging your continued help, as the NRA sets their sights on them. There are plenty of members of Congress who need to take long showers after dealing with gun lobbyists. Let's identify them and let them know we vote on this. Because what more powerful form of speech do we have than that?