“Seulement un peu, mais pas très bien.” That’s all I could muster when the server asked, “Parlez vous Français?” Wait a sec… I’m in Germany! I have no idea why the waiter spoke French or why he had the slightest hope that I would too. But I felt the same way I always do when I travel overseas: mildly embarassed to be that typical centrist American douchebag who only speaks one language while the rest of the civilized world is multi-lingual.
I guess I should have been glad he didn’t ask if I spoke German, because then the answer would have simply been, “Nein” (one of the three German words I know). But since he asked instead if I spoke French, I was able to elaborate just a wee tad: Seulement un peu — Only a little. Mais pas très bien — But not very well.
Ironically, I could have given the same answer if someone has asked me about my odd presence as a sore thumb at this luncheon in the first place. It was the Annual Plenary Session of the World Forum on Shooting Activities in Nuremberg. Their meetings always coincide with the IWA trade fair at the ginormous NürnbergMesse, which makes every other convention center on Earth look like a New York studio apartment. And some way, some how, I was asked to be the keynote speaker.
In the past, they’ve had speakers like Justice Scalia and John Bolton. This year, they got… well, me. The opportunity blossomed out of my United Nations speech from a few months ago, and I was thrilled to be invited. But still. Had anyone asked me what I hoped to accomplish there, the first thought in my head might have been something like, “Seulement un peu, mais pas très bien.” All these titans of the firearms industry are assembled here for the WFSA meeting — manufacturing CEOs, industry regulators, firearms enthusiasts from all over the world. Do you think you’ll be able to endear your message to them? “Seulement un peu, mais pas très bien.”
This was one of the most difficult speeches I’ve ever had to write. First of all, it was slated for 15 minutes — adapted from the UN Speech but five times longer. I had complained about the UN time slot being too short. Well, be careful what you wish for, Tiff. With a full 15 minutes all to myself, I wondered if I could talk for that long without boring everyone. Even more difficult was the attempt to strike just the right tone. Unlike at the UN, I knew I’d be speaking to a mostly friendly crowd (i.e., gun people). But I also knew that this is Europe — not the States. I had to be careful not to offend any cultural sensitivities, especially when it comes to self-defense. However, I also wanted to try and explain why self-defense really is a universal human right, not just an American quirk.
As usual, I was nervous as HELL. And I think it was probably obvious to everyone in the room as I first started talking. I saw a few looks in the audience like, “Aww, you poor thing.” But as I settled down and got into the speech, I hope people forgot about my trembling hands and started hearing my words. For those who know me and know my story (or if you read the UN Speech), some of this opening exposition might be old news to you. But if anybody’s interested, here’s what I said at the WFSA world meeting on Thursday, March 2, 2017.
Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Tiffany Johnson, and since I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting all of you, I thought I’d start by sharing a little of my background. I grew up in a river town on the Mighty Mississippi in America’s Deep South. My town is called Memphis, Tennessee. Worldwide, it’s probably best known as the home of Elvis Presley. In Memphis, we have great barbecue, great blues music, and great hospitality.
But Southern hospitality isn’t always so hospitable. My mother tells a story from her youth that keeps replaying in my mind. One night when she was 18 or 19, she really needed to get to the hospital, where a family member was clinging to life. There was only one problem. It was April of 1968. And the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been murdered — shot through the face and neck with a rifle only a few miles from my mother’s house. Police were everywhere. Riots were erupting. But my mother was determined to get to the hospital.
So, she got in her car, started driving, and managed to avoid the pockets of building unrest. But soon, she reached an intersection where police had gathered. As they saw her car approaching, they filed out into the street — maybe 6 or 8 officers across — blocking her path. She came to a stop just a few feet away from them, and the police all pointed long guns directly at her face.
Now, just imagine if you were a young black teenager living in the segregated South, and your very first experience with firearms was to find yourself suddenly staring down the barrels of eight shotguns, right after your most admired community leader had been gunned down by a rifleman. Not only was my mother terrified, but her brain began to associate that kind of terror with firearms. Maybe without even realizing it, she carried those impressions with her into motherhood and passed them on to my brothers and to me.
Like my mom, I was introduced to firearms as a teenager. My initiation occurred when gunfire erupted at a high school party, severely wounding my best friend, James. I had never heard gunfire before — at least, not that close to me. But in my 16-year-old mind, those loud pops meant friends bleeding on the floor. James was treated for his gunshot wounds and went on to study aeronautical engineering at a prestigious historically black college in Atlanta. He wanted to build airplanes.
But he never did, because during his senior year of college, a group of robbers kicked in the door to his house and shot him and his roommate. James had survived his first encounter with gunfire back in high school. He did not survive the second. My best friend was gone, and I blamed guns. I just kept thinking that every time someone I love is traumatized, terrorized, injured, or killed, guns just happened to be nearby. I asked myself, is there a pattern here? And at that time, my answer was, Yes.
My family did not come from a tradition where shooting was fun. We did not pass firearms down through generations. We didn’t appreciate the craftsmanship, artistry, or mechanical precision of firearms technology. We didn’t go out hunting in the woods with our fathers and grandfathers. No. We were not hunters. At times, we felt like prey.
The reason I share those anecdotes is to give you a tiny peek, a snapshot of the kinds of real-life, everyday experiences that may lead some well-meaning, well-educated, reasonably intelligent people to despise guns. I was one of those people. Guns were the bane of my existence. I resented them for taking my friends and wreaking havoc throughout my family. I hated them so much that one day I decided to take a gun safety class. Part of it was just an attempt at facing my fears, like when someone who’s afraid of heights decides to go skydiving. But my second motivation, and perhaps my strongest one, was to get to know my enemy.
I took that class so I could be more persuasive when denouncing guns. By this time, I had been to law school, and I understood the importance of using objective evidence to strengthen arguments. I wanted to go beyond the usual anti-gun talking points and speak intelligently about how firearms were a scourge.
I had no idea what a turning point that little dose of education would be. That class opened my eyes. The people I met there opened my eyes. They showed me that guns are not living, thinking monsters, out to get me. Guns are just tools — just things, inanimate objects, machines. They don’t get happy or sad, they’re neither good nor evil, they don’t take sides, they don’t discriminate, and they certainly don’t stand up and kill 20-year-old future aeronautical engineers. Only humans can do that. That might be a cliche; but for someone like me, it was an epiphany.
Since then, I’ve had hundreds of hours of firearms training. I’ve become a firearms safety instructor, certified by my state government, by the National Rifle Association, and by Rangemaster, one of the most influential defensive training companies in the United States. I’ve taught others to shoot, in the hope that they will respect and appreciate firearms rather than fearing them. I’ve advocated for pro-gun legislation in our state’s General Assembly. I’ve become the owner of a dozen or so handguns, a shotgun, and an AR-15. And I typically wear a full-sized semi-automatic pistol concealed on my person whenever and wherever it’s legally feasible to do so.
My new perspective on firearms was even more solidified once I learned about the dark history of gun control in America. Gun control in its modern form is largely rooted in a time when black people were not seen as equals. No one batted an eye when plantation owners, financiers, and shipping tycoons carried firearms in public. But when freed slaves, abolitionists, or black power activists started carrying guns, lawmakers suddenly enacted more and more restrictions.
In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the famous case of Scott v. Sanford, where Dred Scott, a black man, was denied American citizenship. One of the reasons for that denial had to do with guns. The Supreme Court admonished that granting citizenship to Mr. Scott would “give to persons of the negro race … the right … to keep and carry arms wherever they went.” The Court found it “impossible” — that was the Court’s word: “impossible” — to believe that the Constitutional framers could have been “so forgetful or regardless of their own safety…” That was how the Supreme Court justified denying citizenship to black people — because citizens could have guns, and surely it wasn’t safe to let black people have guns.
Now, I realize interpretations have evolved since the Dred Scott case. By modern accounts, the Second Amendment applies to everyone in the United States, not just certain classes of people. In reality, the Second Amendment doesn’t actually grant any rights to anyone. It doesn’t say “these rights are hereby bestowed…” No. It says these rights — rights that already exist — shall not be infringed.
I often hear global citizens say, “Well, America is different, because you have the Second Amendment.” It’s a wonderful declaration for pro-gun advocates to have, but the Second Amendment doesn’t make Americans any more entitled to self-preservation than any other human being.
Every person — by his or her very existence — has not only the right, but in some ways the obligation, to self-preserve. To endure. To live and to thrive. People have been driven by the primal instinct to live another day since before they could speak, let alone write on parchment. And this instinct is not unique to human beings. It motivates all life forms — from single-celled organisms to the most complex sentient primates. They all will go to great lengths to keep existential threats at bay.
And while I love having the Second Amendment in my American arsenal, I don’t need a piece of paper to confirm my right to protect myself and my family by whatever means I choose. To deny any people any implement of this very natural ambition is to deny Nature itself.
Many gun enthusiasts believe that firearms have historical or sentimental value as heirlooms and personal gifts. Some believe they have social value as great builders of confidence, discipline, and patience. Others may believe in the environmental value of firearms for wildlife population control. And of course, firearms can be fun. They are lots of fun to shoot.
But if anyone had tried to convince me of any of that in the days after my best friend was shot and killed, it only would have driven me to resent guns even more. What changed my mind instead were the understanding, open-minded people who took a genuine interest in my difficult journey with firearms. Even despite our many differences, they were patient and not judgmental. They did not condescend. And they showed me a new and different context where firearms were no longer a constant threat to me or my family. Instead, they were a source of empowerment.
It’s my hope that as the different segments of the firearms community converge under the World Forum on Shooting Activities, we will always be inclusive and celebrate our own diversity. We may have different origins, and we may take different paths; but we’re all headed for the same destination. Collectors, manufacturers, hunters, competition shooters — they are all gun people. And so are those who choose to keep and bear arms purely for protection.
Whether you compete, or you hunt, or you design or build firearms, or ammunition, or accessories, the one common thread among all these groups — not only as firearms advocates but as members of the human race — is that we all want, need, and have the absolute right to life. And that unassailable human right is at the root of any defensive tool we may ever choose to employ, including firearms.
It’s my belief that this line of reasoning may be the best way to counter those who see firearms as some kind of plague. I think it could help to make us more relatable in the eyes of our opponents. We shouldn’t vilify the refugees or the crime victims who oppose firearms because guns played a role in some traumatic experience or personal loss. Instead, let’s be patient and empathetic and take the time to try and understand their stories, even if they don’t always extend us the same courtesy.
That simple gesture may not convince all the skeptics to fully support our causes, but it could at least remind them that gun owners are just as human as they are. And every now and then, it just might help someone like me to overcome her fears, rethink her preconceptions, and fire her very first shot.
To all affiliates of the World Forum, I’d like to say, “thank you.” Thank you for everything you’re doing on behalf of shooters all over the world. Thank you for giving me this opportunity, and for hearing my story. I sincerely hope it can be of some use to you as you continue to do this invaluable work.
I was really surprised at the reception. Lots of compliments, seemingly genuine applause, lots of pats on the shoulder, nodding heads, big smiles. Interestingly enough, I think the part that resonated the most was the part about racism. At least five or six people told me afterwards that they had no idea about that history and were taken aback by it. I was taken aback by that. I just assumed they knew. Interesting.
Several people gave me their cards and asked if we could keep in touch. A few people asked if they could translate the speech and publish it in their home countries. Woo hoo! I gave them all my contact info. No emails yet, but that was only two days ago. Maybe I’ll hear from a few once they all get back home from IWA. I hope they weren’t just blowing smoke to make the poor little trembling girl feel a little better about her awful speech. We shall see. But hey, even if nothing else comes of this event, I’m kinda proud of myself. Did I just get to go to IWA as a guest of the WFSA? Sure did. Was I served a fancy lunch by a French-speaking waiter? Heck yeah. And did I just give a keynote speech to group of multi-national firearms bigwigs? Damn right I did, even if “pas très bien.” I sure hope someone out there heard me, even if “seulement un peu.”
And I met Pietro Fiocchi!!!
Today I went to the Documentation Center (site of the Nazi rallies), which was of course very sobering. Tomorrow, I think I’ll spend a few hours roaming around IWA and then go check out the Nuremberg Castle. Sunday I’ll see the Nuremberg Courthouse. And then I’ll be leeeeeavin’… on a jet plane… It’s been a great trip. Even despite the total a-hole cab driver who asked me if I could afford my cab fare.
P.S. Big shout-out to the folks who helped me out on this speech. I floated the drafts around to some friends who work overseas a lot, and I got some really, really good feedback during the editing phases. That helped me to improve the speech tremendously. I’m not sure if they would want to be named, but they know who they are. Thank you. This climb would have been a lot steeper without you guys.