The Public Humanist

The Branding of the American Gun Issue

There are legitimate doubts about whether the watered down gun related legislation recently proposed would have had a significant effect on gun violence. But surely its abject failure has at least one cause that is not much mentioned.

When I hear National Public Radio, over and over again, reporting the latest on what they call the “gun control” debate, and other, explicitly "liberal" media outlets like the New York Times, refer to an academic “gun control scholar,” and speak of the debate between “gun rights” and “gun control” advocates, it makes me wonder how much of the comprehensive failure of gun legislation can be attributed to the terms with which the debate is framed.

One key here is the use of the word "control." In the last few years, the connotation of that word has migrated rightward in tandem with the ascendency of Tea Party libertarianism within the Republican Party, which in turn plays very harmoniously with NRA paranoia about government action of any kind with respect to gun ownership. NRA lobbyists endlessly repeat the notion that advocates of "gun control" are “usually not talking about controlling crime. They're talking about controlling you.”

What seems strange to me is that liberals appear to be largely tone deaf to this right wing word music, accepting the loaded terminology as if it were neutral. Perhaps it would be helpful to apply some of that terminology to another realm of American life strongly associated with violence: automobile ownership.

Suppose, for a moment, that you lived in a country where everyone who drove a motor vehicle were required to have a government issued driver’s license. To get that license, you would need to pass both a written and a practical road test administered by that government. Worse, you would have to register each vehicle you owned and publically display a plate with a unique number issued by that same government; and as if that weren’t bad enough, you would be required to purchase liability insurance to cover damage your vehicle might cause to others.

Luckily, thanks to the tireless lobbying of the NVA (National Vehicle Association), this nightmarish scenario of total "government control" remains a fantasy.

Except it isn’t. There is no NVA and all of those onerous conditions of car ownership in fact exist and are placidly accepted with minor grousing by the overwhelming majority of Americans. No one talks about the requirement to have a driver’s license as “driver control"; no one talks about “car rights” entitling you to drive whatever you please whenever you please wherever you please with no requirement that you know how to operate your vehicle, and certainly no association asserts that the ultimate goal of government is to “take your cars away from you.”

Why is this? Arguably, it is because Americans are much more concerned about safety when they are on the road than they are about governmental regulation. We want to know that the car coming at us is being driven by someone who is licensed as an operator, that the vehicle has an ID, and that the driver has some kind of liability insurance if he or she crashes into you.

To be sure, automobile “safety” is by no means ensured by these laws. Cars still regularly kill 55,000 American year in and year out; criminals can and do steal cars, unlicensed and uninsured operators still drive them. And yet, no one, outside of a few radical libertarian outliers, calls for dismantling them. Without them, the situation, most of us agree, would be much worse.

It seems to me that a modest beginning to bringing about sensible gun legislation would be for progressives to bring some of the mainstream thinking about cars to the gun issue debates. This might start by replacing the phrase “gun control” with something like “gun safety.”

But do terms really matter? There is considerable evidence that they do. Deborah Tannen, a 2013 Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, has written that “if you get new words, there's a better chance of moving beyond the polarization.” But that depends on what the new words are. Interestingly, conservatives have generally been more adept at this kind of terminological branding than liberals. A pioneer in this field was a Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, who more than a decade ago showed that Americans were much likelier to oppose inheritance taxes if they were re-branded as “death taxes.” And that we were likelier to support drilling for oil if it were re-named “energy exploration.”

There is at least the beginning of some uneasiness among progressives about the phrase "gun control.” Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has recently observed: “‘Gun control’ suggests big government telling Americans what to do. ‘Violence prevention’ – well, that’s something everybody could support in theory. I’ve seen polling in which the phrase ‘gun violence prevention’ tests 17-20 points higher than the term ‘gun control.’”

We might also ponder whether the term "gun rights" accurately describes the work of organizations like the NRA. Charles Blow, a liberal Times columnist, has written “let’s stop calling groups like the National Rifle Association a ‘gun rights’ group.” In his view, the NRA primarily exists to fight any and all gun regulation, and to encourage gun proliferation, while “prey[ing] of public fears of a Second Amendment rollback…[and] helping gun makers line their pockets.” Re-branding the NRA as a “gun proliferation” group may be going a bit over the top in the opposite direction, but constantly juxtaposing “gun rights” to “gun control” pretty much loads the argument in the NRA’s favor in advance of any discussion.

One of the things I’ve learned since spending an increasing amount of time in Wisconsin, where there are more deer hunters than any other state in the nation, is how much more moderate the views of at least some gun owning NRA members are than their lobbyists. One recent friend, Richard Hibma, who is actually a gun collector and a hunter as well as a pro bono healer of wounded raptors, takes a nuanced position on guns. He says there are two kinds of gun owners: “hunters” and “shooters.” “Shooters” in his definition are people who like to hunt with semi automatic rifles. He will not sell guns to “shooters” and will not allow people so armed to hunt on his land, which he publically announces with a large sign at the entrance to his property.

It is at least arguably possible that there exists a currently silent majority of gun owning Americans who, like Richard, would support some form of gun legislation if the terms in which the discussion were framed focused more on safety than control, and if, analogously to car ownership, the threat to ban gun ownership of any kind were taken off the table.

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