Thursday, October 03, 2013 • 10:08 AM Comments (17)

The Branding of the American Gun Issue

posted by Tim Wright

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.

Comments (17)
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Did you really ask "why is this" regarding driver's licenses in comparison to guns? The right to bear arms is guaranteed by our constitution. Driving an automobile is not. That's the difference.

There are few problems with the gun control crowd. First, most gun control advocates want an all out ban on all guns. It's that simple. That is why an intelligent debate is impossible and why no compromises can be reached. Why should we give an inch with incremental laws when we know they are just steps toward an all out ban?

Second... every law proposed out of emotion after a mass shooting would not have stopped said mass shooting. It makes absolutely no logical sense. It is just an excuse to further an agenda of disarming people in general.

The NRA is very wise. An example I like to use is smoking, in this way. You used to be able to smoke openly in restaurants. They were asked to move to a section and said OK. Then that wasn't enough and they were asked to move to the bar and they said OK. Then they were told they would have to move outside and they said OK. Then they were asked to move down the street and they said OK. Then they were asked to smoke in only designated areas in public and they said OK. Then they were asked to only smoke in the privacy of their own homes and they said OK. Now efforts are under way to disallow that.

The point is... gun control advocates do not believe in or agree with the second amendment. The NRA crowd understands this and therefore has to be very careful about compromise. It's the reason there cannot be compromise.

The NRA understands this. The founding fathers understood this. And the second amendment must be protected to allow citizens to protect themselves and potentially be able to defend against tyranny. It has everything to do with control.

Posted by k on 10.3.13 at 14:46

It's nice to see increased chatbot commenting on this site. They raise good points. Having said that, k is right that you can't compare a constitutional right to getting licensed to drive. But beyond that the problem is that the farther a society gets from tyrannical rule the more sense it makes to disarm for the cause of "safety."

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. - Benjamin Franklin

It turns out our founding members were pretty smart and keenly aware of the overreach of government. You'll promptly be ridiculed by the left for the idea that the United States gov't would go tyrannical..... as if it hasn't happened countless times in history. As if they didn't all start with disarming its citizens. There's a reason it's the second amendment right behind free speech.. because it's essential.

Meanwhile mass shootings are happening exclusively in gun free zones. The liberal emotional response? More gun free zones!!!!!

Posted by Ben on 10.4.13 at 6:44

We meet again k.

You say " First, most gun control advocates want an all out ban on all guns. It's that simple. That is why an intelligent debate is impossible and why no compromises can be reached."

I say pro-NRA people BELIEVE most gun control advocates want an all out ban on all guns, whether it's true or not. It's that simple. That is why an intelligent debate is impossible and why no compromises can be reached.

Posted by SDudgens on 10.4.13 at 8:12

A little regulation is considered perfectly normal in most every aspect of American life, but you guys froth at the mouth at the littlest mention of regulating something that was made for one thing - to kill. The rest of us are pretty sick of your irrational fears about total bans and your sacred belief that anything at all is to blame except the one commonality in all these mass murders - guns - dictating national policy while murder rampages - with guns - happen time after time. With a steady pace of shootings, why on God's green earth would we not consider regulating access to weapons the murderers use in some small way?

Getting sick too of the worn-out argument about tyranny from you NRA trolls. Here's your bait, should you choose to bite.

"The Second Amendment was passed to strengthen militias (think analogous to today's National Guard) to put down citizen rebellions (like Shay's), slave revolts and Indian attacks. Armed rebellion against the new government was considered treason. When the Whiskey Rebellion took place in the 1790s, many of the rebel leaders were convicted of high treason and two were sentenced to hang (although they were later pardoned). It is revisionist history to argue that the Second Amendment was designed to help facilitate armed rebellion. Its purpose was actually quite the opposite."


In his blistering dissent, Justice Stevens argued that, "The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people of each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia ... Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature's authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution."


Posted by SDudgens on 10.4.13 at 10:40

Well played, Sdudgens!!!! Although you interestingly didn't choose to say whether it is actually false or not. So I guess you agree with me.

Here's another good example of solid arguments from the left on gun control.

Oh, and here is an example of a democratic rep getting caught admitting the eventual goal.

Posted by k on 10.4.13 at 10:41

And there's this.

No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.
---Thomas Jefferson: Draft Virginia Constitution, 1776.

But you have shown your colors and backed up my assertion, SDudgens. You believe the second amendment is only meant for organized militias... that can only mean you support an all out ban on private ownership. No?

Posted by k on 10.4.13 at 10:53

hMMM. You sure do like some jumping to crazy conclusions. I'm not too sure how it matters, but I don't personally think all firearms ought to be banned. I think making it harder to get a gun is about as reasonable a thing as there could be. The problem is that you and the other NRA people think making it harder to get a gun = wanting to ban all guns. So you just continue to argue that point no matter what anybody says. It never ends.

I don't see how a sentence in the draft of the Virginia constitution that didn't make the cut has any relevance to this. Jefferson did make his intentions known in the next draft though =- No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands or tenements].

I can get behind that, unless said freeman is crazy or a convicted criminal.

Catch you later, k. Been fun.

Posted by SDudgens on 10.4.13 at 12:44

So I give you a concrete example of a liberal politician saying that banning all guns is the ultimate goal and you ignore it? It's a crazy conclusion? I guess the "catch you later" gets you off the hook, huh?

In addition to that inconsistency, you state that you believe the 2nd amendment only applies to a militia yet still believe in private ownership? How do you reconcile that?

Lastly, I'll state again that the premise of this article is foolish. You can't compare a constitutional right to a priveledge like obtaining a license to operate an automobile.

Posted by k on 10.4.13 at 13:36

The conservative think tanks are way ahead in scheming to promote their controversial and often extreme positions, and in a language that presents and supports the conservative views in a best light to persuading a naive and somewhat gullible public.
The conservative party politicians and pundits seem to recite from a a shared talking points memo of the day. The progressive think tanks seem less artful at this. They should learn as language manipulation works.
Pro choice = "Pro abortion", Affordable care = "Obama Care," Cooperations buying government ="Citizens United".
This all reminds me of George Carlins routine presentation to the National Press about political speak, a link below worth viewing.

I would think gun enthusiasts, conservative and progressives, would think gun ownership requirements similar to drivers licensing requirements would be a good thing.
Iowa has made it legal for a blind person to own a gun, which to me seems like lunacy! " I heard a noise and shot my dog". I don't think they will allow a blind person to have a driver's license. "Excuse me, can you give me directions on which way my car is moving?"

Posted by SittingBull on 10.6.13 at 10:51

SittingBull - it seems like you have no idea what is required to get a gun if you think driver's licenses are much harder to get. You also have a warped view of media memes if you think conservatives have an advantage with messaging. And againt there's that pesky issue you wall want to avoid in the fact that only one of these 2 things are guaranteed rights in our constitution.

Oh... and I'm going take a wild guess and figure you and sdudgens don't want to require people to show ID to vote, which is ironic.

Posted by k on 10.6.13 at 12:13

K, ... thanks for your comment on my comment.

I respect your view, though mine differs.

In response, i only need to watch the news to see that the conservatives have mastered the language spin, that's a compliment to them. And, of course auto's had not been invented back in the colonial days.

Do you disagree that a background check for buying/owning a gun is a good idea? Educate me.

Also, I'd be for voter id if there was adequate time alloted and programs to get all citizens registered fairly and without a cost before it is implemented. There also has to be a better system that prevents gerrymandering, which has contributed to the dysfunctional House of Representitives. Sorry author, we are getting off the point of this article.

Posted by SittingBull on 10.6.13 at 13:14

There are background checks. Educated.

Posted by k on 10.6.13 at 13:22

K, thanks ....that is true if you don't include private sales and the "gunshow loophole".

Posted by SittingBull on 10.6.13 at 15:18

Sittingbull... you say the problem is private sales and the gunshow loophole. Please tie either of these issues to any of the recent mass shootings. Thanks.

Posted by k on 10.8.13 at 6:38

Number of mass murders this decade are nothing compared to the number of deaths resulted from illegaly obtained guns across the nation in one week.

oK, k ... Lets let anyone have a gun anytime, no checks. In fact, lets encourage everyone to get a gun anyway they can, and now! Let's just make it easier than it is now for anyone on the edge of suicide or contimplating mayhem.

I'm not expecting to convince you, just want to express my opinion.

thanks for the back and forth, I have to move on now.


Posted by SittingBull on 10.10.13 at 6:12

Besides their utility for self-defense, guns have many uses including hunting, committing crimes and killing oneself (various high-school classmates of mine used guns for all of these purposes). Nonetheless, I find it odd that over the sweep of American history, as America went from a nation of frontier settlers needing to protect themselves and hunt for dinner to a much more urban and suburban nation, that the actual number of guns seems to continually climb. Why? I sometimes think this is because guns have, in the modern world, acquired a new use – that of a symbol, both personal and political – and a way to recapture something that has been lost. As the world we live in becomes ever-more interconnected and interdependent, we sovereign individuals have lost control, bit by bit, over our lives and our futures. But when you wrap your hands around that cold steel barrel, and marvel in the brass’s powerfully understated reflective glow, and then feel your body react as the magazine CLICKs reassuringly into place, you can feel that lost power and self-control surging back into you. And you know that the Second Amendment means whatever you say it means.

Are you talking to me?

Posted by The Big Lefty on 10.11.13 at 6:25

Deep and true, Big Lefty. The less we actually need guns, the more we accumulate them. Something below the level of rationality is going on here.

Speaking of which, Ik, your argument that what liberals wish to do is to disarm all Americans has always sounded very strange to me, since it clearly implies that if you are successful in preventing that, armed citizens will constitute an armed force that can liberate America from its tyrannical government by force of arms.

But if you witnessed the response of governmental armed forces to the marathon bombers, here in Boston, I think you'd have to realize how laughable the idea of a firefight against those forces would be. In fact, we could issue every single NRA member a half dozen assault rifles and throw in some grenades as well; any armed citizen rebellion would immediately trigger a stupefyingly disproportionate response from our government, local, state and federal: tanks, planes, drones, up-armoured personnel carriers bulging with scarily armed SWAT teams, all of which have been metastisizing under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11.

It's our insanely over-armed and agressive govenment that fightens me much more than the NRA. All Wayne LaPierre can offer his constituents by comparison are pea shooters. So forget the idea of armed rebellion against tyranny. All the NRA can do by preventing any and all gun safety regulation is to ensure that domestic arguments, depression, road rage, and household 'self-defense' will yield a much higher number of dead people than is the rule in other industrialized countries.

Meanwhile, the hard and boring political work needed to make our democracy safer for everyone in the world is largely ignored. C'mon K, quit parsing the true meaning of the Second Amendment, which is largely irrelevant, and help us make America safer for everyone by encouraging a more sensible attitude toward violence here and abroad by our government.

Posted by Tim Wright on 10.11.13 at 12:46



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