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Speaking of Guns

Here we are again, in the wake of a horrific mass murder 45 minutes from my home, discussing whether or not we can discuss the question of guns. Writing in The New York Times on Saturday, Nate Silver pointed out a shift in our language to which any who wish, finally, to engineer this public discourse should pay attention. Gun rights and Second Amendment, as he demonstrates, are on the rise, whereas gun control and gun violence are on the decline.

As George Lakoff has so convincingly demonstrated in his articles and books (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think), language controls political debate: “Any political message about policy can be understood only in terms of moral values,” he writes in The Little Blue Book; moreover, “Traditional liberal discourse strategies are not consistent with the science of how reason really works.”

Nate Silver’s analysis backs up this claim, as does Charles Blow’s statistical analysis in the same issue of the Times. Following the rise in terms that refer to rights and the Constitution—moral values for millions of Americans—“the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun-control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years.”

Yet Silver refers to gun control as “a relatively neutral term,” even though Lakoff’s analysis of a similar term, “birth control,” suggests strongly that those in favor of such policies should change their linguistic framework. “The terms birth control and birth control pills are disastrous,” Lakoff writes. “The word birth has a frame that includes a fully formed baby and a woman giving birth.” (He recommends pregnancy prevention instead.) It is ironic, to say the least, that the word gun might operate for many people at the same level as the word birth. But I think not only that such correlation is possible (just talk to any fanatical gun owner), but that the emphasis here should be on the word control.

We Americans don’t like to be controlled; we don’t like anything that controls us. We may wish to control spending or control the deficit, but that’s generally in reference to someone else’s spending, someone else’s deficit. Try spending control, and you have a nonstarter—that may be my spending you’re talking about, buddy, and keep your nanny-state hands off it.

If, then, we are to have a reasonable discussion about bringing our country’s relationship with privately owned guns more in line with the relationship that other industrialized nations have to such weapons, what term might begin winning hearts and minds? (Perhaps you are reading this thinking you don’t want hearts and minds brought over to the side of gun controllers, but please: Let us at least find the best language.) Gun violence, one might think, was a good choice, but it only names the problem; it doesn’t propose a way forward. One person I spoke with suggested violence reduction—but not only is that a mouthful, it also sounds too broad, and reduction can have negative connotations. Victims’ rights, I suspect, is also a nonstarter; as Lakoff has noted, the so-called war on women lost traction because it framed women as victims. To my mind, whatever we come up with should emphasize freedom: the freedom of us law-abiding citizens to go to school, the mall, the movie theater without the fear of psychopaths with assault weapons. What most gun-control advocates want, after all, is not a ban on all legal gun ownership, but deep background checks and a ban on the sort of weapons that kill large numbers of people quickly. So what about ordinary freedom legislation? Freedom from violence legislation? What about taking a page from the reproductive-rights debate to speak of being pro-safety? If we must use the word gun, perhaps invoke what Lakoff dubs the Strict Father model of thinking and try gun responsibility legislation, or gun discipline legislation. I think of the handy welfare to work slogan, but guns to plowshares  won’t cut it in the 21st century. Maybe gun reform will, but I shudder to think of how assault rifles might be “reformed” to fire off even more rounds per second.

So I open up the nominations. What term or terms might those who believe that gun proliferation is a big problem adopt to engage in debate with those Second Amendment pontificators, those gun-rights advocates? Weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth won’t move us forward; neither, apparently, will vilifying the NRA. We need the right words, two or three of them.

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