Pushing for better gun laws: What’s the best rhetorical strategy?

Several very, very smart media studies scholars, who know tons about political communication — who may or may not want their names publicly identified in this context — have started wondering about how to turn this moment into an opportunity to persuade the political center to adopt stronger gun regulation.

With nearly half of households in the US owning at least one gun, how do we reach these folks (excluding the “From my cold dead hands!” set, of course) in a way that acknowledges and respects the perfectly sensible motivations for owning a gun? Well, here are my thoughts on an overall strategy.

This Acela corridor liberal has shot guns and even (gasp!) killed animals. Being from Colorado (I graduated from Bear Creek High School, which is just down the road from Columbine), I know a great many people who can say the same. Yet even among this set, I think a majority either already believe or could be talked into something like Brady Bill 2.0 and similar measures.

One way not to get there, though, is to demonize gun owners or gun ownership. The push for gun reform will get a lot more traction if it proceeds from a place of understanding and sympathizing with sport shooters, farmers, antiques collectors, and others who own guns for defensible reasons. Owning one or more guns doesn’t make you a “gun nut,” nor does enjoying shooting, or knowing about the different types of guns, or appreciating guns’ amazing capabilities.

Also of importance, we would do well to deal carefully with the misconception that owning a gun makes the gun owner safer. Empirically, this belief is simply mistaken — statistically speaking, owning a gun makes one and one’s family substantially less safe — but this is true for reasons that make the case very difficult to make.

To borrow a term from media effects research, the thought processes that make gun ownership seem likely to make one safer are a fantastic example of a third person effect. Nobody envisions him/herself as potentially committing suicide, for instance, even though suicide is the main cause of gun death in this country every year. (US gun deaths in 2007: over 17,000 via suicide, under 13,000 via homicide.)

Besides suicide, other terrible outcomes of gun ownership include:

  • Use of guns to intimidate or injure friends and loved ones
  • Accidental shooting of loved ones, mistaken for criminals (On this point specifically, I’m super glad my mom didn’t have a bedside shotgun with which to shoot me when I broke back into our house after sneaking out, then getting locked out, at age 16. The cops who answered her 911 call thankfully had enough training to assess me as a non-threat before pumping me full of lead.)
  • Accidental gun use by children
  • Accidental shootings of compatriots during sport shooting (see Cheney, Dick)
  • Shooting bystanders and/or catching them with bullet ricochets during a shootout (see, e.g., the shootout near the Empire State Building in January; thankfully none of the bystanders died, but stray bullets by NYPD officers, and only NYPD officers, sent NINE of them to the hospital)
  • Angry confrontations between armed people, each viewing themselves as in the right, using their guns “defensively”

All of these are great reasons for not owning a gun, but each reason depends on at least a bit of humility in recognizing that we, too, are imperfect humans. It’s humbling to accept even the remote possibility that one might commit suicide, or wield a gun in anger, or leave a gun somewhere that a child could find it, or not recognize one’s own family member until after shooting them. It’s disempowering to accept the fact that, if trained professionals can’t hit a suspect without hitting bystanders, we have almost no chance of doing so.

Those all seem like things that can only happen to other people. Until it happens to you, at which point it’s too late.

All of this suggests a rhetorical strategy that focuses on keeping guns out of other people’s hands. Now more than ever, it’s pretty obvious that some people can’t be trusted with guns, and even though we won’t be able to keep all of these people from buying them, we sure could try a lot harder.

Now more than ever, it’s increasingly clear that guns owned for legitimate purposes like recreation don’t need the kind of raw killing power that makes it easy to kill indiscriminately — and that at least a few people will use guns that have that kind of power specifically for the purpose of indiscriminate killing.

In short, our rhetoric should focus on the goal of reducing the number of criminal/mentally unstable “others” who have guns, and on reducing the firepower of those who have/get guns should they fall through the cracks of the background checks and get a gun anyway.

Convincing you that, ironically, YOU are less safe if YOU own a gun is hard work. Convincing you that YOU are less safe if OTHER PEOPLE own guns, however, is easier. Convincing you that OTHER PEOPLE can’t be trusted with an AR-15, or with high-capacity magazines, or to have the good sense to install a trigger lock (so their curious 4-year-old doesn’t blow their leg off) if we don’t make them? That’s a much, much easier proposition.

Convincing you that at least a few OTHER PEOPLE who are criminals or mentally unsound will be kept out of the gun ownership club if we have universal, meaningful background checks, and that this will prevent a few (but not all) of these OTHER PEOPLE from killing innocent people? And that this outcome makes it worth a bit more bureaucracy standing in the way of “good people” owning guns? Again, I think that’s a winning strategy.

Guns can be fun for and used sanely by sane people. The more the pro-regulation case starts from here, the more appealing our case will be.

2 thoughts on “Pushing for better gun laws: What’s the best rhetorical strategy?

  1. Well said. I want to protect my husband’s, son’s, father’s right to hunt and bring home organic meat. I also want to protect my family from crazy gun owners. Focusing on responsible screening is key. Thanks for the great article.

  2. Now, this argument makes sense, sounds reasonable & do-able! believe in personal responsibility, but, somehow, “I think I might be more responsible than you.” Therefore, if you & I decide to own a gun, I want to be darned sure you must be found fit to own one…if you, then I.

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