WORDS MATTER: Reframing gun violence debate may break legal logjam
Let’s talk about gun SAFETY, not gun ‘control'
The mass shooting of 21 mostly young victims in Uvalde, Texas has reignited the long-running debate over gun violence in the US.
Predictably, as the discussion has raged the positions of both sides have hardened: gun rights advocates have adamantly retreated to their corner, while those seeking urgent new legislation have despaired that any will be forthcoming.
It’s time to change the terms of the debate.
An idea long simmering was floated again recently by one of the foremost experts on the language of politics, who recommended retiring the words “gun control.” A more accurate and less emotionally charged term is “gun safety,” he said.
It’s a significant difference and might break the legislative stalemate. Words matter!
Gun rights advocates react viscerally when they hear anything about “gun control.” It seems to immediately end rational thought.
However, the US has a long and successful history of regulating the safety of thousands of products. It’s mostly uncontroversial.
Gun safety regulation should be seen in this context. Defusing the emotional baggage surrounding the issue may just be the only way to accomplish some meaningful reform.
The latest round of soul searching about the framing of the debate over guns was set off in late May by the guru of political discourse in America, Frank Luntz.
A political activist, pollster and accomplished linguist, Luntz rose to prominence in the 1990s by helping House Speaker Newt Gingrich craft his “Contract with America.”
Luntz is a master at using focus groups to frame political issues to the advantage of conservatives: it was he who suggested calling taxes on inheritances “death taxes” and oil drilling “energy exploration.” It worked!
He’s also the author of a best selling book on the topic titled Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear
Uncharacteristically, Luntz’s latest foray into the renewed debate about gun violence, if adopted, would benefit those who advocate for more gun safety regulation – or, as most still call it, gun control.
Just days after the Uvalde massacre he posted the following Tweet to his 300K followers:
Remarkable! An avowed conservative is suggesting something that would advance a core principle of the progressive agenda – and something anathema to conservatives everywhere.
It’s worth noting not just because it makes sense but even more so because of who said it. It’s a clear example of the bi-partisan frustration that is so evident after so many mass shootings – especially those in which young children die – and the total lack of action by Congress on the issue for decades.
Could this time be different?
If anyone is an authoritative source on this topic it’s Luntz. He deserves our attention, however much we may detest his history of conservative activism.
Elaborating later, he explained in a media appearance what his polling had revealed: “First off, it should be ‘gun safety’ rather than ‘gun control.’ The minute you turn it into ‘gun control’ you politicize the issue and people immediately go to their opposite camps and you can’t get anything done,” Luntz said.
“If it's about common sense gun safety, I know that it's seemingly ridiculous, but it is about language, it's about tone and presentation.
“The public does not believe that anyone should be able to own an assault rifle. The public does believe you should raise the minimum age for gun ownership. The public does believe in certain checks,” on gun ownership, Luntz said, sounding almost like a liberal.
“These are elements that are not hostile to the constitution, [and] that the vast majority of Americans – including a majority of Republicans – believe in. But the problem is politics gets in the way.”
That’s quite an understatement. Not even after the December 2021 killing of 26 people in the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut could Congress pass any meaningful gun law reform. A measure passed this week by the House after the Uvalde massacre is doomed in the Senate.
Politics has almost always gotten in the way – even the federal ban on assault weapons enacted in 1994 was allowed to expire under a Republican Congress in 2004.
Political paralysis on gun violence has been the order of the day for decades. But the calls for action are getting louder.
It’s still undeniable that a full-page ad in The New York Times carries weight far beyond the 800,000 readers who might see it. That’s one reason they are so expensive!
The ad appearing in the June 5 edition of the printed newspaper placed by Vet Voice Foundation was no exception.
The non-profit is an advocacy organization for veterans that aims to amplify the concerns of its community.
“Founded in 2009, the mission of VV Foundation is to empower Veterans across the country to become civic leaders and policy advocates by providing the support, training, and tools they need to continue their service and find new missions at home,” the group says.
Its advertisement on June 5 was simple and effective. It certainly caught my attention; an entire page of black ink with just a few BIG words in white will do that.
The ad is addressed to “All Editors, Reporters and Columnists”
“It’s not gun CONTROL. It’s gun SAFETY” is the only text in large type that dominates the page.
In much smaller type at the bottom, it adds: “In the military, we trained thoroughly to handle and store weapons safely. We’re subject to rigorous, mandatory background checks and other safety measures. Those procedures have nothing to do with control — they are in place to save lives.
“Please stop using the talking points of gun profiteers when reporting on an issue that impacts the safety of our children and our communities. Words matter.”
Indeed, they do. In this case, they could save lives.
Was anyone at The New York Times paying attention? Keep reading for a tentative answer below.
Meanwhile, in a news release distributed on the same day the VVF non-profit explains that its aim is to urge media to be better when it comes to reporting on gun violence and proposed gun safety measures.
“It’s a gross misnomer that gun safety policies are about control, and responsible members of the media need to stop using language that implies it is,” said Major General (Ret.) Paul D. Eaton, senior advisor to Vet Voice.
“When I was commanding general at Ft. Benning, I was keenly aware of the danger posed by unfettered, unregulated access to weapons. That’s why we in the military institute many of the same safety measures that are being proposed. It isn’t about control, it is about safety.” (emphasis added)
Eaton is certainly a credible source on this topic. He makes further essential points supporting his position.
“We don’t call it auto control when we require licenses and insurance. We call it auto safety.
“We don’t call it food control when we require production plants to pass regular health and safety checks. We call it food safety.
“There is no reason to falsely call it ‘gun control,’ unless you’re looking to promote the view of gun manufacturers and their lobby,” Eaton said.
This is a case that should be shouted from the rooftops every time the topic of gun violence comes up. It is the core argument against all the Second Amendment fanatics who scream “Gun control is unconstitutional” every time there is yet another mass shooting.
In an interesting twist of irony, on the same day the Vet Voice Foundation ad was published, on the top of the front page of the print edition of The New York Times was a major investigation of how stricter gun laws could have saved hundred of lives.
The story The Mass Shootings Where Stricter Gun Laws Might Have Made a Difference was on top of the front page for a reason: the editors decided it was the most important news they had for that cycle, therefore it deserved the most prominent position in the printed edition of the paper.
But you had only to read the first three words to discover the story violated the VVF advertisement that appeared on Page 11 of the same paper:
“If the key gun control proposals now being considered in Congress had been law since 1999, four gunmen younger than 21 would have been blocked from legally buying the rifles they used in mass shootings,” was the first paragraph!
Ugh! That’s what happens when you fire the entire copy desk. As a paying subscriber, I demand they do better!
It’s time to reframe the debate
On June 5, a major new public opinion poll from Ipsos found that a vast and growing majority of Americans support enacting laws to reduce gun violence: 70% say they are a top priority, only 29% say protecting gun rights is more important.
The gap between the two positions has actually widened in the past year, Ipsos reported, by a net of +9 percentage points.
It’s therefore not surprising that the level of frustration with Congress on gun safety is rising to a new high.
If there is any way to break the stalemate, reframing the issue is a good place to start.
If elected officials and the news media would simply call it “gun safety,” and repeat this every time the topic comes up, growing numbers might be convinced that no one is trying to violate their supposed constitutional rights under the Second Amendment.
Breaking a habit is hard. But it’s been done before and could be done again. The death toll is intolerable – and mounting by the day.
In this case, they may save hundreds of lives in short order. It’s time to give it our best effort.
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