The Rhetoric of Guns – David Bates

It’s time for the Democratic Party to adopt a new message

We need to change the way we talk about guns.

Let’s be frank: the argument for gun control against the argument to protect the 2nd Amendment, although logical and vastly supported by the American public, has been a losing argument for years to the chagrin of all those victimized by gun violence and all those in favor of reasonable gun reform. It plays directly into a Conservative rhetorical advantage. If you are a 2nd Amendment advocate then inherently you support the Constitution of the United States. This also means that the inverse — the person across from you who supports limits to the 2nd Amendment — doesn’t support the Constitution of the United States. It positions one individual as more patriotic and claims one individual supports freedom more than the other. It’s simplistic but that’s the point. We live in a media and communications environment where there is no time for nuance. The more time we spend justifying a point-of-view, the more time we spend losing a debate.

I propose that Democrats reframe the conversation around 2 key points, and then repeat these points like a parrot over and over and over again.

  1. Democrats believe in responsible gun ownership.
  2. Democrats believe that weapons of mass destruction should not be on American streets.

Before diving into these points further, let’s circle back to the rhetorical assumption they create.

Point 1 reinforces the 2nd Amendment. There are no — excuse the pun — trigger words such as “control” or “ban.” In fact, it steals the Conservative argument of protecting “the rights of responsible gun owners.” It does this by acknowledging the right for Americans to own guns. It also draws a distinction between responsible vs. irresponsible gun ownership. Put simply, if Democrats are in support of responsible gun ownership it infers that Republicans support irresponsible gun ownership.

Point 2 uses emotional language that is part of the cultural vernacular and self-definable to draw a distinction between firearms used by responsible gun owners and those used by irresponsible gun owners. Point 2 asserts that irresponsible gun owners advocate for, and likely wield during a mass shooting, a weapon of mass destruction. Being against weapons of mass destruction is a no brainer. We’ve literally sent American troops into harm’s way to keep despotic governments from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. Keeping weapons of mass destruction off of American streets and out of the hands of irresponsible gun owners is one of those arguments that isn’t an argument.

The result is rhetorical ground that, for Republicans, is utterly indefensible. You shouldn’t be able to disagree which in turn reinforces the Democratic stance.

Of course, the pessimist may claim that rhetoric isn’t actually the problem. Rather, the financial power and influence of the NRA and gun lobby are the ones responsible for politicians — generally Republicans — dragging their feet against the better judgement of the American people. This is not only a fair point but it’s absolutely accurate. It’s a preeminent example of why Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United are so heinous. In this case, corporate money from firearms and ammunition manufacturers, distributed through the NRA and Super PACs, constitute a far louder and more powerful form of speech than the plurality opinion of American citizens.

The sad truth is that outrage has a time limit measured in days before the conversation fades and the public resumes living their lives. It takes a lot of energy to stay angry. As a result, a mass shooting in August seldom has enough momentum to affect polls in November. Campaign donations, on the other hand, have a revolving lifespan. As a politician, you always need to build your war chest especially considering that elections are every 2 (Representative), 4 (President), and 6 years (Senator).

Pessimism aside there is a tangible way that winning the rhetorical battle changes the result at the ballot box. IF we can undermine the cracked pillars of Republican “logic” by making it evident beyond all doubt that the only “freedom” and “liberty” they want to protect is that of the “bad guy with a gun,” AND we can hammer that point clearly, concisely, and consistently across all media channels, we have an opportunity to topple their entire defense on this issue and shame them into change.

It certainly isn’t a guarantee though.

Let’s start the discussion with Point 2:

Democrats believe that weapons of mass destruction should not be on American streets.

It’s important to take into consideration how the reference to “streets” has often been a common tactic amongst Conservatives who use the word as a pseudonym for urban black and brown communities. This tactic is effective at “othering” these communities; it scapegoats them for crime, violence, and drug abuse; it victim-blames them for poverty, reliance on welfare, poor education, weak institutions, and lack of safety. It’s code, a signal, that has appeal to those in the electorate who hold implicit racial biases. It’s not pretty. Nor is it appropriate, and for these reasons, it is valid to reconsider the diction (I’m not married to it). At the same time, as polarizing and discriminatory as such language use is, for better or for worse, “streets” conjure up a tangible image in the minds of voters that may drive action more effectively than words like “accessibility” or “availability.” Further, the use of the latter— weapons of mass destruction should not be accessible — may serve as a reminder of infringed rights whereas words like “streets” or “communities” are relatable and makes sense. Of course, I don’t want weapons of mass destruction on my block, in my community. Absolutely not.

Diction aside, 2nd Amendment hawks will likely take issue with the labeling of certain types of firearms and stocks of ammunition as weapons of mass destruction. They may try to depict this as a false label. They may try to draw a false equivalence to the number of deaths caused by something like automobiles. Should cars be considered weapons of mass destruction now too? This is a reach but one I’ve actually encountered. Cars are a mode of transportation (with fairly consistent standards for licensing across state lines, mind you). They are not a weapon used on the battlefield. Military personnel are not issued cars before being deployed. They are issued a firearm.

However, perhaps the best approach is to avoid confronting such illogical analogies — as fun as doing so is— and instead recenter the conversation on the real human cost. How is a weapon that can kill 9 innocent people and injure 27 more in Dayton, OH in less than 32 seconds not “a weapon of mass destruction”? Wouldn’t this be the very definition of weapon of mass destruction? It is a weapon used with the intention of disrupting the most lives in the most destructive, appalling, and efficient way.

Consider sarin gas. It is a colorless, odorless liquid that has been used in chemical weapons due to its potency as a lethal nerve agent even in low concentrations. After exposure, death can occur between 1–10 minutes. In 1993, 162 member states of the United Nations agreed that chemical weapons like sarin gas were weapons of mass destruction. All further production and stockpiling of sarin were banned by international law. As of 2016, 89% of all stockpiles worldwide had been destroyed. The use of sarin gas is so egregious that in 2018 President Trump immediately authorized the United States military, alongside the United Kingdom and France, to conduct a series of targeted missile attacks on Syrian government sites after it had been confirmed that Syrian forces used chemical weapons on civilians in Douma.

If sarin gas, a toxin that causes death in 1–10 minutes of exposure, is a weapon of mass destruction, then what do you call something capable of 36 casualties in 32 seconds during a night out in Dayton, OH?

There simply does not appear to be a realistic way to counter this positioning. At least not one that I can think of. Even the argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” doesn’t hold water. The rebuttal is straightforward: I agree. People do kill people. Therefore, I believe that people should not be able to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

How do you suppose a politician will justify the contrary — why people should have weapons of mass destruction? Perhaps being stuck in this rhetorical corner will encourage Republicans to be more open to set constraints on the sale and distribution of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Perhaps being stuck in this rhetorical corner will encourage Republicans to be more open to gun buyback legislation. After all, we have to get these weapons of mass destruction off American streets.

Now back to Point 1.

Democrats believe in responsible gun ownership.

Let’s agree that the 2nd Amendment was written, regardless of intention, under the assumption that those who bear arms do so responsibly. Let’s also agree that guns aren’t going to just disappear and that our Constitution is our Constitution.

Remember the analogy that related guns to cars? No, cars are still not typical weapons of mass destruction. (Admittedly, when plowing into a crowd, a car certainly can become a weapon of mass destruction.) (Also admittedly, assault weapons were intentionally designed to kill humans efficiently. Cars were not designed for this purpose.) However, one can argue that a gun is just as deadly as a motor vehicle. Getting struck by a car is just as dangerous as being struck by a stray bullet, is it not?

Cars are dangerous. Guns are dangerous. There are different types of motor vehicles. There are different types of guns. Although certain restrictions such as age may differ from state-to-state, generally States have outlined similar requirements for obtaining a driver’s license and all States follow the Uniform Vehicle Code. As for guns, there are no consistent requirements for ownership; few uniform codes that all States abide by. Some states permit open carry. Others are not. Some states permit peer-to-peer gun sales. Others do not. Some states have background checks and waiting periods. Others do not.

This patchwork of laws is insufficient. The result fails to set a standard for responsible gun ownership.

In comparison, there is a standard for “the responsible driver.” A responsible driver is:

  • Required to pass a written examination to ensure comprehension of traffic laws.
  • Required to pass an in-person demonstration with an authorized proctor to ensure competent use of a vehicle on-the-road
  • Verified to be physically capable of driving i.e. not legally blind
  • Verified to not be convicted of a crime that revokes driving privileges
  • A holder of liability insurance that covers bodily injury and property damage when at-fault

In addition, a responsible driver:

  • Renews their license every 10 years, or 5–8 years if you are a commercial driver
  • Registers owned or leased vehicles in-use with their state of residency

It is completely reasonable, and not at all infringing, to develop standards for responsible gun ownership. Responsible gun ownership in the 21st century should:

  • Require a written test to ensure comprehension of gun laws
  • Require an in-person demonstration with an authorized proctor to ensure competent use of a firearm
  • Verification of mental fitness by a psychological professional to ensure the individual is not a risk to self or others
  • Verification that the individual has not been previously convicted of a crime that revokes gun privileges like domestic abuse or assault
  • Verification that the individual holds liability insurance that covers bodily injury and property damage when at-fault

In addition, a responsible gun owner:

  • Renews their license after a certain period of time with updated psychological evaluations
  • Registers all owned or leased firearms either federally or with their state of residency

What do you suppose the counter-argument is against responsible gun ownership? That these standards are too restrictive? What makes them more restrictive than the standards that Americans already accept for driving a motor vehicle?

Perhaps such requirements are considered to be an infringement to the 2nd Amendment. Which ones? Is it the testing? Why would any responsible gun owner openly refuse to demonstrate their knowledge and competency using a gun? That would seem to be a red flag. Is it a mandatory psychological evaluation? That would seem inconsistent with Republican talking points that attribute mental illness with mass shootings. If this is the case, requiring responsible gun owners to pass a psychological evaluation appears to be common sense. Is it the registration? Why would a responsible gun owner care to keep his inventory of firearms a secret? Again, that would appear to be another red flag. What are you hiding? What is your intention?

Such standards ask for accountability, and accountability ensures that we as Americans are properly and lawfully exercising our rights. For example, the 1st Amendment and free speech do not give you the right to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Reasonable limits on Constitutional rights can exist, especially when public safety is concerned. Setting a cultural and legal standard for responsible gun ownership seems like a reasonable limit on the 2nd Amendment. Remember, we agreed earlier that the 2nd Amendment was written under the assumption that those who bear arms do so responsibly.

Who is to say it won’t? Who is to say that changing the way we speak about guns, that focussing our energies on defining what responsible gun ownership looks like in the United States and getting weapons of mass destruction off the streets, isn’t more or less effective than using the rhetoric we have now? We’ve had conversations about “gun bans” and “gun controls.” We’ve proposed background checks and waiting periods. Democrats have so many different ideas. Democrats also need to acknowledge and respect that common sense aside, the language of bans and controls and limits and restrictions inherently scare people.

Will the suggestions outlined in this article end all mass shootings? Probably not, but that isn’t the goal.

The goal is to stop the vast majority of them from happening.

The goal is to make it difficult for individuals with ill intentions to premeditate such atrocities without being flagged.

The goal is to prevent individuals who are not mentally fit to own a firearm or who have a history of violent crime from ever obtaining a gun.

And in the event of something unspeakable, the goal is to significantly increase the amount of time it takes to kill or maim a significantly reduced the number of casualties. Instead of 36 casualties in 32 seconds, 3 casualties in 40 seconds. It’s not ideal, but it is progress.

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