Messaging is important, and words matter. As we join discussions on how to reduce gun violence, we must use words and phrases that evoke community safety. (More)

Talking About Guns, Part III: Words to Use, Words to Avoid (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature invites progressives to join President Obama and Democrats in advocating for sensible gun safety regulations. Thursday we looked at gun industry supporters’ common claims about “rights,” and why they’re often very selective or plainly wrong about Second Amendment law. Yesterday we saw data that disprove gun industry claims of “More guns, less crime.” Today we conclude with words and phrases to emphasize, and to avoid, when discussing gun safety regulations with friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

“Preventing Massacres”

Gun industry supporters would love to debate “gun rights.” A December Gallup poll found that 74% of Americans oppose handgun bans and only a narrow 51% majority favor bans on semi-automatic rifles. That same poll showed 58% support for stricter gun laws, with 92% favoring better background checks and 62% favoring bans on high-capacity magazines. Still, if the discussion is framed in terms of “gun rights,” gun industry supporters will usually win the argument.

Indeed progressives should avoid the phrase “gun control,” cognitive linguist George Lakoff told the New York Daily News. “Being ‘controlled’ [makes people] think Big Brother is coming after them.” Dr. Lakoff suggests “responsible gun safety,” and Vice President Biden used the term “gun safety” three times in his press conference on Thursday.

I agree that “gun safety” is a stronger term … but we progressives should talk about “preventing massacres,” for two reasons.

First, the violent crime rate, including gun crimes, has been falling since the early 1990s. The reasons include better police work, longer sentences for violent criminals, the end of the 1980s crack epidemic, and women’s health care freedom, and reduced exposure to environmental lead. But mass shootings have held steady or increased over the past two decades, depending on how they are defined and counted. Many of the proposals being considered may help reduce overall gun violence – including suicides that account for over half of gun-related deaths – but progressives should discuss those in terms of “preventing massacres” like the horror in Newtown.

Second, as progressives we must understand the mainstream media’s preference for neutral terms. Conservatives have howled about liberal media bias for so long that many editors and reporters often actively choose words and phrases that fall in the middle of the dialogue. In this context, if progressives talk about “gun safety” and conservatives talk about “gun rights,” many reporters and editors will see “gun control,” a term that favors conservatives, as neutral. But if progressives talk about “preventing massacres,” more editors and reporters will see “gun safety” as the neutral term … and the debate will focus on “safety” rather than “control.”

“Community safety”

Gun industry supporters are working hard to make this a debate about “tyranny.” And while some in the media will dismiss that as “going to nut country,” as Chris Matthews put it last night on MSNBC’s Hardball, debating “gun control” simply reinforces that frame.

As progressives, we must focus the debate on “community safety.” Most people think of themselves as living in a “community,” whether they live in a small town, a suburban subdivision, or a city neighborhood. The word “community” calls to mind the places you go and people you meet every day: neighbors and children, schools and playgrounds, churches and shops. You want your community to be safe …

… and as we saw yesterday, gun violence is highest in the states with the fewest gun regulations. It’s simple math: the easier your state makes it for anyone to have a gun, the more likely your community will include dangerous people with guns.

And that’s a point you can make without implying that the gun owner across the street – or across the table in the discussion – is individually dangerous. “It’s not you I’m worried about,” you can say. “It’s the guy with a closet full of guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and fantasies about fighting off his neighbors as civilization collapses around him.”

“To make sure he can’t keep building an arsenal until he snaps and opens fire at our school or mall,” you can explain, “we need reliable background checks on every gun sale and up-to-date records on ammunition stockpiles.”

Note the reassuring words “reliable” and “up-to-date,” and the disturbing word “stockpile.” We can and should debate what those words will mean in actual legal language. Simply having that debate recognizes that background checks should be “reliable” and there should be “up-to-date” records on people who are “stockpiling” ammunition.

“Make killers stop to reload”

Although it’s likely that Vice President Biden’s proposals will include a ban on “assault weapons,” most progressives should avoid that issue. Unless you’re an expert on firearms, a debate on “assault weapons” will wade into the techno-detail weeds. Once you get in those weeds, gun industry supporters will usually have the advantage.

Instead, we want to “make killers stop to reload.” The Gallup poll above showed strong support for a ban on high-capacity magazines, and Vice President Biden’s proposals will likely define that as clips, magazines, drums, and belts that hold more than ten rounds. Ten rounds is plenty for hunting, target shooting, and self defense … the legitimate reasons a reasonable adult might own a gun.

A ban on high-capacity magazines sidesteps the weedy issue of defining an “assault weapon.” Simply, the point is give victims more chances to get away, and courageous adults more chances to swarm and tackle a shooter, as happened in the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six and wounded Gabrielle Giffords and the 2008 mass shooting at a Knoxville, Tennessee church. We can’t prevent every mass shooting, but a ban on high-capacity magazines will “make killers stop to reload.”

Messaging matters, and on an issue as emotionally charged and ideologically divisive as gun safety, we progressives will need to practice message discipline. If we focus on “preventing massacres,” improving “community safety,” and “making killers stop to reload” … we can help build public support for sensible laws to help stop the carnage.


Happy Saturday!