The language of guns
When President Obama unveiled his gun reform package yesterday, one month after the Newtown massacre, there was a commonly used phrase that wasn’t uttered by him or Vice President Joe Biden. Same with Gov. Deval Patrick, who also unveiled his measures yesterday.
The term that was missing was “gun control” and you can bet as the debate over that heats up, there will be more subtle differences in the way the issue is talked about and, especially, written about in the media. Because whoever wins the battle for control of the language, wins the dialogue.
Gun control advocates are beginning to excise the phrase from their vocabulary because it alarms gun owners who see “control” as a government attempt to limit their Second Amendment rights. Instead, more and more of the focus is on “stemming gun violence” and “increasing gun safety.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is open to a debate about gun control, but says the discussion needs to go broader to focus on “violence control.”
At yesterday’s White House press conference, where Obama signed 23 executive orders relating to gun access and mental health, both he and Biden mentioned guns on 40 instances but not once did the word “control” follow. Biden called it “gun violence legislation” several times, while Obama used that term and also called for “gun safety” reforms. They, as well as many gun control advocates, are framing the issue as a public health crisis, rather than making it about guns.
It is not unlike the abortion debate, when those who oppose the procedure locked onto the “pro-life” moniker while those on the other side insisted they were not “pro-abortion” but, rather “pro-choice.” It matters because the terms become part of news media’s in-house stylebook. If you’re not pro-life, does that mean you’re pro-death? Can someone who does not agree with abortion nonetheless have empathy for a woman’s right to choose abortion? The Globe uses “anti-abortion” to describe that sector and “pro-choice” for the Roe v Wade crowd. Most other major outlets follow the same guidelines.
Most savvy advocacy groups know that words matter. How much attention would the surgical procedure of intact dilation and extraction get among the masses? Hardly a raised eyebrow, likely. But turn that into “partial birth abortion” and suddenly there is a cause that mobilizes even the most moderate of voters.
With guns, the National Rifle Association and its supporters have owned the debate. Read any newspaper’s letters-to-the-editor section after a story or editorial on assault weapons and you’ll see gun owners writing in to correct even the slightest error in differentiating between automatic weapons and semi-automatic weapons.
There’s even been some obfuscation in other areas. The NRA’s latest public relations ploy is to point out that while Obama has dismissed their proposal to place armed officers in every school in the country, he has no qualms about making sure his daughters are protected at school by armed guards. Most people, though, call those “armed guards” Secret Service and they are tasked by Congress with protecting the First Family. As cynical as that approach is, it will resonate with their supporters. Words matter.
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