Thanks in large part to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, green shoots of optimism are sprouting amid the rocky terrain of America’s gun debate.
But as liberals see real reason for hope, many are still wrapping their policy aims in an unhelpful phrase: “gun control.” This term has long been the default for well-meaning citizens who want to curb the killings that are a fact of American life. But it’s well past time to retire it and come up with something more effective.
The reason for doing so is simple: Many Americans don’t like government control — or, perhaps more importantly, the idea of government control. (Medicare is popular; the thought of dependency on the state is not.) It can be argued that the United States’ bedrock cultural individualism is the wellspring of the country’s history of innovation. But it has also been a persistent obstacle to the kind of comfortable, regulated lifestyle that is the norm in many other developed nations. And it’s one reason why the U.S. lags so far behind almost every other nation on shooting deaths, a measure by which, as we are reminded frequently, the United States counts as a shameful anomaly.
The specter of the government coming to take your guns, an idea often ridiculed on the left, is a very powerful one on the right — just witness the booming firearm sales throughout President Obama’s tenure. This, despite the fact that the man couldn’t get so much as a universal background check through Congress.
The National Rifle Association takes full advantage of its members’ oft-unfounded fears. As it has slowly but steadily morphed into a hardcore wing of the Republican Party, the organization has ratcheted up its anti-government rhetoric to absurd proportions. On Thursday, NRA head Wayne LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference that gun reformers “hate the NRA, they hate the Second Amendment, they hate individual freedom.”
This kind of apocalyptic rhetoric has long existed in the Republican Party. But it’s safe to say that when the Gun Control Act of 1968 passed in the aftermath of several major political assassinations, both the GOP and NRA were different animals, far less apt to view any regulation as an act of legislative terrorism.
During the intervening decades, throughout Ronald Reagan’s presidency and beyond, the GOP has become fiercely opposed to the notion of government in pretty much any form. On the issue of guns, liberals have yet to catch up, rhetorically speaking, to this reality.
The idea of ditching “gun control” is not new. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, Molly Ball observed in the Atlantic that President Obama and Vice President Biden had avoided it when they introduced a set of modest reforms that Congress failed to implement.
“We find that it’s one of those terms that has some baggage,”Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns (now part of Everytown for Gun Safety) told NPR the same year, noting that he’d seen polling data that swung wildly when people were queried on that term versus others. “We talk about gun violence prevention, because that’s what it is.”
But, as Ball wrote, alternatives like Glaze’s preferred expression, or others like “gun safety,” never quite caught on. (Ball did not mention “gun reform” in her list of rejects, which seems perhaps the least objectionable alternative.) Instead, politicians, journalists, and advocates throw around a hodgepodge of phrases, though elected officials appear to have shied away from “gun control” in recent years.
Republicans have long understood the power of language more intuitively than Democrats. With the help of consultants like Frank Luntz, they have developed a talent for defining complex issues with simple, often misleading phraseology. They have helped frame banning abortions as “pro-life,” tarred Obamacare with talk of “death panels,” transformed the estate tax into the “death tax,” and so on. The NRA is equally adept at this trick — most famously with “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Liberals have no reason not to up their language game, especially because reforming gun laws — unlike many of the relabeled GOP platforms — is actually popular. Most Americans ARE in favor of gun reform.
Tweaking the language around guns does not mean that liberals must meekly allow gun owners to lead the way on any kind of change, as David Brooks recently suggested. And it does not mean, as some Second Amendment defenders would have it, that gun-reform advocates must master the technical differences between an AR-15 and a Sig Sauer MCX to speak authoritatively. It simply means that there is no need to alienate the many Americans who might be receptive to what is generally a popular cause, but who fear — rationally or not — that some of their rights will be stripped away.
In the aftermath of every mass shooting, liberal social media users invoke the case of Australia, where a slaughter at a Tasmanian tourist site in 1996 prompted the government to crack down on firearms, banning semiautomatic weapons and confiscating 650,000 weapons owned by private citizens. But as Australian writer A. Odysseus Patrick wrote in the New York Times this weekend, “we Australians have a profoundly different relationship with weapons. Americans love guns. We’re scared of them.”
This difference drives home the point that, in a way, it doesn’t matter if liberals’ ultimate goal is to ban all guns, because immediate, sweeping change is not a realistic possibility in America. Guns are simply too embedded into the culture, too much a fabric of everyday life for too many people. Progress will be incremental, slow, and frustrating. In other words, to call it “gun reform” isn’t merely a Luntz-like mischaracterization. It’s an accurate depiction of the policy stakes.
Millennials and the generation below them seem more amenable both to government and to Western Europe-style social democracy than are their elders. This tendency points to the possibility of a different kind of conversation, and perhaps more wholesale changes, in the future. But for now, reform is a good place to begin — and it can start with the way we talk.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly claimed that the 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania happened at an elementary school. That was incorrect; it happened at a popular tourist site.