Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The dangers to gun control efforts (and civil discourse) of heightened rhetoric

The gun control debate has been raging in earnest for some time now, ever since the massacre at Sandy Hook. There are some staggering statistics out there, like the fact that more Americans have died since 1968 from gun shots than the number of Americans killed in all wars; or the 3,000+ deaths just since the Sandy Hook killings. And there are plenty of questions to be asked. Has the “NRA won”? Has the overwhelming consensus of the people been overruled by lobbyists, or will something come of it yet? Is there perhaps even reason to be optimistic?

One factor that can sometimes get lost in all of this, however, is the rhetoric we (by which I mean everyone, whatever angle they come at this discussion from) employ. But language is all too important to these types of discussions to be ignored, because language is both a reflection of and a guiding force for our thoughts. When that language is tinged with malice, when it casts ideological opponents as morally flawed, sometimes to the point of depravity, human beings, and when it debases and devalues the very lives of those on “the other side,” we have a serious problem.

Judging by the rhetoric employed in the gun control debate, we have a serious problem in this nation. A very serious problem.

This came to my notice first through family and friends. Most of my family and many of my friends are very conservative. As the gun control debate geared up, I started noticing various images like the following circulating:

In and of itself, these are fairly inconsequential images. Sure, they're petty and mean spirited, but it frankly says more about the person who not only would want to see but would invite harm upon someone because of a difference of principles than gun control advocates. But it also says something about the mindsets of the folks who liked it and shared it, the people who added malicious commentary and voiced spiteful thoughts about gun control advocates. Some of these people are close to me, and I broached the subject with them.
The reactions mirrored the sentiments displayed in the images. If someone advocates for gun control, they “deserve what they get”. For them, gun control advocates had ceased to be human beings with whom they disagreed; they were the enemy, trying to “disarm and destroy America.” Nevermind that almost no one, anywhere in the debate, suggests anything of the sort.

As someone who not only owns guns but would also feel a lot safer if a background check was required to do so, and who isn't opposed to reasonable limits on magazine capacity and civilian ownership of certain types of weapons, this was a little alarming to me. How can people, in the name of freedom and liberty, not only dismiss any attempts to limit needless killing like at Sandy Hook, but despise those who would see it done?

The answer, I think, is simple. It's all in how the conversation is handled. The Sean Hannity's and Rush Limbaugh's of our country have a lot to do with this. But it's not just them. I had previously explored in some length the various responses to the Sandy Hook massacre on my blog, and these types of reactions played an important role in shaping the debate early on.

It isn't an issue of too many guns in the hands of people who shouldn't have them, but rather not enough social conservatism. According to Mike Huckabee, “we've systematically removed God from our schools”, so of course he isn't going to “be there” when needed...that, and we have “tax funded abortion pills” and we don't call disorders “sinful” anymore. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association agreed (“God is not going to go where he is not wanted”), and suggested morning prayers would fix the problem. James Dobson opined that atheism and abortion were to blame. So, ultimately, for many on the right, the problem has nothing, nada, zilch to do with gun legislation, and everything to do with lack of theocracy.

But the theocrats weren't alone in suggesting that the problem had nothing to do with guns. One Tea Party Nation contributor blamed “radicals in the classroom” and teacher's unions, all while managing to throw in some racist fear mongering (what better opportunity to talk about “black thugs,” after all, then a mass shooting committed by a white kid?). Others on the right suggested that video games were the problem (some constitutionally protected freedoms should have limitations, apparently; just not the right to bear arms!), while others felt too much femininity was to blame. Freedom of speech, progressive policies, feminism, unions...blame can be diverted there. But not lax gun laws.

Then there were the folks blaming gun control for gun violence. Gun control advocates are not only wrong, but they have “blood on their hands”; so, if any one is to blame for gun violence, it's the people trying to keep guns out of the bad guys' hands.

Now, these were responses within the first few days after the massacre. The message was quite clear: gun control is not the solution. The problem is [insert popular social conservative or tea party talking point], any legislation that does not [choose all that apply: force God on everyone; ban abortion; crush unions; put more guns in more hands!] will be useless, or, worse, destructive.

Then there was the flood of Hitler/Stalin/Fascism/Communism comparisons. Half of the conservative news world and blogosphere, it seemed, was on fire with the idea that gun control advocates were really brown shirts, all goose stepping behind our democratically elected president Fuhrer in order to bring about the end of America, western civilization, Christianity, Christmas, Jesus, the Easter Bunny and the world as we knew it. Nevermind that Americans on a whole overwhelmingly support some gun control efforts, like background checks, and that the whole Hitler-gun-control-thing is more or less a myth anyway. It's powerful rhetoric, and an epic battle of good versus evil sure sounds a lot better than “my right to avoid inconveniences outweighs a kid's right to grow up.” What's more, “my right to avoid inconveniences outweighs a kid's right to grow up” isn't going to appeal to most Americans, because an enormous majority of Americans actually support gun control efforts like background checks. So to win an argument against gun control measures, rhetoric is not only important, it's everything – because gun control opponents have already lost it on merit. Gun control opponents picked up on this very quickly, and have been very successful with it. Gun control became gun confiscation, and gun control advocates became some bizarre hybrid of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Sauron. But that, too, was only part of it.

Then came the “liberal hypocrisy” angle. Not only are gun control advocates Nazi Orcs, but we're also hypocrites. There was the “Hollywood Hypocrites” nonsense, which furthered the (untrue) notion that any attempt to limit gun violence means a gun grab, and also falsely equated make-believe killing and gun ownership with, you know, actual killing and weapon ownership. Then there was the NRA's infamous attack involving the Obama girls, which again floated the specter of “liberal hypocrisy” – but this time, with two little girls at the center. The president was an “elitist hypocrite” who more or less wants your kids to be shot while he protects his own. You see, now things are getting personal. Not only are gun control advocates in general, you know, evil nazis and genocidal scumbags; but now they're trying to get your kids shot. While protecting their own, with armed guards. The same armed guards that they're keeping away from your kids! (Despite the fact that none of that was true).

Finally, any gun control measures were also patently unconstitutional and un-American (despite the fact that many of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms are limited). It would “shred the constitution”. And, anyway, the second amendment is designed to keep us free from the yoke of a tyrannical government – and any attempts to limit it must be with the opposite goal in mind. (Regardless of the fact that you're going to need more than AR-15's and a “re-issued” “man card” to save you from the full might of the government, should it ever turn tyrannical and have a bee up its bonnet about you). Again, gun control advocates weren't just people you disagree with; they're anti-American, constitution shredding, tyranny embracing villains.

Factually, all of these attacks are baseless. It's not hypocritical to own a weapon and advocate limits on weapon ownership, provided you stick by your own rules, anymore than it's hypocritical for a car owner to think that there should be vision tests for a driver's license. It's not hypocritical to play with a gun, even one you think civilians should not own, in a controlled, legally compliant situation for people's entertainment, anymore than it's hypocritical to pretend to kill people (!!), steal stuff, or otherwise do things that you don't find morally permissible, for people's entertainment. (Stories and movies would be pretty boring if there were no “bad guys” and no conflict...) It's not hypocritical to have the secret service guarding our president's family, while suggesting that limiting mag capacity might be a good idea. Moreover, limiting gun ownership to those who are legally allowed to own guns is not only a widely supported notion, but a damned sensible one. And, agree with them or not, mag limits, assault weapon bans, etc., are not Mordor's latest communist/socialist/fascist scheme to destroy all that is good and green, but honest efforts to prevent the next Sandy Hook massacre. Reloading times have saved lives in some mass shootings. In others (like Fort Hood), the shooter had more experience and was not slowed. Assault rifles make up a small portion of overall gun deaths in the US; but they have been used, as in Sandy Hook, to devastating effect when they are employed. These are points to be considered in a debate. None of them, however, are the frightening, end-of-America-as-we-know-it, gun grabbing motives that many on the right make them out to be.

But facts are all too often lost in rhetoric. Thus any mention of “gun control” conjures up the well crafted imagery the NRA, the Sean Hannity's, and the Rush Limbaugh's of the world have put together – even though people overwhelmingly support at least minimal gun control. The success of this strategy has the immediate effect of turning people away from measures that they in actuality agree with; but it has the perhaps more damaging effect of convincing those people to fear and hate anyone who disagrees with them.

This is where gun control advocates need to be careful. The right, the left, and the middle should be – and, in theory, are – in agreement on much of this. But extreme rhetoric has established a barrier that, in many instances, prevents us from communicating or reaching that common ground.

We, gun control advocates, need to be aware of that, and tailor our language accordingly. We need to be honest and frank about our goals --€“ not the longhand, lofty or ambiguous versions like "we want to make sure that not a single kid is denied a chance to grow up if we can prevent."€ Is that what we want? Yes. But to anyone who listens to Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter or Michelle Malkin, anyone who reads conservative blogs or watches Fox news (much of my family, for instance), that immediately translates to "we want to take your guns, cart you off to a gulag, and murder your babies." We need to own the conversation, and to do that, whenever possible, we need to lay out specifics -- what we are, specifically, aiming for, in a way that is open to as little interpretation as possible." We want to institute a background system that makes sure the laws that we already have on the books are effective in keeping guns out of the hands of bad guys; this doesn't affect anyone already legally allowed to own a firearm, but it will protect all of us from those who are not but are slipping through the cracks to get one anyway." There's far less gray area there than in the mission statements. Now, that doesn't mean that some people can't or won't twist that into dark visions of Sharkey's Shire-scouring, rather than the straightforward attempt to implement laws we can almost all agree are necessary and good, for propaganda purposes. But, particularly for middle ground listeners who are not heavily invested in the issue, it will make our position much clearer: we will be giving specifics as to what we  want to do, and the talking heads of the other side will be forced to offer a counter argument, or be left screaming, "OH MY GOD! Nazis!”

But most importantly for those of us in the vast majority of Americans who support gun control, we do not want to fall into the pattern that many on the right have dropped into. We have a substantiative argument, an argument that can and will win on merit. We need to be aware of and counter propaganda efforts directed against it, but our message is solid. What we do not want to do, though, is fall into the trap of viewing people who disagree with us as “the enemy.” Yes, there are some people who stand to profit, either through on-air advertisements, gun sales, etc., from unfettered gun access. But the vast majority of people who oppose “gun control” are just regular people. They may be misinformed, they may be wrong, they may even be endorsing dangerous policy; but they are not “the enemy.” Gun owners are not “gun fetishists”. When bad things happen to gun owners, it's no time to gloat, or opine that “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword”. These are things I've seen gun control advocates write, not all the time, but enough. Too much. It's perfectly acceptable to point out the flaws in policies that lead to such deaths; but celebrating those deaths makes us as bad as the people who celebrate when bad things happen to gun control advocates. It's our version of the images above. We do not want to mirror the vitriol that many on the other side of the issue have been pushing; that has done enough to polarize the discussion, and make it a conflict of good guys versus bad guys instead of good ideas versus bad ideas. We have the better argument. Our idea will save lives and hurts no one if implemented. We do not want to squander or surrender the strength of our case for the petty satisfaction of schadenfreude or gloating. This is a long fight, and there are a lot of powerful voices and deep pockets arrayed against us. If we want to achieve those lofty goals of making our country a safer place to live in, a place where more kids have hope of actually growing up, we cannot ignore the power of language – our own, or that of our ideological opponents (and fellow Americans).

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