Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Framing the Discourse around Gun Violence

On Friday, Nate Silver had an article in the Times analyzing how the rhetoric around guns has changed over the past decades.

As you can see, whereas "gun control" was once the dominant framing of the debate, the use of that frame has dropped precipitously since 2000.  In its stead, the discourse around "gun rights" and "Second Amendment (rights)" has grown--even though neither or as dominant as "gun control" once was.

I noticed this rhetorical shift the other day when signing a petition, and as Sen. Pat Toomey's office always requires, I had to choose the subject of my comments.  I had to select "Gun Rights."

Framing the debate as a discussion of "rights" immediately cedes ground because legislation then becomes a form of stripping people's rights away--something that will be, of course, quite unpopular. This Times article from this morning used "gun rights" quite frequently, and in doing so, it recognize the right to an assault weapon.  By using the language of rights, you acknowledge that such a right can or should exist.  You have already lost part of the debate.

Think of the issue of abortion for example. Our dominant frame is not "pro-reproductive rights" and "anti-productive rights."  Rather, it is "pro-life" and "pro-choice."  Of course, both groups love being "pro" something, and "life" and "choice" are vague and universally popular words.  However, the anti-reproductive rights crowd changed the debate away from rights.  They are not taking away someone's rights, according to the nomenclature; rather, they do not recognize that such a right could have possibly ever existed.

I've seen several efforts in the past few days to re-frame the debate on gun violence.  HuffPo's Ryan Grimm used the term "anti-massacre activists." That term, however, will not achieve widespread media usage (It lacks the aura of "balance" that the media loves), and the word "massacre" omits smaller-scale shootings and, theoretically, would include genocide and war.  Yesterday, on Up with Chris Hayes, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) spoke of being "pro-gun safety."  I think that this term has more potential because (1) people like to be "pro" rather than "anti" something and (2) "safety" is more popular than "control."  "Pro-gun safety" says that the opponents of legislation are "anti-gun safety"--they are reckless and they are endangering the public.  "Anti-gun safety" does not seem like a descriptor one would want to embrace, and the policies of massacre profiteers should not be embraced either.

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