Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Stage-level rights?

Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen, quoted in today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on the state’s soon-to-be-implemented concealed-carry law:

“One of the oldest arguments out there is that the criminals – the ones who aren’t entitled to have firearms – are carrying concealed already. They’re the ones we’re worried about, not the ones who are going to be abiding by the law.

[…]

“I’m a proponent of concealed carry for law-abiding citizens… because there’s just not this pile of anecdotal cases where law-abiding citizens are abusing firearms to the detriment of the public.”

Of interest here is Van Hollen’s use of the adjective law-abiding and the noun criminals. Both of these terms are typically used to denote stable, unchanging properties. They differ in this respect from adjectives like hungry or asleep, which denote changeable properties that last a comparatively short time. In linguistic parlance, the former are individual-level properties, the latter stage-level properties.

A handy linguistic test for diagnosing the individual- vs. stage-level distinction is the whenever test. Stage-level adjectives like hungry can happily occur in a whenever clause: Whenever I’m hungry, I eat a hamburger. Individual-level adjectives like tall cannot: consider the awkwardness of Whenever I’m tall, I eat a hamburger. By this test, law-abiding clearly qualifies as an individual-level adjective: it is highly awkward to say, e.g., Whenever I’m law-abiding, I leave my gun at home.

By behaving grammatically as an individual-level adjective, law-abiding enjoys some prototypical individual-level connotations that it does not properly denote. Individual-level adjectives typically denote properties that are stable through time and over which the subject has little or no control: tall, smart, brown-eyed, Swiss, etc. Inherent properties of individuals (if such properties exist) are individual-level properties. In literal terms, law-abiding can at best denote a tendency or propensity toward obeying the law; far from being an inherent property of an individual, it is one that requires continual acts of compliance in order to apply to someone. Put more simply, unlike with tall, you’re law-abiding until you’re not. This is, of course, to say nothing of the complications arising from one’s possibly variable degree of adherence to the plethora of laws in our society: is a habitual jaywalker who steals his neighbors’ wifi, but also pays his taxes and gets the requisite concealed-carry training, a law-abiding person?

In literal terms, then, Van Hollen is saying something close to a tautology: a law-abiding citizen, by definition, cannot be abusing firearms to the detriment of the public. By way of inference from its individual-level status, however, the term law-abiding (like criminals) unhelpfully encourages us to partition the set of citizens into two non-overlapping classes: the law-abiding and the criminals. Instead of addressing the real complexity of the situation, this usage deliberately blurs it, leaving little conceptual space for the changeable, often unstable nature of abiding by the law and the dire consequences that can ensue when an armed citizen suddenly exits a law-abiding stage.

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