Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


Framing the NRA

A suggestion for how to talk about the NRA’s current leadership, in light of the organization’s cynical and unrepentantly gundamentalist press conference this morning: as a failed partner for peace.

The term partner for peace highlights the NRA’s standing as an organization apart from the public and from the government bodies that might enact meaningful gun reform: you don’t need a partnership with those who are already in your group. It frames the failed partner as untrustworthy but possibly improvable, as needing to undergo a significant internal change in order to become a reliable partner; failure to change can then be taken as a sign of bad faith, hostility, or unsalvageable corruption. It is no accident that governments use phrases like this as euphemistic terms of abuse for those they deem to be terrorists but whom they must work with politically. Finally, partner for peace places the focus on peace, which connotes an absence of weaponry, rather than on safety or security, which are intimately tied to the rhetoric of unfettered gun ownership.

It is clear today that the NRA, under its current leadership, is unwilling to be a partner for peace. It’s time for those who seek meaningful gun reform to say as much.

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Gun reform

In the wake of Sandy Hook, much has been written about the vexed linguistic opposition between gun rights and gun control in which our national discussion about guns is predominantly framed. The phrase gun rights, which has (apparently) become increasingly common in the past few decades, brilliantly preempts criticism of gundamentalism, framing any firearms restrictions whatsoever as an affront to liberty. Gun control, meanwhile, is rife with negative connotations and is especially self-undermining in light of the rhetorical ascendancy of gun rights: rights are things to be defended, not controlled. That the matter is almost universally framed in the media as one of gun rights vs. gun control is, as usual, a gross oversimplification, and a deeply misleading one in its implication that one cannot simultaneously support both gun rights and gun control. More to the point, this framing is a losing proposition for those who seek meaningful restrictions on gun ownership in America (restrictions that the Supreme Court’s Heller majority explicitly leaves room for in its original, if not originalist, interpretation of the Second Amendment).

So, a suggestion: let’s talk about gun reform. Reform has none of the bad connotations of control: on the contrary, reform is what Serious People nowadays propose in response to all sorts of pressing and difficult problems (see: school reform, entitlement reform, etc.). Unlike with control, the understood object of reform is not guns themselves, but the way in which our society deals with them. Reform frames its outcome not merely as a change from what came before, but as an undeniable improvement. Gun reform thus not only avoids taking the bait of gun rights, but redirects attention away from the false dichotomy of gun rights vs. gun control.

At present, however, gun reform is all but absent from the national discussion. Google searches today return 5,060,000 hits for “gun rights”, 13,800,000 for “gun control”, and just 286,000 for “gun reform”. There is thus a clear opening for those who support restrictions on gun ownership to claim the phrase gun reform as their own, and thereby to disentangle themselves from the unfavorable linguistic framing of the current debate.