The Danger of Gun-Control Speak

If anti-Second Amendment activists get enough power over the words we use, they’ll be able to control how a voting majority thinks about the fundamentals of our freedom.

posted on March 23, 2024
Gun-Control caricature
Art: Gary Locke

Plato defined rhetoric as “the art of ruling the minds of men.” Gun-control advocates—especially those in the media and government—have artfully employed rhetoric for decades to evoke emotional responses, alter attitudes and shape perspectives about guns. They have managed to frame the debate over gun ownership in America by laying every atrocity committed with a firearm at the feet of law-abiding gun owners and by flooding the political discourse with misleading terminology and falsehoods.

The misleading term most often repeated is “assault weapon.” Gun-control advocates carefully chose this term to make popular semi-automatic firearms sound especially dangerous and thus unsuitable for civilian possession. The term “assault weapon” gives the immediate impression that AR-type firearms—the core of what they use this nebulous term to cover—are too dangerous. Merriam-Webster defines “assault” as “a violent physical or verbal attack” or “a military attack.” Legally, an assault is a criminal offense. The term “assault weapon” incorrectly suggests, therefore, that such a gun type must not be suitable for lawful self-defense.

It is no coincidence that the term “assault weapon” so closely resembles “assault rifle,” a term used by the military to define “short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power.” The point here from gun-control activists is to conflate the two, so that the general public believes “assault weapons” are fully automatic firearms designed for military use. The Violence Policy Center’s founder, Josh Sugarmann, stressed the benefit of misleading the public in a 1988 strategy memo: “The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

In another example, the terms “large-capacity magazines” and “high-capacity magazines” are commonly used by gun-control proponents to describe magazines with greater than 10-round capacities. The terms are used in the text of several state laws prohibiting them. They suggest that ordinary magazines hold 10 rounds or fewer, and that any magazines that hold more are exceptional. But this is misleading. An estimated 160 million such magazines were possessed by U.S. consumers from 1990-2018, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Moreover, many popular handguns and rifles are equipped by the manufacturer with standard magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. Such magazines are not larger than ordinary; they are ordinary.

“Gun safety” is another term designed to deceive. As it is used by gun-control groups and much of the mainstream media today, it means “gun control.” Most Americans, especially most gun owners, do not want to be controlled. Oppressive government control of an individual right violates our cultural identity, the foundational principles of our country and our pride in being free and self-reliant. And while “gun control” conjures images of door-to-door gun confiscation by despotic governments seeking to squash resistance, “gun safety” sounds like something that everyone—including firearms enthusiasts—can get behind; after all, nobody likes firearm accidents. This is why firearm owners have long promoted the safe handling of firearms. Accidental fatal gun accidents have fallen by nearly 90% since 1948 (from 1.55 fatal accidents per 100,000 persons to 0.17 in 2021); this has occurred during roughly the same time that firearms per capita increased 264% (from 0.36 guns per person in 1948 to 1.31 in 2018).

But “gun safety,” as it is used by gun-control groups, has nothing to do with safely handling firearms, which is why you never see an Everytown for Gun Safety firearms training course, or a shooting range financially supported by Giffords. Indeed, the organizations promoting actual gun safety are pro-firearm groups, such as the NRA through its firearms training courses, its certifications for firearms instructors and coaches and its award-winning Eddie Eagle GunSafe initiative—not to mention the countless range safety officers who volunteer their time to ensure safe practices at shooting ranges across the country and the millions of gun owners who take pride in handling firearms responsibly and teaching others to do the same.

So, while the firearms community has been dramatically reducing firearm accidents by promoting firearms proficiency and safe handling, gun-control proponents were co-opting the term “gun safety” to deceive the public into supporting their efforts to restrict and ultimately ban firearms possession.

A related term that works the same way as “gun safety” is “gun-violence prevention.” It has the same universal appeal as “gun safety,” since every reasonable person opposes criminals committing violence with guns. It has the added benefit of appealing to emotion, since it conjures images of violent criminals shooting innocent victims. But “gun-violence prevention” efforts almost always target law-abiding citizens rather than criminals—and in turn convert law-abiding citizens into criminals. Thus, the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris (D), lists as its top priority: “Banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,” followed by “Requiring safe storage of firearms.”

Rep. Mike Thompson
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) is shown here, last January, arguing that “gun violence” can be solved via more restrictions on law-abiding citizens.

“Gun violence” itself is a misnomer. Guns do not commit violence. Rather, violent criminals sometimes use guns to commit violence. But violent criminals use all sorts of instruments to commit violence. Yet, you do not hear about “car violence” when a criminal runs someone down in their automobile or when violence results from road rage. But you often hear about “gun violence.” That is because “gun violence” implies that the general availability of guns caused the violence and suggests that anyone who favors the general availability of guns shares some responsibility. Put differently, it attempts to villainize law-abiding gun owners for actions they did not commit. 

Along those same lines, the media often refer to murderers as “shooters” when they use firearms. Rarely are murderers referred to as “stabbers” when they use knives. Constantly referring to murderers as “shooters” conflates citizens who engage in lawful shooting with murderers and other violent criminals.

Then there is the definition of “mass shooting,” which gun-control advocates often change to maximize the total number of incidents, and therefore to maximize fear among the populace. Since the 1980s, a “mass shooting” had been defined as an incident in which four or more victims were killed by gunfire. But, starting around 2021, the mainstream media adopted the Gun Violence Archive’s definition, which includes incidents in which four or more people are injured. Substantially broadening the definition of the long-established term creates the impression that “mass shootings” are rapidly increasing in frequency and, therefore, that drastic restrictions are necessary to address the sudden crisis.

The number of “school shootings” is also inflated to generate the greatest amount of fear among the public. When Everytown for Gun Safety reported in 2019 that 290 school shootings had occurred since Newtown five years prior, an analysis revealed that nearly half of these were “completed or attempted suicides, accidental discharges of a gun or shootings with not a single individual being injured. Of the remainder, the vast majority involved either one fatality or none at all.” Similarly, after the U.S. Department of Education claimed that “[n]early 230 schools ... reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting” in the 2015–16 school year, an investigation was “able to confirm just 11 reported incidents.”

Politicians also use deceptive vernacular when calling for gun “buybacks.” To begin with, the government did not sell the firearms it wants turned in, so it would not be buying them “back.” More problematically, politicians often point to Australia’s so-called “buyback” program from 1996 as the model for America to follow. But Australia’s “buyback” program was compulsory. In other words, it was large-scale gun confiscation. By calling for “buybacks,” therefore, gun-control proponents are often concealing their true objective of seizing millions of firearms from law-abiding American citizens.

President Joe Biden (D) continually asserts that “gun manufacturers are the only industry in America that can’t be sued,” despite fact checkers repeatedly finding that the claim is false. Biden is referring to the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which prevents gun manufacturers from being held liable for the use of their guns in crimes. The law was enacted to prevent abusive lawsuits designed to bankrupt the firearms industry—dozens of which had been filed in the 1980s and 90s. Biden repeats the false assertion because he wants to open the door for the abusive litigation to return.

When it comes to dishonest politicians, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) takes the cake. His proposed 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution demonstrates how. Newsom’s proposal would enshrine in the Constitution “fundamental, broadly supported gun safety measures”—including an “assault weapon” ban, “universal background checks,” a prohibition on gun purchases by adults under 21 and a waiting period for all gun purchases—and allow governments to “enact additional common-sense gun safety regulations,” all, he claims, “while leaving the Second Amendment unchanged.”

Of course, if it were true that Newsom’s proposal would not diminish the Second Amendment, there would be no need for his proposal at all. It is far easier for Congress to pass his “broadly supported gun safety measures” than it is to amend the Constitution. But Newsom knows that his “broadly supported” restrictions, and countless others he hopes to impose, violate the Second Amendment, so he aims to neuter the Second Amendment while lying about the consequences, all the while cloaking his intentions in focus-group-tested words like “gun safety,” “common sense” and “gun violence.”

Other deceptions are immediately apparent. First, Americans do not “overwhelmingly support” the restrictions he would enshrine in the Constitution, as he alleges. The laws currently exist in only a small minority of states, and thus far no states’ officials, other than California’s, have introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional convention. Second, the gun controls in Newsom’s proposed amendment would not save lives. California has already imposed Newsom’s proposed gun controls and they have failed to reduce its rampant violent crime.

Even when gun-control proponents are bold enough to state their true goal of repealing the Second Amendment, they mislead Americans about the nature of their rights. Human rights—including the right to armed self-defense—are “endowed by their Creator,” as the Declaration of Independence makes clear. They are neither granted by, nor can be legitimately restricted by, government. Thus, the Second Amendment did not create the right to keep and bear arms; it merely codified that pre-existing right in the Constitution. But the right remains inviolable whether it is enshrined in the Constitution or not.

When gun-control proponents’ policy choices fail, they resort to demonizing gun owners. They argue that “assault weapons ... serve no other purpose than to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time”—meaning these proponents wish to create the false impression that the peaceable Americans who own an estimated 28-million AR-style rifles are mass-killers biding their time. They blame NRA members for inner-city violence and mass-killings. They claim that gun owners are bitter-clingers with deformed brains. America’s gun owners are mischaracterized as contemptible villains complicit in any criminal activity involving a firearm.

There are several actions Second Amendment supporters can take to combat this deception. The first step is to recognize the lack of good faith behind most efforts to restrict the right to keep and bear arms.

Gun-control proponents are largely undeterred by dishonesty, the ineffectiveness of their policies or the over-criminalization of peaceable citizens—as long as you are left disarmed and defenseless, according to them, the ends justify the means. Understanding their true motivation and their lack of principle should deter anyone from compromising rights to appease them.

The second step is to eliminate their deceptive vernacular from your vocabulary. Perpetuating their falsehoods advances their goal of abolishing your rights—they carefully craft their language for that purpose. Third, correct dishonest and misleading statements and call out hypocrisy; for example, the hypocrisy of those who claim that semi-automatic firearms “serve no other purpose than to kill as many people as possible” while they are surrounded by guards armed with those very firearms.

As Aristotle explained in his still-influential Rhetoric, one’s “character may almost be called the most-effective means of persuasion he possesses.” “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others,” he noted, but we long doubt and often resent those who deceive us.

Finally, use humor, and when appropriate, embrace ridicule. Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals that the “most potent weapons known to mankind are satire and ridicule.” Alinsky was wrong about most things, but he was right about the persuasiveness of using humor to highlight absurdities. Second Amendment proponents have used these tools effectively and should continue to do so.

Gun-control advocates have long manipulated language to shape the debate. It is essential that we all reject and parry their deceptions.



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