In 2014, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence celebrated its 40th anniversary. Actually, the CSGV celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2014, since it has only existed under that name since 1989. The organization was founded in 1974 as the National Coalition to Ban Handguns. According to Wikipedia, citing Duke University scholar Kristin Goss’s book Disarmed, the coalition changed its name in 1989 “in part because the group felt that ‘assault weapons’ as well as handguns, should be outlawed.” In part. But if that were the case, did the group feel that the National Coalition to Ban Handguns and Assault Weapons was too long? Or the National Coalition to Ban Guns was too straightforward?
I was thinking about guns and political language in connection with my recent posts on survey research and social change. Previously I referenced a blog post written by sociologist Claude Fischer. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to take a class with Professor Fischer while I was a student at UC-Berkeley, because he is one of the most astute observers of America’s social history to be sure. Perhaps the best example of this is his 2010 book, Made in America.
In his post on “Surveying Change,” Fischer highlights the importance of continuity in sampling and question wording in order to be able to track trends over time. As he quotes sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan, “If you want to measure change, don’t change the measure.”
At the same time, as Fisher points out, “there is a problem: Sometimes the words themselves change meaning.” Fischer (citing the work of Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center) gives the example of a 1953 Gallup Poll question: “Which American city do you think has the gayest night life?” That the most frequent answer was not San Francisco highlights the changing meaning of the word “gay” over time.
So, even though we can benefit from using the same survey question repeatedly over time, there is also a need to revisit questions to ensure their meaning has not fundamentally changed. The recent Change.org petition critical of a Pew Research Center question on gun rights versus gun control does not suggest that the meaning of the words in the question have changed fundamentally over time. The objection is that it presents a false choice.
But because guns are a political issue, and political advocacy organizations often do their own surveys, we do well to heed Fischer’s general advice to pay attention to the language and shifts in the language that is used to describe the phenomena that interest us.
In thinking about debates over guns, this reminded me of George Orwell’s famous essay on “Politics and the English Language.” Among other things, Orwell criticizes the political use of language, which “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
As already suggested by the National Coalition to Ban Handguns becoming the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, people in these gun debates use language in particular ways for political purposes. Other examples would include Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns. MAIG (and Bloomberg) does not only advocate against “illegal guns” but also actively campaigns to broaden the class of guns that are illegal. So should someone start a petition demanding that the group adopt a more accurate name: Mayors for Expanding Bans on Certain Types of Firearms and Against Illegal Guns?
Clearly CSGV is just following the trend of gun control organizations of trying to find the right words that will resonate with the public, like the recent re-branding of the gun control movement as a “gun safety” movement. As when Mayors Against Illegal Guns got folded into Everytown for Gun Safety.
This has obviously been met with considerable skepticism by those in the gun rights movement. But it is totally understandable. It is how politics works. It’s like the Koch Brothers calling themselves “Americans for Prosperity.” Everyone does it.
But social scientists should do all they can to not fall victim to the politicization of survey research. Being self-reflective about our work, as Fischer describes and advocates, is important.