Like many Americans, I reluctantly watched events unfolding recently at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, site of the NRA’s annual meeting. In our polarized gun debates, the two extremes were on full display, literally divided by Avenida De Las Americas. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and other (mostly) conservatives planted the flag for gun rights inside the convention center. Outside on Discovery Green, David Hogg, Beto O’Rouke, and other (mostly) liberals rallied the crowd for gun control. Neither side could or cared to hear the other.
I am a “card-carrying” liberal sociologist who became a gun owner in my forties and have been studying American gun culture since then. I have a foot in both worlds that see guns very differently. This allows me to hear how things said from one side in America’s great gun debate are heard by the other.
I understand the desire to do something, anything, in the face of exceptional and everyday tragedies involving guns. I feel the urge to scream out in anger and lash out in pain at those who appear to be standing in the way of progress. But as someone who has gotten to know a great many normal American gun owners over the past decade, I want to encourage my fellow liberals to be mindful of what they say in response to mass shootings, especially if they want to improve our national conversation about guns and find a way forward.
Read on or watch this week’s Light Over Heat video for my thoughts and suggestions.
In responding to the heinous acts of terrorism committed in Buffalo and Uvalde, it is essential for my friends advocating for gun control to understand how gun owners hear their arguments. Some demonizing language is obvious, like when protesters in Houston chanted “shame on you” and yelled “asesinos” (murderers) at NRA meeting attendees, or when commentators use terms like “insane” or “addiction” to characterize gun culture in America.
My focus here is on more subtle language that nonetheless alienates many gun owners who otherwise might engage in good-faith conversations about guns.
1. “Commonsense gun laws.”
But the adjective commonsense is not a descriptive or analytical term. It is a political term and so rhetorical and divisive. It says, if you disagree with me, then you don’t have common sense. At a time when we need more and better discussions with our fellow citizens about guns, this is a conversation-stopper.
2. “Protect children not guns.”
This phrase comes from the Children’s Defense Fund, but variations on the theme abound. For example, I saw “kids, not guns” signs on Discovery Green in Houston recently.
Few rhetorical strategies demonize one’s fellow citizens more than saying they don’t care about the safety of children. Of all people, liberals should be wary of this, having seen any number of moral crusades undertaken in the name of protecting children, including anti-porn, anti-gay, anti-trans, and anti-abortion campaigns.
3. “Other countries acted immediately to prevent mass shootings.”
This seemingly innocuous observation is commonly made following mass public shootings in the U.S. under headlines like “How to prevent gun massacres? Look around the world” and “Other Countries Had Mass Shootings. Then They Changed Their Gun Laws”. The humorous news site The Onion also regularly joins this chorus with its headline, “No way to prevent this, says only nation where this regularly happens.” Its biting satire represents a commonly held point of view among liberals.
But what are you suggesting when you uphold as models the actions of the British government following the 1996 Dunblane Primary School massacre or the Australian government following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre? You are arguing the answer to mass shootings is to ban and confiscate the most commonly owned firearms in the U.S.: semi-automatic pistols and rifles. Although my fellow liberals try to reassure gun owners that “no one wants to take your guns,” that is precisely what the British and Australian governments did. Don’t be surprised if tens of millions of gun owners leave the conversation at that point.
If we are going to make progress in reducing gun death, we need to improve our ability as Americans with diverse values and beliefs to talk to each other about guns. Arguments like those I highlight here may feel good and seem convincing. But as a long-time liberal and relatively new gun owner, I can assure you they alienate gun owners and inhibit the very conversations we desperately need to be having right now. Consequently, they impede us from progressing in our common desire to reduce gun violence.