How To Talk About Gun Legislation — It's 'Responsibility' Not 'Control'

MiltShookTwitterChat.pngDemocrats and Progressives have been talking about Gun Control for decades, and where has that gotten us?

Gun-lovers will always win any debate about gun "control," not because they're right on the issue, but because they will argue against the concept of being controlled, railing about their freedom.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Using right wing frames reinforces them as true, even in our own minds.

Using our own frame while making it one that appeals to conservative-thinking people can get them thinking differently about an issue, which makes us winners, not "weenies."

The Right has built the foundation of their political philosophy on the notion of personal responsibility. So when we tell them we want to institute Gun Responsibility Laws, how are they going to argue against that?

They'll try to fall back on their standard arguments, but they will fail because being responsible is not the same as taking away their "freedom." And they know this, because they preach this.

When we argue for Gun "Control" we feed right into their anger at the government wanting to control everything in their lives. Never mind that their side legislates control over our lives in the bedroom and in our bodies; they see that as virtuous, so we will never win on this platform.

Language matters. If it didn't matter, Frank Luntz would never have become the star of the right-wing messaging machine and we wouldn't have lost the battle for stronger national health care legislation because of non-existent Death Panels, we wouldn't be using the term Death Tax, and we wouldn't be hearing Democrats still calling employers "job creators" when they're not, just to name a few success stories from Luntz's playbooks.

Progressives must come to understand this and adopt this approach or we are destined to forever lose the messaging war just to spite the noses on our faces.

Gun "Control" is the right wing's frame and by forcing us to continually use it, they win, every single time. Why? Because the natural flow of a conversation about gun control will be to talk about the role of government in our lives. And the right is desperate to keep you talking about the role of government because they hate government. And they will shout "FREEDOM! FREEDOM! FREEDOM!" until you're ready to poke your own eyes out so you don't have to see it anymore.

We must stop letting ourselves be sucked into talking about the important issues of our time using the frames they've created as a means to defeat us without even getting to the meat of an argument.

As every language expert will tell you, it's critical that we create our own frames for our policies and draw the other side into debating on our playing field. Make them explain why they should be allowed to continue to be irresponsible. It's a losing argument for them.

When we shape the dialog on this issue to one of responsibility, at a minimum we win the middle, and in the end we get the gun "control" we want just by appealing to people's moral core of the need for responsibility.

With this language we are shifting the conversation away from the government doing something to people and demanding they step up to the plate with them taking personal responsibility.

  • Gun Control is a Right Wing frame.
  • Using their frame misdirects the conversation to the role of government and away from the role of a responsible society.
  • Gun Responsibility evokes the conservative moral trigger that guides their acceptance of an idea.
  • With Gun Responsibility we win the "freedom" argument.
  • With Gun Responsibility we get to direct the conversation to the kind of responsibility people should have to take, which takes government out of the discussion.

We have an incredible opportunity to make sweeping changes to how our society both legislates and views guns in our nation. Just because a simple majority agree that something needs to be done today does not mean we will be able to hold onto that majority if we don't frame how we want to move forward in a way that continues to resonate with them. For decades the Right have been able to maintain the majority support for guns because they stop all conversation of reform by evoking people's natural defense against being controlled. They are fighting tooth and nail right now using that same frame and we are falling for it again.

A commentator on one of the MSNBC shows this week had to try to couch his position by saying, "I don't want to control guns; I want to control assault weapons."

What did that statement do? Repeated their frame ... twice. And what does repeating their frames do? It reinforces it!

Instead of trying to define what we mean, which falls on deaf ears (because they will shut us out the moment they hear "control" in any context), we need more meaningful words that will resonate with those who don't already think like we do. And we know the "personal responsibility" frame works with Republicans, Libertarians, and Conservatives of all stripes.

From a discussion on Facebook with an ardent gun rights advocate opposed to an assault weapons ban:

"Just to be clear, I do believe that the current state of society is broken and our current laws have a lot to do with it. This spans the entire gambit of current societal norms. I am fully committed to debating and implementing ideas and legislation to make things better. I will not support idea that robbing people of their rights (as they have been up until now) is the way to handle the situation. Education, training, and personal responsibility are the first steps I see that would make a real difference."

Straight from the horse's mouth, so-to-speak.

Read this article by political language guru George Lakoff: The Price of Our Freedom. Count the number of times he uses the word "responsibility" or its variants (5). Count the number of times he uses the word "control" (0).

This is how we all need to be talking about this issue: as one of responsibility — responsibility towards society, responsibility to our neighbors, our own personal responsibility, etc. Do this and we will win this debate.

Now read: It's Past Time For Talk; It's Now Time For Decisive Action To Protect Us From Gun Violence »

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Showing 6 reactions


commented 2013-01-16 14:18:24 -0800 · Flag
Thanks for the comment 99er – it would be great to hear what he has to say once he’s thought your statement over for a while.
commented 2013-01-16 12:14:59 -0800 · Flag
I was engaged with someone about this issue, and his side of the argument was that he had a personal responsibility as a gun owner, but not one that could be enforced.

He didn’t reply to this comment: "What you do (as a gun owner, in this case) affects the people around you. They’re impacted by your choices, whether they want to be or not. "
commented 2013-01-13 14:48:19 -0800 · Flag
Thanks, Matt, Karoli & Thomas, for your thoughtful feedback.

Matt, “regulation” is another code word that the right wing gets their panties in a wad over. That may be what it is, but it’s still a word that “bristles.” The object of framing isn’t simply to change words; any wordsmith can do that. The point is to use language that evokes a moral position. Being responsible is moral, and it’s a moral held in high regard by conservative-minded people. That’s why we chose it.

Karoli, same thing. I know there are groups out there pushing for the language to be changed to gun “safety,” and if that’s what ends up sticking, we wont’ exactly complain. But safety doesn’t trigger a moral response, whereas responsibility does. It may feel like a distinction without a difference at the beginning, but when we see how society responds to the acceptance of responsibility for gun ownership in far greater numbers than we could ever achieve by demanding government control, we’ll see the fruits of our efforts in this regard.

Thomas, this isn’t merely a code word; if it were it would be easy to undress, akin to “right to work” being code for “right to get union benefits without having to pay union dues.” That’s code. We want exactly what we’re saying: responsibility. Make sense?
commented 2013-01-13 14:10:28 -0800 · Flag
All your going to do is turn “Gun Responsibility” into a code word for confiscation while still not dealing with the all the secondary issues that give rise to gun violence: Poverty, drug abuse, etc.

Taking my pistol or AR15 isn’t going to keep a broken-minded person from causing havoc or keep an inner city drug dealer from shooting someone over drug dealing territory.
commented 2013-01-13 13:55:47 -0800 · Flag
Gun safety laws are another way to say it. Completely agree with the “control” concept.
commented 2013-01-13 13:40:37 -0800 · Flag
Great post! Gun “control” is exactly the right phrase for stirring the passions of gun owners against whatever legislation you want to enact. I prefer the term “gun regulation” because it’s right there in the 2nd Amendment.