To Change Gun Laws, Control the Debate
On the Wednesday after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, President Barack Obama called for changes in gun laws to prevent similar tragedies in the future. He said:
“We may never know all the reasons why this tragedy happened. We do know that every day since more Americans have died of gun violence. We know such violence has terrible consequences for our society. And if there is only one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events we have a deep obligation – all of us – to try. Over these past five days a discussion has re-emerged as to what we might do not only to deter mass shootings in the future, but to reduce the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every single day.”
Later that day, Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — where any such legislation must originate — responded:
“We’re going to take a look at what happened there and what can be done to help avoid it in the future, but gun control is not going to be something I support.”
Therein lies the challenge in American politics, policy, and governance: preventing gun violence is OK, but gun control is not.
And paradoxically, Congressman Goodlatte’s statement also holds the path to the solution. The key to changing gun laws is to keep the focus on controlling gun violence, not on gun control.
Those who want to restrict the kinds of people who have access to firearms, and the kinds of firearms they have access to, often use the phrase gun control to describe their agenda.
But as we see with Congressman Goodlatte’s comment, even people who want to prevent future gun violence balk at the very idea of gun control.
Words matter. Words trigger frames: worldviews that determine the meaning of what follows. What we think makes sense is what makes sense within the frame. What we think doesn’t make sense is what is inconsistent with the frame. And we typically aren’t persuaded by anything outside the frame. To move people, we need to control the frame.
Control the Frame, Control the Debate
But throughout the recent debate, advocates of tighter gun policy keep using the words gun control and preventing gun violence as if they’re interchangeable. They are not. They trigger dramatically different frames.
President Obama, wisely, did not use the phrase gun control. He knew that phrase is fraught with meaning for gun rights advocates. He knew that using the phrase triggers a frame that inhibits good-faith discussion of common-sense regulation. Others have not been as careful or as disciplined.
For gun rights advocates, gun control is seen as a battle over individual liberties of gun owners against an oppressive and overbearing government. When gun rights advocates say they need guns for protection, they often mean protection from the government. Within the gun control frame, rights are a zero-sum game: the more rights gun owners give up the more powerful, and therefore more dangerous, the government becomes. So in a gun control frame, gun rights advocates resist even small measures that seem to make sense to others: trigger locks; waiting periods, background checks; bans on certain kinds of weapons or high-capacity ammunition clips.
But preventing gun violence or protecting our children from gun violence triggers a different frame. Here the struggle isn’t between gun owners and the government, but between those who use guns responsibly and those who don’t. And within this frame even gun rights advocates can concede common-sense reforms. As President Obama pointed out,
“The good news is there’s already a growing consensus for us to build from. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. A majority of Americans support laws requiring background checks before all gun purchases so that criminals can’t take advantage of legal loopholes to buy a gun from somebody who won’t take the responsibility of doing a background check at all.”
That majority of Americans includes gun owners; even gun rights advocates.
Giving Political Cover
But progressives and others who are now calling for reform are inadvertently causing self-inflicted harm to their cause.
Every time they go on television and call for gun control, they rally people against them. They need to be as disciplined as President Obama was in his speech: They need to keep the focus on preventing gun violence and protecting our children. Within that frame even gun rights advocates can agree to changes. And politicians who fear the consequences of voting against the interests of gun owners can get some political cover, making them less likely to reflexively resist changes to gun policy.
An Inflection Point
The Newtown shooting has captured the public’s attention even more than other recent tragedies, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tucson to Aurora. Unlike other mass shootings, this one seems to be an inflection point in what is possible. President Obama said as much in his speech:
“And it’s encouraging that people of all different backgrounds and beliefs and political persuasions have been willing to challenge some old assumptions and to change longstanding positions.”
“From this day forward, nothing can ever be the same again… Let this be our true landmark … politicians can no longer be allowed to defend the status quo.”
Scarborough described himself as a conservative who as a congressman had a perfect rating from the National Rifle Association. He said of the Sandy Hook shooting:
“I knew that day that the ideologies of my past career were no longer relevant to the future that I want, that I demand for my children. Friday changed everything. It must change everything. We all must begin anew and demand that Washington’s old way of doing business is no longer acceptable. Entertainment moguls don’t have an absolute right to glorify murder while spreading mayhem in young minds across America. And our Bill of Rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-style, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want.
It is time for Congress to put children before deadly dogmas. It’s time for politicians to start focusing more on protecting our schoolyards than putting together their next fundraiser. It’s time for Washington to stop trying to win endless wars overseas when we’re losing the war at home … For the sake of my four children and yours, I choose life and I choose change.”
Mr. Scarborough got the frame right. He moved from one position – reflexive resistance to restrictions on gun ownership – to a new one – protecting children from violence. And he called on his former congressional colleagues to do the same.
Those who share these views need to keep the discussion on those terms, in that frame.
NRA’s Self-Inflicted Harm
And the National Rifle Association may have inadvertently made this easier to do. The NRA caused even more harm to its cause when, after a five-day silence, it said it would “offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again” in a press conference a few days later.
Those contributions, in the end, proved to be just more of the same: Armed guards in every school.
Even those who normally support the NRA reacted negatively. The New York Post even called the NRA’s Executive Director Wayne Lapierre a “gun nut” who went “off the deep end,” a loon in [a] bizarre rant over Newtown.”
The NRA’s mishandling of the Newtown aftermath provides an opening for those who need to influence gun owners and even gun advocates: Keep the focus on preventing gun violence. Politicians who would otherwise fear the NRA will have a harder time resisting their own constituents who call on them to keep kids safe.
Getting it Done
President Obama has tasked Vice President Joe Biden, who as senator authored the original bill that contained the assault weapons ban (which expired in 2004), to head an initiative to make meaningful changes to gun laws in January.
The time window is small but the opportunity is big. Most of the movable middle is already in the prevent gun violence frame. Vice President Biden and his allies need to keep them there. That will help provide the political cover they need to get the votes that will be necessary to change the law.
If we are to move people we need to meet them where they are and move them with us. The gun control frame repels gun owners away from those who would change gun laws; the prevent gun violence frame at least keeps the discussion going, and may even move people to meaningful reform.