I confess from the start of this: I enjoy unproductive talk. Boasting, bloviating, berating, shouting, snarking, and swearing are all pleasures, indulged with little if any guilt. My purpose is not to condemn such behavior. How could I? We just brought on Marc Randazza and the man swears like a drunken Newark stevedore with his dick caught in a French press.
At least most of the time, I grasp that my self-indulgence doesn't accomplish much. It pleases me, it entertains like-minded people, and it reaffirms that which people already believe.
But it doesn't persuade. It neither seeks nor finds common ground.
Much of our modern American dialogue about gun rights and gun control is like that. We yell, we signal to the like-minded, we circle our wagons, we take shots at opponents. But we don't change minds. Take a look at the discussion of guns on your Facebook feed right now. Do you think it's going to build a majority on any issue?
Say we wanted to have a productive conversation. Imagine we wanted to identify our irreducible philosophical and practical differences, seek any areas of agreement, persuade anyone on the fence, and change some minds. What might we do?
Gun Talk Is Cultural Talk, And Culture Matters
First, we'd have to stop framing the debate in terms that suggest "I hate you and everyone like you. I hate how you live your life."
Most of our talk about guns is cultural signalling. We use guns as shorthand for a bundle of ideas. I saw this on my Facebook feed last week:
I'm sure this felt good to the people who made it and distributed it, and to the like-minded people who saw it. But it didn't persuade anyone — other than, perhaps, a few more people to vote Republican. It's a classic example of guns-as-culture. In this bundle, guns mean Republican, guns mean conservative, guns mean not liking President Obama, guns mean religious, guns mean socially traditional, guns mean rural, guns mean football and Nascar and using fewer than five words to order coffee. The intended message may be "fuck the people who don't seriously debate gun control because they accept vast campaign donations and they are afraid of NRA-led primary attacks and who refuse to even consider whether there's something we can do about madmen spraying crowds of innocents with bullets." But your message is "fuck you and your flyover-country Daddy teaching you to shoot in the woods behind the house when you were twelve and fuck the church you went to afterwards."
This goes for both sides. Consider this, also recently popular:
Your intended message may be "the government doesn't get to determine my rights based on its assessment of what I 'need," nor do fellow citizens who may arbitrarily determine I don't 'need' a wide variety of things based on their concerns." But what you are conveying is that "the people who want gun control are God-hating, kale-chewing, coastal-elite socialists who want to imprison your pastor for not marrying gays."
A lot of this is deliberate. We use culture-bundling to get out the vote, or to associate one policy position with another one. It's as American as apple pie. But is it working for you here? Reasonable gun control advocates, how far will you get with the message "a vote for reasonable gun control is a 'fuck you' to the hicks"? Gun control opponents, for how long do you think you'll thrive with "allowing gun control is like allowing gay marriage"?
If you want to culture-bundle, have fun. But don't pretend you're actually going to change anything.
Gun Terminology Matters
If we had the "reasonable gun control" I keep hearing about, what guns would be limited? I'm arguably not a complete idiot, but I can't figure it out. I hear "nobody wants to take away all your guns" a lot — which seems demonstrably false — but what guns do gun-control advocates want to take away, or restrict? Most of the time I don't know and I suspect that the advocates don't know either.
That's because there's a terminology gap. Many people advocating for gun control mangle and misuse descriptive words about guns. No doubt some of them are being deliberately ambiguous, but I think most people just haven't educated themselves on the meaning of a relatively small array of terms. That's how you get a debate framed around gibberish like "multi-automatic round weapons" and the like. You get people using "semi-automatic" and "automatic" without knowing what they mean, and you get the term "assault weapon" thrown about as if it means more than whatever we choose to make it mean, which it does not.
If you don't understand these terms already, why should you care? You should care because when you misuse them, you signal substantially broader gun restrictions than you may actually be advocating. So, for instance, if you have no idea what semi-automatic means, but you've heard it and it sounds scary, and you assume that it means some kind of machine gun, so you argue semi-automatics should be restricted, you've just conveyed that most modern handguns (save for revolvers) should be restricted, even if that's not what you meant.
It's hard to grasp the reaction of someone who understands gun terminology to someone who doesn't. So imagine we're going through one of our periodic moral panics over dogs and I'm trying to persuade you that there should be restrictions on, say, Rottweilers.
Me: I don't want to take away dog owners' rights. But we need to do something about Rottweilers.
You: So what do you propose?
Me: I just think that there should be some sort of training or restrictions on owning an attack dog.
You: Wait. What's an "attack dog?"
Me: You know what I mean. Like military dogs.
You: Huh? Rottweilers aren't military dogs. In fact "military dogs" isn't a thing. You mean like German Shepherds?
Me: Don't be ridiculous. Nobody's trying to take away your German Shepherds. But civilians shouldn't own fighting dogs.
You: I have no idea what dogs you're talking about now.
Me: You're being both picky and obtuse. You know I mean hounds.
You: What the fuck.
Me: OK, maybe not actually ::air quotes:: hounds ::air quotes::. Maybe I have the terminology wrong. I'm not obsessed with vicious dogs like you. But we can identify kinds of dogs that civilians just don't need to own.
You: Can we?
Because I'm just talking out of my ass, the impression I convey is that I want to ban some arbitrary, uninformed category of dogs that I can't articulate. Are you comfortable that my rule is going to be drawn in a principled, informed, narrow way?
So. If you'd like to persuade people to accept some sort of restrictions on guns, consider educating yourself so you understand the terminology that you're using. And if you're reacting to someone suggesting gun restrictions, and they seem to suggest something nonsensical, consider a polite question of clarification about terminology.
Rights Matter. Too Bad We Suck At Discussing Them.
Seven years ago in District of Columbia v. Heller a bare majority of the Supreme Court agreed that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms. Plenty of folks like that; plenty of folks don't. But even if we had a consensus about whether or not their interpretation is correct, we'd still be talking past each other, because we're terrible at talking about rights.
I hear "my right not to be shot outweighs your right to own a gun." This strikes me as perfectly idiotic. But it's no more idiotic than an imagined right not to be criticized or offended, which is far more popular in modern America.
We've lost the plot. We don't know where rights come from, we don't know or care from whom they protect us, we don't know how to analyze proposed restrictions to them, and brick by brick we've built a culture that scorns rights in the face of real or imagined risks. It is therefore inevitable that talk about Second Amendment rights will be met with scorn or shrugs, and that discussions of what restrictions on rights are permissible will be mushy and unprincipled.
Last night the President of the United States — the President of the United States — suggested that people should be deprived of Second Amendment rights if the government, using secret criteria, in a secret process using secret facts, puts them onto a list that is almost entirely free of due process or judicial review. Because we're afraid, because they could be dangerous was his only justification; he didn't engage the due process issue at all. But he was merely sauntering down a smooth, comfortable, well-lit road paved by most Republicans and Democrats before him since the rise of "tough on crime" rhetoric and especially since 9/11. The President — and other Democrats — may hope that Americans will trust progressives not to overreach in restricting rights. That hope is patently misplaced; Democrats and mainstream progressives haven't been worth a squirt of hot piss on due process or criminal justice rights for more than a generation. In the Great War on Terror and the Great War on Drugs, they're like Bill Murray in Stripes: mildly counter-cultural and occasionally a little mouthy but enthusiastically using the same weapons in the same fight against the same perceived enemy.
And Republicans! Don't get me started. You can't sneer at constitutional rights for a decade and a half and then expect them to be a credible shield when you abruptly decide they matter again. With few exceptions, Republicans arguing about Second Amendment rights resemble a kid becoming a sudden rules-lawyer halfway through a game of Calvinball.
Gun control opponents complain that gun control advocates don't respect their rights and don't seriously engage the topic of rights. Fair enough. But that conversation can't happen until we make an effort to repair how we talk about constitutional rights in general. We might even improve how we address the philosophical underpinnings of our entire society while we're at it.
If a prominent gun control opponent said, "I've made some mistakes since 9/11. Here they are. Here's how I'm going to avoid them in the future. And here's why I don't want to make them again on guns," I would listen very carefully to that person's arguments. If a prominent gun control advocate said "here's how we've fallen down on respecting rights since 9/11. Here's how we can approach this problem in a way that respects rights that can be a model for governing in the face of danger and fear in general," I would listen.
But if you just want to vent? I've got Facebook for that, thanks.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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