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Ego Function (Rhetoric), Firearms, Gun Control, Open Carry Movement, Second Amendment

On June 10, 2014, Emilio Hoffman was shot and killed in a gym locker room and a teacher was wounded in a Troutdale, Oregon school.1 The shooter killed himself after a shootout with police.2 Two days earlier, a couple shot two police officers at point blank range in a restaurant, covered one of them with a Gadsden flag and a swastika, and then later killed an armed civilian who tried to stop them in a Walmart. They died by their own hands.3 On June 5,2014, a gunman at Seattle Pacific University shot one student and injured two others before being stopped with pepper spray and disarmed by a student.4 This came on the heels of another shooting in May in Isla Vista, California, where a man stabbed his three roommates to death, shot and killed three others, and injured 13 others—eight by gunshot and four by hitting them with his car. He died by his own hand.5 Similar incidents have received widespread attention: Newtown, Connecticut; Virginia Tech; and Fort Hood stand out in recent memory because of their coverage by the mass media. However, these events represent only a small fraction of gun violence in the United States. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that “on average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day and 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.”6

As was the case in the killings at Thurston High School, Columbine High School, and Virginia Tech, many expected stronger gun control legislation [End Page 333] in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, in which a man killed 27 people including himself and injured two others at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty first-grade children were killed in this incident. In response, the National Rifle Association (NRA) doubled down and argued that the solution was more guns, with NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre repeating the familiar refrain that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”7 This would be cold comfort for the individuals killed in the events described above, however, because none of these individuals was stopped by a “good guy with a gun.” Most were stopped by their own guns. The one exception where the shooter did not turn the gun on him or herself was the shooter at Seattle Pacific University, who was stopped by nonlethal means. Even so, recent gun control efforts eventually petered out, largely due to intense lobbying by the NRA.

What is particularly striking in all of this discourse surrounding gun rights and gun control is how gun-rights advocates have managed to maintain the narrative that these are all isolated incidents. The popular satire news website The Onion lampoons this stance with their article “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”8 But in the worldview of gun-rights advocates, gun owners are the true protectors of safety, oppressed by a government that seeks to destroy their constitutional rights. In this essay, I will describe how gun-rights discourse draws on what Richard B. Gregg called the “ego-function” of protest rhetoric.9 Like Laura Collins, I explore this stance through the lens of the “open carry” movement.10 However, rather than using comments from online fora, which seem to bring out the extreme fringes and increased intensity, I will focus mainly on official channels that usually generate more measured discourse.11

Are Rights Ever Settled?

Collins suggests that “if it is a settled matter that the right is protected and that all are free to exercise that right, the political movement around it collapses. In this sense, a politics oriented toward the preservation of a right requires the perpetuation of that tension rather than the achievement of a goal or purpose.”12 This is not, however, news since rights are always a rhetorical construction. If we are to look for “natural rights,” Thomas Hobbes provides insightful guidance suggesting...


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