Rhetorical Studies and the Gun Debate: A Public Policy Perspective
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Rhetorical Studies and the Gun Debate:
A Public Policy Perspective
Keywords

Gun debate, deliberation, NRA, LaPierre, Sandy Hook, Second Amendment

In the aftermath of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in January 2011—a shooting that left six people dead—the University of Arizona established a new National Institute for Civil Discourse dedicated to research, education, and public outreach on the issue of “civility in public discourse.” With much fanfare, the two honorary cochairs of the Institute, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, joined with other politicians, academics, and philanthropists in declaring that the time had come for a serious yet civil debate about guns in America. “Our country needs a setting for political debate that is both frank and civil,” Bush said in a statement announcing the creation of the Institute. Similarly, Clinton hoped that the new Institute might “elevate the tone of dialogue in our country,” leading to more productive deliberations on polarizing issues like gun violence.1

There has been plenty of incivility on both sides of the gun debate, of course, and “uncivil” or inflammatory rhetoric has been blamed for at least some of the gun violence in America.2 Yet the impasse over guns in America is rooted in more than a lack of civility. The problems are more broadly deliberative in nature—a failure of rhetorical leadership on the part of our elected leaders; propaganda and demagoguery by well-funded special interests; a culture of journalistic malpractice that privileges the polarized extremes; [End Page 359] and the framing of the issue as a matter of individual rights versus public safety. As a result, our leaders are not held accountable for their failure to act, and the public good has been held hostage to special interest politics. For a variety of reasons, we just cannot seem to break the deliberative deadlock over guns and gun violence in America, and that failure contributes to the loss of some 30,000 lives each year.3

How did we get trapped in this deadly cycle of gun violence, deliberative dysfunction, and political inaction? Laura Collins suggests part of the answer. Focusing on the psychology of gun owners in the United States, she helps to account for why regulating guns is viewed by some as part of a broader assault on their constitutional rights, their personal identity, and their way of life. For some gun rights activists, any talk of “gun control” represents the entering wedge of a conspiracy to destroy their culture and traditions. For these people, gun control legislation is not just bad public policy but a personal affront. These people are not open to persuasion. They are what Eric Hoffer famously labeled “true believers.”4

There are “true believers” on the other side as well, of course. Dwelling on the horrors of gun violence, they sidestep the issues of rights and causation raised by gun rights activists, and they assume rather than prove the efficacy of various plans for restricting gun ownership. Moreover, they sometimes display a remarkable insensitivity to the culture and lifestyle of hunters and other gun owners in America—an insensitivity epitomized by Barack Obama’s infamous remark about “bitter” Americans who “cling to guns or religion…asa way to explain their frustrations.”5 No wonder gun owners often resent the “gun haters,” whom they view as bent on not merely stripping them of their Second Amendment rights but on destroying their whole way of life.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans are neither “gun nuts” nor “gun haters,” and therein lies a glimmer of hope that something might be done about the epidemic of gun violence in America. For that to happen, however, we need an honest, open, and robust debate over guns and gun violence—the sort of debate that empowers the American people to make informed judgments and take political action. We need a debate that marshals the best expertise and engages a wide variety of stakeholders, from gun manufacturers and law enforcement agencies, to hunters and sport shooters, educators, parents, and victims’ rights groups. And we need journalists [End Page 360] to mediate that debate with a...