Here are some phrases President Barack Obama uttered in a speech at the White House last week: “gun violence,” “gun rights,” “gun possession,” “gun safety,” “gun laws.”
Here is a term he did not use: “gun control.”
This isn’t surprising. Advocates for tougher gun laws have for years edged away from “gun control” as a way of referring to gun regulations. The word “control” suggests government overreach, the opposite of what they want to evoke.
“How you label things has consequences,” said Robert Spitzer, the chair of the political-science department at SUNY Cortland, and the author of five books about gun policy. “It is important. We know rhetoric matters. It’s a reinforcing effect, I think, to a great degree.”
That’s been the case for as long as guns have been politicized in the United States, which is to say, always. And while gun-related imagery and terminology remains ubiquitous in American culture, the way people talk about guns has changed over time.
Many of these changes, arguably most of them, are steeped in politics. “Bill Clinton changed the rhetoric of the gun-control side when he talked about having guns with ‘child-safety locks,’” Spitzer said. Choosing to include the word “child” was deliberate, a way of appealing to people’s emotions. Implicit in that word choice is the idea that gun laws are about protecting children.
But “gun laws” aren’t just “gun laws” today; they’re often “gun-safety laws,” a way of highlighting the reasoning behind stricter regulations among those advocating for them. “Gun-control organizations increasingly like to refer to themselves as gun-safety organizations,” Spitzer said. “That’s a clear rhetorical change on their part. The language in the debate matters a great deal.”
“Gun control” as we know it today hasn’t actually been around that long. Before the 1960s, “gun control” referred to the technology of weaponry—actual devices, like the gun-control systems on Naval ships designed to turn, level, and sight machine guns automatically. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, “gun control” took on new meaning. As lawmakers advocated for regulations that would make it harder for people to buy guns, newspapers ran articles and editorials with headlines like “The Gun and How to Control It,” and “Gun Control Needed.”
“The Kennedy assassination begins the process that culminates in the Gun Control Act of 1968,” Spitzer said. The message: Guns were a problem that needed to be controlled. And “gun control” is right there in the name of the law. It was around the same time that Americans began focusing on the nation’s “gun culture” and evoking the language of the second amendment in a way that hadn’t been a prominent part of the debate on gun rules previously.
For instance, in 1934, as Congress debated what Spitzer calls the “first modern, significant gun regulations,” representatives of the National Rifle Association testified in hearings related to the proposed legislation. “Most of the testimony was from two officials of the NRA,” Spitzer told me. “No direct reference to the Second Amendment or the right to bear arms. None. And it isn’t really until the 1960s that you begin to see the NRA saying, ‘Oh, yes, there is the right to bear arms.’ It begins to escalate in the 1960s with their rhetoric. And in the 1970s, it becomes ubiquitous.”
That change came at a time when the NRA was shifting its focus; as the organization doubled down on its political involvement, it opted for messaging that came from the Constitution. (This also happened, not coincidentally, around the same time as the 1966 publication of an influential book by Carl Bakal, The Right to Bear Arms, which argued that more guns unequivocally meant more violence.)
“And now the utterance of Second Amendment is literally a synonym for anything related to guns,” Spitzer said. “It is uttered incessantly and used in any possible connection. You can’t even count how many times that kind of wording appears in [NRA] speeches and so on. But that rhetoric really only becomes significant in the last several decades. What it really ties to is the great importance Americans attach to anything you can attach to the Constitution.”
In other words, the language people use when talking about guns is often designed to appeal to Americans’ deepest sense of cultural identity, an image that has been crafted and reinforced by gun imagery and mythology for centuries. “That imagery, from the mythology of the flintlock-toting yeoman … to the urban soldier in the 1960s,” Spitzer said. “This is all wrapped up in a single bundle of individualism, personal initiative, the protection of liberty, and many other values that have been lumped together.”
The link between guns and American identity is so profound that even when people aren’t talking about guns, they often use gun-related descriptions. Something that’s ready to go is “locked and loaded,” strategic missteps are “misfires,” people “shoot” for their goals, and antagonistic remarks are observed thusly: “shots fired.”
“No wonder it is hard to get rid of gun violence when Washington cannot even get rid of gun vocabulary,” Peter Baker wrote for The New York Times in 2013. “The vernacular of guns suffuses the political and media conversation in ways that politicians and journalists are often not even conscious of, underscoring the historical power of guns in the American experience. Candidates ‘target’ their opponents, lawmakers ‘stick to their guns,’ advocacy groups ‘take aim’ at hostile legislation and reporters write about a White House ‘under fire.’”
The prevalence of these expressions feeds back into a culture that includes guns as a crucial part of the American story, an image that gun manufacturers have perpetuated for profit. “One of the chief marketing ploys was to glamorize handguns as tools used by Western pioneers,” Spitzer said.
Yet gun laws at the time when early settlers were fanning out across the United States, he says, were more strict than they are today. “As settlers moved west in the 19th century, one of the very first things that was done was to enact anti-carry laws. If you came to a village, you had to check [your gun] at the sheriff’s office. Every state except three enacted laws barring or severely restricting the concealed carry of firearms,” Spitzer said. “We see in the last 30 years the exact opposite phenomenon. The implicit argument for doing it is, ‘This is our tradition and Americans need to be responsible for their own safety,’ but in fact our history is sort of flipped. Regulations were much stricter in the so-called Wild West than they have been in the past 30 years.”
Misperceptions about the actual history of gun laws, Spitzer believes, are rooted in pop culture. People were fascinated by these tales of shootouts, and “exaggerated or grossly distorted” versions of actual events often traveled farther than truth. As Adam Winkler points out in his book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, even Dodge City, Kansas—the legendary frontier town once home to the gunslinger Wyatt Earp—had a prominent street sign displayed in 1879 that read, “The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.”
The term “carry” is itself curious in the history of gun-related language. Though its modern connotations seem relatively neutral, the word’s etymological history reveals a different meaning. In the 16th century, for instance, “carry” was used to describe taking something by force. It’s perhaps notable that Obama, in his speech last week, didn’t talk about people illegally carrying guns; but instead referred to illegal gun “possession,” a term that evokes other criminal activity, like drug dealing.
In his remarks, Obama pointed out another pronounced facet of language related to gun discourse in the United States: the script politicians use in the aftermath of gun violence. “There is a ritual about this whole thing that I have to do,” he said. That ritual, for many politicians, means offering “thoughts and prayers” in canned statements—words that, for many Americans, have come to represent government inaction more than genuine concern for victims or legitimate interest in improving gun safety.
Here’s how The New York Times described the narrative arc of a shooting death in America: “A shot rings out in the crowd. A president, a senator, a civil rights leader falls. Some hits, some near-misses. An outcry for a few days about gun-control laws. The rifle lobby fires up its old propaganda: Constitutional right to bear arms; disarm criminals not people; it’s not guns that do the killing but untrained persons, etc. And terror stalks the street again, as American as apple pie and assassination.”
That was published in 1975. Which reveals, more than four decades later, that although the words people use to talk about guns in America have changed, the larger conversation about gun violence in this country seems to have remained the same.
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This article is part of our With Great Power project, which is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.