Don't Call It 'Gun Control'

Proponents, including the president, are looking for a less politically charged term for firearm regulation, but none has managed to catch on.


Language in politics can be a powerful thing, shaping perceptions and framing the terms of debate. When President Obama and Vice President Biden announced the administration's new gun proposals Wednesday, they didn't use the words "gun control" a single time. Instead, they spoke over and over about "gun violence," "reducing gun violence," and "gun-violence legislation."

The terminology is the latest effort by gun-control activists to get rid of the term "gun control," the same way estate-tax opponents always talk about abolishing the "death tax," gay-marriage activists now prefer to talk about "marriage equality," and advocates for the rights of illegal immigrants carefully refer to them as "undocumented workers." Whether you see these terms as laudably neutral or Orwellian attempts at culture-shaping probably depends on your view of the issues involved.

"Gun control" has obvious liabilities -- as a phrase, it conjures images of confiscation, reinforcing the National Rifle Association's allegation that the government is coming to take away the firearms of law-abiding citizens. The problem is, after years of proposing a range of alternatives, activists haven't succeeded in getting anything other than "gun control" to lodge in the public or media consciousness.

Here are some of the potential alternatives -- and why they've failed to catch on.

1. Gun-violence prevention: This one has found favor with the president and his top allies. The Center for American Progress this week put out a memo urging supporters to use the term.

Drawbacks: It's more words and syllables than "gun control." It lacks specificity -- preventing gun violence could apply to approaches that don't involve regulating firearms at all -- and sounds like what it is: a cumbersome euphemism.

2. Gun safety: Also showing up in a lot of headlines today, this term puts the emphasis on the idea that guns are fine, they just have to be handled wisely.

Drawbacks: It sounds like the title of a firearms-training course, which it often is. Confusing.

3. Firearms regulation: Those seeking maximum precision sometimes call on this multisyllabic mouthful, which makes the subject crystal clear.

Drawbacks: If you're trying to avoid setting off alarm bells among the conservative-minded who might react poorly to "control," "regulation" isn't much of an improvement.

4. Illegal guns: New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, chose this phrase for its name in 2006, reflecting its initial emphasis on background checks and gun trafficking.

Drawbacks: Where some of the other terms are too vague, this one risks being too specific, applying only to those firearms that have already been outlawed. As the mayors' group has broadened its focus, its supporters have become more apt to use "gun-violence prevention" as well.

5. Criminal access to guns: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied for this phrase in a talk at the Center for American Progress on Monday, with the reasoning that even staunch Second Amendment supporters don't believe criminals should be able to get guns.

Drawbacks: A mouthful. And like "illegal guns," it seems to narrow the focus to issues like background checks that may not be activists' only goal.