On the Language and Culture of Discussing What to Do About Guns

A memorial to victims of gun violence in 2013 (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Previously in this series:

Two readers with suggestions on talking and thinking about guns.

First, how we talk:

I’m struck by the central role language might be playing in impeding agreement on gun measures. In large part, this revolves around the manner in which words fall upon the ears of gun owners and the effect that has on gaining their (disclosure: our) cooperation (assuming this is truly sought).

Often the way gun control people call for regulation immediately discredits them in the eyes of the gun community or allows for far too-easy caricature.

Some examples are well-worn—for instance, the continued misuse of the term “automatic” instead of “semiautomatic.” Failing to make that distinction unfortunately provides an immediate off-ramp when it comes to engaging skeptical gun owners (assuming this is truly sought). Other examples (trivial as they may seem) include “clip” for “magazine”, “silencer” for “suppressor”, or “AK” vs “AR.”

We normally expect those seeking to regulate practices or products to have at least a passing knowledge of the same. If legislative debate confused wheels with tires (in the case of automotive regulation), ailerons with flaps (in the case of aviation), Oxycontin with Oxycodone (in the case of opioids), it would invite unnecessary obstacles to progress.

In more reasonable times or topics, we could get past inexact language either through faith in one another and/or the education that comes through civil exchange. That’s not where we are. Rather, what we have is a predominant viewpoint (additional reasonable gun regulations) confronting an intense, single-issue-voting, gun-identitarian minority saturated for decades with the doomsday fear and loathing of the NRA.

Gaining the active cooperation of much of gun-owning America (if that is truly sought) will require something that's likely distasteful for everyone else: linguistic forbearance. What this really amounts to is talking a jittery, maybe not entirely rationale, segment of gun owners down from the ledge. And that might best start with careful (and if it can be mustered, respectful) talk.

If it seems unfair to place a burden of temperance and care on what to many is the good side—that’s because it is. But it may also be a price worth paying for progress.

So, a couple of suggestions in addition to boning up on firearm lexicon.

If it isn’t a ban, don’t call it a ban. “Assault weapons ban” legislation is, as far as I can see, anything but. For example, Sen. Feinstein’s S. 2095 (“Assault Weapons Ban of 2017”) doesn’t ban any existing weapon. It proposes to stop the sale of future types of firearm, but would grandfather-in the estimated 15 million AR-style firearms already in possession. (The performative measures of the bill when it comes to actual, physical, I-can-hold-them-in-my-hands guns, have more to do with magazine limits and firearm storage.) Yet the title of the bill, which plays well in some electorally-important circles, renders it DOA with a lot of gun owners (if that’s a factor in finding a solution.)

If you don’t plan on confiscating guns, quit pointing to Australia. This reaches beyond linguistics into political strategy, but if what we desire is a more dialed-down, let’s-work-together dialogue (knowing one party to that dialogue is mistakenly, but nonetheless deeply, scared shitless of more regulation), just leave Australia out of it. Period. I know it’s hard, given what a golden sheen that action has for some in the gun control community—but it’s anathema to most gun owners and their incontrovertible proof of the Gun Controller’s Final Solution. For purposes of moving forward within our unique, definitely-not-Australian legal framework and society—far from being a good example, Australia actually may be the last thing gun control activists want to bring up.

I understand this reader’s point about proper terminology and generally agree. But...  I think again of an aviation parallel I mentioned in a previous post:

Back in 2014 a small jet crashed into a house near Gaithersburg airport, in Maryland, and killed a mother and two children inside the house (in addition to those on the plane). In the aftermath of the crash, people in the piloting world might have preferred if general public had been precise and knowledgable in discussing the causes of the disaster and preventing a repetition. For instance, if they’d used the word “stall” in its aerodynamic sense (an airplane moving so slowly that its wings no longer produce lift and the plane falls out of the sky, which is part of what happened in this case) rather than in its more familiar auto-motive-engine-related meaning. This is the aviation counterpart to non-gun-owners misusing terms like “assault rifle” or “automatic weapon.” But none of that changed the reality that a young family was dead because someone flew an airplane into their house, and pilots’ annoyance about “uninformed” discussion counted for only so much against that larger tragedy.


Culture.  In several previous rounds, readers have discussed whether changes in American culture over the past half-century are at the root of rising gun-massacre toll, or whether this is mainly about the guns themselves. (Rising toll of massacres? Yes: The five deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, and seven of the worst 20, have happened since 1996.)

From a reader on the West Coast:

I do find myself wondering these latter years, where have all the damn grownups gone? You and I both remember the ‘50s, and I’m sure we both recognize the embarrassing tendency of some of our cohort to rhapsodize unduly about the era. This being acknowledged, it was a uniquely happy period in living memory.

I’ll pause here to make the standard and morally proper stipulation that the decade under consideration is not universally remembered as a vanished golden age by sundry classes of then politically, economically, culturally, or sexually disenfranchised Americans. You may imagine this disclaimer to be as broad, as eloquent and as detailed as you like, and I will sign it.

A perusal of the comments section of any given news account in the average metropolitan daily (“don’t get out of the boat,” as some blogs warn in linking to these) can be hugely dispiriting, suggesting as it does that moving among us are hordes of seething, vengeful adolescents passing as adults, or worse, that we move among them….

Were there as many—I’ll have recourse to German here—were there as many Arschlöcher when we were growing up, were they as thick on the ground as, notwithstanding your own happy barnstormings through obscure but thriving communities with modest municipal airports, they now appear? Perhaps there may have been.

We neither of us possessed at the time either the analytical intelligence nor access to a sufficiently broad sample of adults to arrive at such a determination. But I will assert with some confidence that there existed then an agreed-upon standard of, to return to your correspondent, self-restraint to which it was expected that the citizenry conform, and trespasses against which brought the offender no credit.

Reasonable men may reasonably disagree as to the social and historical factors that have contributed to the erosion of these conventions (I personally believe that the WSJ’s “the hippies did it” analysis doesn’t meet the “reasonable man” standard), but I think we can also agree that, pace Joe McCarthy, the extravagant braggadocio we have come to associate with the 45th president would have resulted in his political career being, if not stillborn, at least strangled in its cradle.

If something does not happen to arrest—it is probably unrealistic to imagine a reversal in our lifetimes—the infantilization of public life, then I fear that some smarter, slicker, more methodical politician will presently use it to lock us for a century or more into a harshly illiberal democracy.

As a friend of mine recently quipped (he admitted that he had it at second-hand), “I always thought that when fascism came to America it would be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. Instead, it came as plain old brownshirted fascism.”