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Political Rhetoric About Guns

Communication professor breaks down rhetoric surrounding American gun safety debates, revealing why turning solutions into policy has been stagnant until recently.

By Brittney Nava ‘23

While the topic of U.S. gun violence often makes headlines, legislative action on the matter has been less prevalent.  

For the first time in 30 years, policy makers passed a bipartisan gun safety bill that was signed into law by President Biden last month — but what broke the deadlock?

According to communication professor Nathan Crick, it’s important to understand how the ways in which we talk about guns has contributed to the policy deadlock in the first place. 

One way to conceptualize American gun rhetoric is to return to Aristotle’s three appeals of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. 

Ethos: Guns as Identity
In the context of gun debates, Crick shared that pro-gun arguments can be characterized as ethos-based, drawing their appeal from the view of  guns as an extension of the self.  Crick refers to this as an appeal on the basis of the character of the user.

“Think about character not as credibility, but as ‘who I am, and how I identify myself,’” Crick said. “A weapon provides an identity. It’s an extension of our body. It’s an extension of my hand, my eye, myself. That’s why it’s an ethos — the guns become very personal.”

Pointing back to the United States’ founding wars, Crick noted that a unique cultural connection to guns has been fostered throughout American history. 

“There is a sense in which the gun provides the opportunity to resist tyranny. It’s a very romantic sort of weapon that’s tied up with the American West and the military sense of heroism,” Crick shared. “It’s also tied up with notions of homeownership, independence, rugged individualism, and self defense that goes back to the Revolutionary War.”

This cultural view of guns extends beyond the scope of gun debates and can often be found reflected in our media entertainment. As examples, Crick pointed to cowboy films, alien films, cold war films, and even things like Star Wars. 

“This notion of the individual with a gun, being able to defend the rights of innocents against a tyrannical [entity] is so wrought into our literature that you hardly need to go far to find it,” Crick said. 

Logos: Guns as Instruments
While pro-gun arguments are typically characterized as ethos, gun control arguments tend to be based more on logos. The logos appeal deals strictly with logic and observable trends. 

“The logos part of [the gun control argument] is, ‘let’s depersonalize this and look at the principle of statistical reasoning,’” Crick explained.

Arguments made on the basis of gun control view the gun simply as an instrument. The cultural ties and the user are no longer the meaningful contributors they were in the pro-gun rhetoric.

“The argument here is that the user doesn’t matter. See how opposite that is? User is irrelevant because it’s not about how good of a person you are,” Crick said. “Statistically speaking, in a certain population, the presence of this tool that is used — that is designed to kill — inevitably kills. It kills in the hands of children. It kills in the hands of people that don’t know what they’re doing. It kills in the hands of people that have evil intentions. It kills just simply by being there and going off it. It kills because that’s what it’s designed to do.”

Pathos: Common Ground
Pathos appeals on the basis of shared emotions. In gun safety debates, the pathos appeal often arises after tragic events, such as mass shootings, and reveals commonalities between the two sides of the argument.

“We can unite about pathos. Pathos is simply that suffering or sorrow that comes from seeing pain or joy in other people. And for guns, it’s all about the victims. We all weep for that no matter what we think about guns,” Crick shared.

Though the pathos appeal has the power to provide a common ground, gun debates that occur in the aftermath of a tragic event tend to not be productive. They do, however, shed light on the need to find solutions.

“Developing policies in the wake of individual events is always hard because individual events are always unique and specific, and policies, by nature, are generic and abstract,” Crick explained. “So to always have a gun debate after a violent death is the worst possible time to have any sort of deliberation. However, when you don’t have those deaths, there is no imperative to develop a policy.”

How Rhetoric Translates into Policy
According to Crick, the ways in which we discuss guns inherently conflicts with the nature of drafting policies.

“A policy is, by nature, something that is legal and that applies to everybody and that must take into consideration all statistical situations everywhere,” Crick defined.  “But in gun debates it’s all about what we, as users, can do with this thing for good or for bad.” 

The clash between how our rhetoric frames gun safety and how policies should frame guns has been a contributing factor to the 30 year policy impasse. However, recent events have impacted our rhetoric, specifically the Uvalde school shooting.

“Uvalde was certainly such a dramatic and catastrophic shooting in so many levels,” Crick said. “It also was quite devastating to the ‘good-guy-with-a-gun’ narrative because there were a lot of good guys with guns and they didn’t do anything.”

The lack of action taken by police officers in the Uvalde shooting was not only extremely shocking and devastating, but according to Crick, it also disrupted the strength of the pro-gun, ethos appeal, which pushed policy makers from both sides to pass gun safety legislation.

“I think in this case, the fact that it passed at all is not because the gun control side was any particularly stronger than it usually is, but because this put [the pro-gun side] in a corner,” Crick said.

More on Guns in the Media
The historical and cultural ties are not the only factors that contribute to seeing guns as an extension of self. Crick also noted that advertising and entertainment media impact the way in which mass shooters view their relationship with guns.

“The romance behind the gun, to see myself as somewhat of an action figure, is very attractive and you see this with a lot of the mass shooters. They’re recording themselves, they’re dressing up in certain ways, they’re meant to be filmed and they do that intentionally so,” Crick said.

As our technology and media advance, Crick warns that the separation of the gun from the self may become more difficult. 

“Now we have metaverse capabilities and virtual reality, where we can actually have physical guns in the virtual world and see ourselves in this way,” Crick noted. “The more our technology allows us to put a gun in our hands and then feed that image back to ourselves — looking at a gun as merely an instrument becomes nearly impossible.”