The phrase “gun control” may be disappearing from the American debate, jettisoned by the very people who have long favored gun control.
Initiatives are now described as attempts to promote “gun safety” or prevent “criminal access to guns” or pass “gun violence legislation.”
This month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has a master’s degree in speech and communication from Northwestern University, urged gun reform activists to make sure their pitch emphasizes the war on crime. “It’s all about criminal access,” Emanuel said. “It’s not about gun control. It’s about criminal access. That changes the debate.”
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden was asked about “gun control” at a Google+ online event and said: “I don’t view it as gun control. I view it as gun safety.”
The Atlantic’s Molly Ball likened the shift in rhetoric to estate tax opponents complaining about the “death tax” and gay-marriage activists calling for “marriage equality” — in both cases, finding a more effective way to frame their positions.
Jonathon Schuldt, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, noted that Americans care deeply for personal freedom, making “control” a word that evokes government regulation and may have negative connotations. “It’s really easy to justify why one is against ‘control,’ ” he said. “But it’s way harder to be against ‘safety.’ ”
“Subtle, tiny word changes can have a surprisingly big effect on public opinion,” Schuldt said.
“Gun control” has a long history in American politics. A groundbreaking federal law was even called that — the Gun Control Act of 1968. But that was an era when even the National Rifle Association endorsed some new gun restrictions, and even Democratic President John Kennedy carried an NRA card.
These days, the opponents on the gun issue seem more polarized, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., referring to “gun grabbers” and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., calling the NRA “enablers of mass murder.”
Yet with the abandonment of “gun control” and the focus on “criminal use,” perhaps left and right are moving closer together, at least rhetorically.
“It’s not about keeping bad guns out of the hands of good people,” Biden said. “It’s about keeping all guns out of the hands of bad people.”
Which doesn’t sound much different from the conservatives’ old bumper sticker: “Guns don’t kill people — people do.”