Framing the question on gun violence

The debate over gun rights vs. gun control often gets mired in a battle of statistics—how many die each year by gunfire, how many crimes do carry license holders commit, how many violent crimes occur per annum and is that number rising or falling—and while those of us who support gun ownership and carry can win by the numbers, we have to recognize that many people aren’t persuaded by data.  A good story that plays on the emotions or an appeal to our basic values will sway far more than will spreadsheets.

This is, in fact, the argument made by Preventing Gun Violence through Effective Messaging, a marketing strategy written by Frank O’Brien and others, written to help gun control advocates stay on-message.  That document has already been addressed on this site, but for my purposes, I want us to listen to the advice being offered.

Aristotle told us that an effective argument is composed of logos, pathos, and ethos.  The first of those is fine for geometry, but in matters of politics and individual rights, our emotions (pathos) and our perceptions of the debaters (ethos) shape the way we approach the subject and the conclusions we come to.

I’ll discuss the question of ethos in a future article.  For the present, let’s think about the ways in which emotions and values affect how we understand the question of gun rights.

The term for this is framing.  Just as a literal frame shapes an image that we view, a mental frame constrains what we consider.  Look at the following questions:

  1.      Should criminals and terrorists have access to lethal weapons?
  2.      Should government have the power to demand citizens to seek permission to exercise rights?

Any polling agency that asked either question in a poll would rightly be denounced for bias.  Each question presumes certain ideas to be true without discussion and plows ahead to lead the respondent to a desired conclusion.

Many frames are subtle and subconscious, but we have to bring them to the surface in our own thinking if we expect to convince others of the validity of our arguments.  Two in particular are important in debates over guns: safety and rights.

Listen for assumptions when safety comes up in the discussion.  To a gun control advocate, the promise that a long list of new laws will save lives is an article of faith.  Anyone who questions that belief is regarded as irrational, someone who doesn’t care about The Children, ®.

We have to challenge that frame.  The facts don’t support the claim that gun control keeps people safe, though as I said above, many people aren’t swayed by facts.  We have to address their emotional perception of things.  If my experience is any guide, this is difficult to shake.  The promise that some outside force will protect us from bad happenings provides a lot of comfort in an uncertain world.

But we have plenty of examples to show that government treated as a guardian angel is worse than the dangers we think we face.  Please avoid mentioning Nazi Germany here, of course.  Instead, talk about Eric Garner in Staten Island or Walter Scott in North Charleston, SC.  Point out the intrusions brought on by the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act.

The appropriate antidote to fear is anger—outrage against a government that loses touch with the rights of citizens and outrage against anyone who seeks to offer violence against innocent people.  Once we leave fear behind, we can build skills to deal with what we once were afraid of.  This requires thinking and effort, two things all of us too often avoid, but the Protestant work ethic lies in the heart of Americans, and we can be summoned to live up to our values.

The framing around the question of where rights come from relates to the desire for safety.  Just as so many have the view that safety is something the government must deliver to us, even or especially if that means curtailing our freedom in the process, there’s a strong belief on the part of gun control advocates that rights are given to us by society.  If society giveth, society may take away—blessed be the name of society.  I’m often asked, who said you have the right to own or carry guns?

Pay attention to that frame.  Several hundred years after the Enlightenment, people have lost a belief in the worthiness of each one of us as human beings.  We are supposed to find our answers in authorities who will decide for us what rights we have, instead of insisting on unalienable rights by virtue of our having been born.

At this point, reframe the debate again.  Just as we have to shift perceptions from dependence needing rescue to skilled responsibility for our own lives, we must also move the discussion about rights.  The principle of our nation is that we are each in possession of basic rights, including self-defense and property.  We do not ask permission from government to act.  We agree to live in society with others, but that choice does not mean we’ve surrendered our individuality.  With this as the frame, we can communicate the idea that gun control seeks to punish good people for the wrongs done by criminals or the negligent.

In any discussion on this subject, have the facts at hand, but remember that the facts at best support conclusions based on values.  You won’t win over everyone.  But if you remain polite and rational, you will show the reasonable case for gun rights to people who are open to listen, and you will help frame the debate in our favor.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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