I wanted to post this awhile ago when I was working on posts about guns but it seemed incomplete without mentioning how the NRA and the gun lobby has changed our views, too. The post, I think is relevant because it affects how we frame arguments, today.
Note: I use the group the National Rifle Association as a catch-all for gun rights lobby groups. I understand that there are a lot of other gun rights lobby groups out there.
Nate Silver on his brilliant blog Five Thirty-Eight, wrote a piece detailing how we talk about guns. There is really one acceptable reason not to read his blog and that is that you've used up your 10 free articles from The New York Times already.
Anyway, how do we talk about guns? Well, Nate Silver went through to look at what phrases were used to describe gun violence in the news, via www.newslibrary.com. He found that the phrase "gun control" was used about 3 times per 1,000 articles during the 1993-1994 discussion of the assault weapons ban. The phrase "gun control peaked in 1999 after the Columbine shootings at about 3.7 mentions per 1,000 articles. The low point was in 2010, when the phrase "gun control" was used 0.3 times per 1,000 articles. In 2012, it looks like the it is around 0.7 mentions per 1,000 articles. Another phrase that gun control advocates use is "gun violence." By using the phrase "gun violence", the argument is focused on the consequences of guns and the destruction that they could potentially bring. Not surprisingly, that phrase peaked in 1999, as well, at just over 0.5 mentions per 1,000 articles. Since 2010, Silver notes, that the phrase has been used about 0.33 times per 1,000 articles. In the 1980s, the phrase "gun violence" was used about 0.02 times per 1000 articles.
Now for the phrases that people like the NRA use. Frequently, they use a phrase invoking the 2nd Amendment, framing the argument around Constitutional rights. The phrase or term 2nd Amendment was rarely used in the 1980s, based on the chart it looks like it is below 0.2 mentions per 1000 articles. Now it's the most popular phrase in the guns debate. Since 2008, 2nd Amendment has been mentioned more frequently than the phrase "gun control." Another popular phrase is "gun rights", The phrase "gun rights" which was barely used in the 1980s, at all, around 0.02 mentions per 1,000 articles is now used as frequently as gun violence, about 0.33 mentions per 1,000 articles.
What does it mean? There are problems with drawing too many conclusions based on data like this. There are a lot of problems. For instance, the phrase "gun violence" could be used in an article or speaking about the need for more guns. Conversely, people could use the term "gun rights" derisively. But as you can see, we have a society now that mentions 2nd Amendment more than gun control. We also talk about gun rights more than gun violence. Why have we had this shift?
The increased use of the phrase of the 2nd Amendment began to peak in 1999 but not reaching its peak until 2001-2002. Unlike the phrases used for gun control, there is not an easy explanation for why the phrase got more popular during that time. It declined slowly until the election of Barack Obama. After the election of Barack Obama, the use of the phrase greatly increased and was its all-time high as 2011 concluded. There's a farily easy explanation for that. The NRA and other gun rights lobbies, amped up their rhetoric before the election of Barack Obama and during the presidency of him. Meanwhile, the phrase "gun rights" has been steadily increasing since 1985, hitting its previous high mark 2002-2004. There was a slight decline, again, until the election of Barack Obama and has been at an all-time high since. I'll mention for balance, that during the early 2000s there was a sharp decline from the use of the phrase of "gun control" and has actually been decreasing in use since 1999. "Gun violence" has been declining in use since 2003.
It's pretty widely known that the NRA's membership spikes during times when citizens think their 2nd Amendment rights will be infringed upon. After Columbine, the membership greatly increased, when Barack Obama got elected, it spiked, when he got re-elected it spiked, again. People tend to buy more guns when they think that their guns will be taken away, go to any gun show presently, you'll hear the same thing. By focusing on these issues of 2nd Amendment Rights and gun rights, they are framing the argument away from potentially negative consequences and focusing on rights and liberty.
Is it fair to assign blame to the NRA? I'm sure at this point, if you've read any posts by me about gus and the NRA, you assume that I am vehemently anti-NRA, I suppose that I will have to write a pro-NRA post at some point. Mother Jones published an article highlighting some ads for the NRA over the years. So, what can we learn from these ads and how has it affected how we talk about guns in America?
In 1920, the National Rifle Association published an ad that asked for people to join a rifle club highlighting that it was a sporting organization. This is not a surprise, the NRA was primarily a sporting organization for much of its beginning. I would link to a post, I wrote, about the history of the NRA but that's tacky. In 1957, the ad highlighted again that it was a sportsman's organization. After the assasination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, there was a public outcry for gun reform legislation to be passed. The NRA decided to become a more political organization at that point. But even then, they were not as psychopathic about it as they are now. A 1970 ad highlighted the needs for people to protect their "hunting rights". The ad specifically states,"if there was ever a time when you needed NRA to help protect your present and future hunting rights..." The 2nd Amendment is not mentioned in the ad but hunting rights are all over the place.
In 1973, the ad stated, "only you can save hunting..." Again, there is no mention of the 2nd Amendment but focuses on the rights of hunters. It even goes so far as to say "it's time you stood up for the hunting and shooting heritage, you as an American believe in."
1982 began a campaign of "I am the NRA." It had a picutre of a kid talking about gun safety. No mention of the 2nd Amendment. The late 1980s finally began the fear-mongering and the claims of the 2nd Amendment. The ad was titled "why can't a policeman be there when you need him." This type of ad, as far as I can tell, began the claims central to the NRA today that armed citizens can defend themselves, routinely, against criminals.The ad states "defend your right to defend yourself." There's also a picture of what looks like Rasputin involved. Click on the link I provided above and decide for yourself.
The late 1980s also had Charlton Heston installed as the spokesperson. So that was fun. There was an ad when Charlton Heston walked up and down the streets of DC saying it was the most dangerous streets in America. I imagine this ad was critical when people talk about how a gun ban doesn't work. I also wrote a post that explored that claim, too.
1993 had an ad that asked "what's the 1st step to a police state?" and also featured goose-stepping Nazis. Is this a precursor to the posts about how Hitler took our guns away, too? Sort of talks about how we have to take back government and save our guns.
1993 also had a laughing criminal who watched the news waiting until guns were outlawed and then could do whatever he wants. A precursor to posts we see today, too.
1995, finally we talk about the 2nd Amendment. The NRA claimed that "the 2nd Amendment is not about duck hunting." The picture was of Bill Clinton with a gun and a duck. Remember that 20 years prior to this, the NRA was all about how hunting rights needed to be protected and that the gun laws would take away your hunting rights but no mention of the 2nd Amendment or actual gun rights. Now almost everyone says that the 2nd Amendment is not about hunting but protecting from tyranny of the government. Do you see the shift?
1997: Charlton Heston talked about how we needed to restore the 2nd Amendment as America's 1st freedom. He said that it is the one right protects all the others. I know people spew that drivel out, too. He goes on to talk about how it is the one right that allows rights to exist at all.
Mother Jones did not include ads until 2013, again. Although there was a fairly famous ad that was out there in the 2004 presidential election against John Kerry. Kerry had a poodle and the NRA stated that the dog don't hunt.
The next ad included is the ad that calls Obama another elitist hypocrite for having his children attend schools with armed guards. The ad was factually incorrect. The NRA also was against the United Nations treaty which some see as an attack on our 2nd Amendment righs.
Look through those ads again. How many of those ads are used by gun right advocates today? Notice that the 2nd Amendment rights didn't come up until the late 1980s, but not specifically until 1995.
I'm leaving the conclusion of the post as ambiguous as possible. But it's certainly interesting how much of an effect the NRA has had on our conversation about guns.