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Thu Jan 3, 2013, 10:55 PM

Don't Think of an Assault Weapon!

Note: This post is adapted from a previously copyrighted article on the former Amendment II Democrats website. As the copyright holder, I release it into the public domain for further dissemination provided the text is left unchanged.

The common vernacular of any society often undergoes subtle but significant changes over time. It's a natural process - and it's also why Americans typically don't spell honor with a u or refer to cookies as biscuits.

Sometimes, however, people consciously try to change the language of society, often with varying degrees of success. One need look no further than both sides of the abortion debate and the many labels that pro-life and pro-choice advocates have used on each other and on the unborn.

The same thing is happening in the debate over firearms that have been labeled as "assault weapons." For the time being, pro-ban Democrats and likeminded activists have succeeded in gaining the upper hand on the debate as far as the language is concerned, and this has contributed to the perception that most Americans want a Federal ban on "assault weapons" to be reauthorized, if not strengthened. But if so many citizens wanted Congress to keep the semi-auto ban from sunsetting on September 13, 2004, where is the collective outrage? Perhaps the answer lies in the way activists sold the ban on semi-automatic firearms to the public.

Of Elephants and "Assault Weapons"

Any public relations campaign, including the effort to reauthorize the semi-auto ban, is an exercise in group psychology.

George Lakoff is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and a Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, a non-profit research and educational institution at Berkeley dedicated to advancing progressive moral visions for society. He is also the author of the 2004 book Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Lakoff started the book with the basic concept of framing in terms of public perception:

When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise. The exercise is: Don't think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I've never found a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame. When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.

Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the nation on TV. He stood before the nation and said, "I am not a crook." And everybody thought about him as a crook.

This gives us a basic principle of framing, for when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame - and it won't be the frame you want.


Lakoff's book then goes on to show liberals and progressives how to using framing to combat conservative political arguments on tax cuts, gay rights, domestic security, and so on. Democrats who ignore Lakoff's observations do so at their own political peril. So do moderate and progressive RKBA activists. Thus, a critical examination of the term "assault weapon" in order. The psychodynamics associated with this phrase can be quite substantial, indeed.

What does the word assault conjure up in one's mind? An assailant crashes through the door, pointing a gun at the woman who lives there alone. Rodney King writhes on the ground as Los Angeles police savagely beat him. The word assault carries many negative physical, emotional, and even sexual images and connotations that are too numerous to count. Now pair the word assault with the word weapon, assign the new term to semi-automatic rifles, and watch the fear levels rise. If someone wanted to come up with a term for an arbitrary collection of firearms that would stir up fear and terror in the hearts of parents across the nation, "assault weapon" fits the bill nicely. The term became a frame pushed by the Violence Policy Center, Handgun Control, Inc. (now the Bradu Campaign), the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, and other like-minded organizations. And the public bought it.

In fact, many people may not remember this, but long before Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) got her semi-auto ban signed into law in 1994, Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA) introduced a bill in 1989 that would have outlawed possession of a semi-automatic firearm unless the owner had an NFA license - the same stringent requirement needed to own a full-automatic firearm in America today. And Stark's bill - which had support from 33 other Representatives of both major parties - also contained the new moniker. "Assault weapons are not traditional hunting weapons," Stark told Congress. "Assault weapons have no practical value to a civilized society."

After 1994, however, even with Feinstein's semi-auto ban in place, somehow the term "assault weapon" just wasn't good enough anymore for some lawmakers and activists, so the ante was raised to make sure that public support for the semi-auto ban did not weaken. Now, "assault weapons" were known as "deadly assault weapons." In a March 22, 1996 speech, Vice-President Al Gore praised Democratic lawmakers who "took deadly assault weapons off our streets." In a June 22, 1996 radio address, President Bill Clinton followed Gore's lead by declaring "We banned 19 deadly assault weapons" as part of the 1994 crime bill. The phrase even made it into the 1996 Democratic National Platform. At his 2004 Democratic National Convention address, Clinton chastised President George W. Bush and Congress for allowing "the 10-year-old ban on deadly assault weapons to lapse." And an on-line petition campaign by MoveOn.org in 2004 to stop the expiration of the semi-auto ban included the sentence "We've got to keep deadly assault weapons off our streets" on every petition it forwarded to Congress and the White House.

Poll Position: Winning of Hearts and Minds

Remember all those polls from 2004 that apparently show a majority of Americans supporting reauthorization of the semi-auto ban? Have you ever been asked to participate in such a poll? Have you ever seen a set of questions from one of these polls?

Back in early September 2003, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) undertook a survey in which Opinion Research Corporation International (ORCI) polled a representative sample of 1,000 adult Americans over a period of three days. What follows are some of the poll questions themselves, along with the corresponding responses:

Do you favor or oppose RENEWING the assault weapons ban? Would you say you...
Strongly favor=1; Somewhat favor=2; Somewhat oppose=3; Strongly oppose=4; Don't know=99
(47% Strongly favor - 15% Somewhat favor - 62% total)
After the ban was passed, manufacturers made minor changes to commercial models of military-style assault weapons, such as the AK-47, so that they can still be bought in the U.S. Do you favor or oppose STRENGTHENING the assault weapons ban to prevent the gun industry from manufacturing these kinds of weapons? Would you say...
Strongly favor=1; Somewhat favor=2; Somewhat oppose=3; Strongly oppose=4; Don't know=99
(49% Strongly favor - 14% Somewhat favor - 63% total)


The CFA repeated the survey in February 2004, in which ORCI polled over 1,000 adult Americans over a period of five days. The questions and responses were similar:

Do you favor or oppose RENEWING the assault weapons ban? Would you say you...
Strongly favor=1; Somewhat favor=2; Somewhat oppose=3; Strongly oppose=4; Don't know=99
(57% Strongly favor - 10% Somewhat favor - 67% total)
After the ban was passed, manufacturers made minor changes to commercial models of military-style assault weapons, such as the AK-47, so that they can still be bought in the U.S. Do you favor or oppose STRENGTHENING the assault weapons ban to prevent the gun industry from manufacturing these kinds of weapons? Would you say...
Strongly favor=1; Somewhat favor=2; Somewhat oppose=3; Strongly oppose=4; Don't know=99
(53% Strongly favor - 12% Somewhat favor - 65% total)


And how did the CFA describe an "assault weapon" in its own literature? Here's their take, as described in their February 2004 report:

Assault weapons are a discrete class of firearm. They incorporate military-style characteristics specifically designed to quickly kill large numbers of human beings. These design characteristics make it easy for a shooter to simply point - as opposed to carefully aim - the weapon to quickly spray a wide area with bullets. Such design characteristics make assault weapons especially attractive to criminals and distinguish them from true hunting or sporting firearms.

I postulate that CFA's polls are fundamentally flawed due to observer bias which has not been filtered from the polls themselves to prevent intentional or unintentional skewing of the final tallies. First, the use of the pejorative term "assault weapon" instead of a more socio-culturally neutral term such as "semi-automatic firearm" tilts the average poll subject against such weapons, conjuring up morbid images such as those of the tragic school shootings at Newtown or Stockton. Second, CFA's own description of an "assault weapon" seems to imply that "hunting and sporting firearms" are the only types of firearms that should be entrusted to the hoi polloi, thus leaving military-style semi-automatics in the hands of the military and the police. Somehow, this doesn't demonstrate much faith in the American people. After all, if you can't trust John Q. Citizen with a Springfield M1 rifle like the one his father carried at Normandy or Iwo Jima, how on earth can you entrust him with something potentially more powerful than any bullet - namely, a ballot?

Defining "Assault Weapons:" When GOTV = GOTBS

Law-abiding adults should always be free to own guns and protect their homes. I respect that part of our culture; I grew up in it. But I want to ask the sportsmen and others who lawfully own guns to join us in this campaign to reduce gun violence. I say to you, I know you didn't create this problem, but we need your help to solve it. There is no sporting purpose on Earth that should stop the United States Congress from banishing assault weapons that outgun police and cut down children. - President Bill Clinton; 2004 State of the Union; January 25, 1994

The Consumer Federation of America was not the first organization to frame gun ownership in the "hunters and sportsmen" context, as President Clinton's speech demonstrated above.

Randi Rhodes, host of a weekday talk-radio show on the now-defunct Air America Radio network, champions many causes dear to liberal and progressive Democrats. But she supported reauthorization of the Feinstein ban (and still does). On her radio broadcast on September 13, 2004, as the ban was sunsetting, Rhodes shared the following with a listener in Redwood City, CA in regards to high-risk police standoffs with criminals armed with AK-47s and the like:

The target was to lower the amount of those kinds of crimes, they called them "crime guns," and they weren't ordinary individual's home-protection guns or skeet-shooting guns or long rifles or anything like that for hunting. These were crime guns. There was a direct association between these guns and brutal crime...

The term "crime guns" didn't exactly replace "assault weapons" in the common vernacular, but Rhodes found herself perpetuating the frame that Clinton advanced: these weapons were only used by criminals, not law-abiding citizens; they were "gang" weapons; they were "drug-dealer" weapons; they were "weapons of war;" they had no place in society except in the hands of the American government.

Then Rhodes started doing something odd on her broadcasts during the next few days. Occasionally, when the phrase "assault weapons" was used, she'd play a soundbite of a full-automatic weapon firing. Never mind that full-auto firearms were covered by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and not the 1994 crime bill. But she obviously knew the difference between semi-auto and full-auto, as she told another caller on the September 13 broadcast:

...law-abiding people can keep their guns, and there is no need to have an Uzi with a 30-round magazine that can be emptied in slightly less than two seconds if you've got a full-automatic and less than five seconds if you've got a semi-automatic.

Of course she knows the difference; she's an Air Force veteran, after all. So was it just to garner a few laughs from the audience? A 1994 episode of Saturday Night Live also made the same mistake, depicting "assault weapons" readily available to the public as having full-auto capability. And so the issue was further obfuscated, as many Americans who have never even touched a gun in their lives may now believe that reauthorizing the gun ban would have reauthorized a ban on full-automatics instead of semi-automatics.

Rhodes was not alone, though. These are some of the comments made by Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) on the House floor on September 7, 2004, in support of reauthorizing the Feinstein ban:

Why, when the assault weapons ban has seen a 60 percent decrease in the use of assault weapons in crime; why, when we have seen a decrease in the number of school shootings we had just 4 or 5 years ago, when children were being shot by automatic weapons; why, in the backdrop of an automatic weapon shooting today, why would you imagine that the Republican leadership of the House and Senate refuse to do what is right?...

I believe in life over death and peace over war, and I see no conflict in the Second Amendment in the Constitutional right to bear arms with any desire and need to carry an automatic weapon. I would support my law enforcement officers, the peace of our community and peace of this Nation over any gun manufacturer any day. Come out and show yourself. We are the truthsayers in the place.


See what I mean?

Even if one were to prove that the polls by the Consumer Federation of America were true and accurate and not skewed by the use of the term "assault weapon," George Lakoff has taught Democrats that American voters, sadly, do not vote on the issues - they vote on their own values and their own identities. This is part of the reason why Bush managed to attract so many votes in 2004, rigged touchscreen voting consoles notwithstanding.

It should be noted, though, that Democrats who support gun control have gained some skill in successfully framing semi-automatics as described earlier, but they've also managed to fold the "assault weapon" frame into the more comprehensive "safer streets" frame with one very simple word - crime. New Jersey Governor James McGreevey issued an executive order in 2004 declaring that semi-automatics "have no legitimate civilian uses and, instead, are used by drug dealers, gun-runners, and other violent criminals." On the eve of the ban's expiration, columnist Arianna Huffington encouraged George W. Bush to pressure Congress to "keep assault weapons out of the hands of criminals, drug dealers and terrorists." Senator Dianne Feinstein's gun ban was part of the "Crime Bill." Randi Rhodes referred to semi-automatics as "crime guns." Crime, crime, crime. And the gun-control movement has hammered this meme into the heads of Democrats nationwide.

In light of the December 14, 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, there have been renewed calls for a revived semi-auto ban. Sen. Feinstein plans to introduce just such a measure in the infancy of the 113th Congress, but this bill reportedly will also redefine semi-automatic firearms as Class 3 weapons under the National Firearms Act, requiring all current owners of such guns to turn them in to Federal authorities and then submit to the same lengthy process needed to legally own a machine gun in the United States (including fingerprinting, photographing, a $200 tax stamp for each weapon, and a minimum 60-day waiting period) in order to legally reclaim their firearms. But the bill is already facing stiff resistance from many legislators on Capitol Hill as well as political activists across America, fearful that passage of such a ban could result in rock-solid control of the House and Senate as early as 2016.

Americans, more often than not, decide elections based on their identities instead of the issues. We are a nation of gun owners. Over 220 years of tradition and Constitutionally-guaranteed rights cannot be overdone so easily by du jour legislation from Capitol Hill. And the Second Amendment still does not limit an American's right to keep and bear arms strictly to hunting and sporting purposes. When President Clinton signed the ban into law, the balance of power in the House of Representatives shifted to the right for the first time in 40 years, and the Senate, after some fluctuation, is now firmly in Republican hands today. You can legitimately argue that this is a post hoc ergo proctor hoc statement, and you'll admittedly have social and economic trends to back up your argument, but remember what Lakoff has demonstrated - it's identity more than issues that decides an honest election. And any Democrats who ignore this lesson do so at their own peril.

Here's something to consider. Right now, the terms of a much larger debate - the debate over the very future of America as a nation and as a society - are being dictated by "Tea Party" Republicans in the House. This despite the fact that Democrats have a much better traffic record overall than Republicans on civil rights, health care, environmental protections, checks and balances on corporations, reproductive freedom, etc. But Democrats cannot hold a real debate on any of these issues until the voters start awarding them more House and Senate seats. Many prominent Democrats still insist on reauthorizing the ban if and when they regain control of Congress, even though this writer humbly but firmly suggests fact that it is fundamentally at odds with what the Democratic Party is and what it traditionally stands for.

Ideas on How to Reframe the Game

Clearly, Democrats need to reestablish a dominant presence in Congress and maintain it starting in 2006. To achieve this goal, however, something's got to give. It may well be that the push to bring back the ban on semi-automatics will have to be shown the door. Therefore, to summarize the concepts discussed so far:

The term "assault weapon" is a frame successfully utilized by gun-control activists.

Polls indicating support for the semi-auto ban have used the frame and therefore skewed the answers.

The frame is often used in connection with discussions of crime and how to reduce it.

There is still confusion in the general public as to exactly what as "assault weapon" is (semi-auto vs. full-auto).

There are indications that an increasing number of Democrats may be ready to abandon the semi-auto ban.


As America prepares itself for 2013 and beyond, pro-RKBA Democrats have an opportunity to reshape public debate over semi-automatics. To reshape the debate, reshape the terms of the debate. It may not be easy, but it is doable. When some delegate at the next Democratic county or senatorial convention stands up and declares "We must not allow deadly assault weapons to remain on our streets," one possible way to counter that speaker is to stand up and reply, "We must not strip semi-automatics out of the hands of law-abiding citizens." Another possibility is to borrow a line from Thomas Jefferson that he originally coined for a debate on religious freedom and reshape it as thus: "It neither breaks your back nor picks your pocket if I want to own a semi-automatic rifle." Remember, never allow yourself to use the other person's frame. Instead, instead make the other side play your game.

It won't be easy. Josh Sugarmann, Sarah Brady, and other gun-control luminaries weren't able to frame semi-automatics overnight, and pro-RKBA activists should not expect overnight results in trying to undo their damage. But if we are to reshape the rules of political engagement over semi-automatics, we can't win if we don't even start. Let's start today.

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Response to derby378 (Original post)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:04 PM

1. Fa-Mas, Fn P90, Tavor, Steyr Aug, Mossberg 500, L85, Xm29 Oicw, Fn F2000, Papop, Steyr Acr, Sar 21

 

AR-15...

oops

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Response to Electric Monk (Reply #1)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:18 PM

2. A couple of years ago, Washington state legislators went after the Mossberg 500

Wanted to redefine it as an "assault weapon" even though it was clearly a pump-action shotgun. The effort failed.

In the most recent top 10 list I've found of guns used in crime in America, the Mossberg 500 was the only non-pistol firearm to make it onto the list.

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Response to derby378 (Reply #2)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:43 PM

6. And the legislative choice of a Mossberg 500 over a Remington 870 shows the irrationality of

 

those state legislators.

Both are good shotguns. How would any of them rationally justify treating the two differently?

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Response to AnotherMcIntosh (Reply #6)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:47 PM

8. They might have gone after the Remington as well

It's been a few years back, so I'm not sure.

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Response to Electric Monk (Reply #1)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:26 PM

4. The Mossberg 500?

 



The Mossberg 500 is a plain old single action shotgun.

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Response to derby378 (Original post)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:24 PM

3. Maybe it would help to refer to "semi-automatic" weapons as "one-shot semi-automatic" ...

 

There are, of course, those who want to frame semi-automatic pistols and rifles as being equivalent or near equivalent to machine guns.

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Response to AnotherMcIntosh (Reply #3)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:29 PM

5. I think Feinstein's new ban is trying to do just that

Some older dictionary definitions of "submachine gun" include the phrase "any portable automatic or semi-automatic firearm..."

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Response to derby378 (Reply #5)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 11:45 PM

7. She's trying to do her best to bring back a re-play of the 1994 Congressional elections.

 

As the rich wife of a military-industrial contractor, why should she care?

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