Tropes in the rhetoric of gun rights: a pragma-dialectic analysis.

Author:Duerringer, Christopher M.
Position:Report
 
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On April 17, 2013, Joe Biden did something uncharacteristic for a Vice President-he took his place as President of the U. S. Senate to preside over the defeat of a gun control bill he supported. Typically, the Vice President only makes it to the Senate chambers to cast a tie-breaking vote or to be present for a historic victory--certainly not to witness a historic defeat (Obama: Background, 2013). The legislation proposed was not draconian, or even aggressive gun control. Senators PatToomey (R-PA) andjoe Manchin (D-WV) put together a bi-partisan bill full of provisions supported by 65% of Americans (Metzler, 2013). The timing seemed to be appropriate as well: in the wake of the school shootings at Newtown, families who had lost children were lobbying congress alongside Gabrielle Giffords and a host of other high profile advocates urging action to prevent future tragedies (Sherfinski, 2013). Despite all of this strategy, pageantry, and timing, the bill failed and Vice President Biden was there to watch. This is just one in a long series of peculiar episodes in the gun control debate in the United States.

At the most basic level, this manuscript addresses the question: how do things like this keep happening? Despite broad popular opinion that it is wrong on multiple issues (Gun Control, 2013) and wields too much power (Young, Heremway, Blendon, & Benson, 1996), the gun rights lobby is incredibly effective at achieving legislative goals and directing the national conversation about guns. In this manuscript, we trace the most popular arguments in favor of gun rights (i.e., opposed to gun regulation) as they surface from opinion leaders, propagate in mainstream media, and come alive in social media. The origins of these arguments are sometimes opaque, but our concern is not so much where they start, but the places they end up and the effect they have on public deliberation about firearms. The content of these arguments should tell us about the status of the gun rights conversation in America and how it can be improved. Our engagement of these fallacies requires a move away from fallacious reasoning as an atheoretical taxonomy of bad arguments, and toward a systematized understanding of bad arguments grounded in the pragma- dialectics of van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1987). This case study serves as an example of how this can be operationalized.

The rationale for engaging these arguments is four-fold. First, there is durability to the argumentative structure of gun rights rhetoric. Specific arguments like guns don't kill people, people kill people and its variants have been in circulation since 1959 (Sarasota HeraldTribune, 1959). The controversies motivating them also stay the same; in 1972 Erskine analyzed polling data about gun control and noted many of the same trends we see today (e.g., a disconnect between policy and public opinion) going back to 1938. The faces and formats may change, but the durability of the arguments and issues begs for further examination.

Second, this ongoing public controversy is an issue of significance. Guns are an important civil right identified by the founders and consistently recognized by the Supreme Court. These rights are sometimes at odds with public safety issues. And this topic looms especially large in our current political context as politicians attempt to deal with the overwhelming tragedies of mass shootings through stricter gun control laws.

Third, these arguments seem to produce stalemate. Their historical durability suggests their appeal to the faithful; but they do not appear to win many new adherents. Despite grandiose claims that gun control efforts have led to record enrollment, the NRA's membership is estimated by the Washington Post to have topped out at about 3.1 million Americans (Kessler, 2013, February 8). That number represented slightly less than 1% of the population at the time this essay was drafted. The gun rights lobby has enormous financial resources and has, to a great degree, succeeded in thwarting efforts at gun control. And yet, its arguments do not seem to connect with Americans on a large scale.

Fourth, there has been a surprising shortage of attention paid to the NRA and gun control by communication scholars. As a discipline, we have produced a small number of articles about polling data and guns (see Mauser & Kopel, 1992, Erskine, 1972 and Smidt, 2012 as examples) one article about credibility in propaganda (Trent, 1971) and an interesting historic analysis of gun rights stories (O'Neil, 2007). A small number of other case studies explore issues related to gun control. Holistically, this is a neglected area for communication scholars who should be committed to understanding what arguments are made and how they work. These issues have received some attention among legal scholars (discussed later) but often with little attention to communication-specific issues like argumentative structure and media distribution. By way of comparison, a query of Communication and Mass Media Complete for the term "gun control" results in 20 peer reviewed articles while a query for "abortion" receives 233. While these are obviously different issues, the difference in scholarly attention by a factor of more than 10 highlights an area of American discourse communication scholars have been neglecting despite a robust national conversation highlighted by tragedies, stories, legal decisions, and political maneuvering.

We respond to this lack of substantive discussion by taking on some of the most prevalent arguments used in favor of gun rights. We are interested in these particular arguments, as opposed to pro gun control arguments, because these are the most widely disseminated, perennial arguments that effectively freeze debate, and thereby affect public policy. (1) There are many others, but after an exhaustive search three arguments stand out:

* Guns don't kill people, people kill people.

* The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

* If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns.

Our analysis suggests these prominent arguments circulated in support of gun control are deeply irrational--violating several of the implicit norms of rational discourse that structure public arguments-leading all but the already-committed to distrust and dismiss the cause and forestalling any real resolution of our concerns about gun violence.

We track these arguments as they emerge in a variety of forums, which both justifies their selection and underscores their importance to the national conversation about guns. Our essay proceeds according to the following schedule: first, we review the sparse communication literature available; next, we develop a pragma-dialectical approach to argumentation and rhetoric as articulated by van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1987; 1992); using pragmadialectics as a guide, we go on to identify the numerous violations these arguments commit; and finally, we offer remarks which reflect upon the limitations of this study and suggest future directions for inquiry into argument about guns.

Review of Literature

Despite voluminous national conversation about guns and violence on cable television shows and around dining room tables, there has been relatively little scholarly attention paid to the matter. This is doubly-true in communication studies. What communication inquiry the field has produced is principally focused on public opinion research. This is an important starting point for understanding gun control rhetorics because of the clear disconnect between public opinion and public policy on this issue. The issue of background checks at gun shows is a useful anecdote illustrating this point. According to Pew Research (Gun control, 2013) 81% of Americans including 81% of Republicans favor making gun sales at gun shows subject to background checks. Despite this majority, background checks were easily and separately rejected in the 2013 push for greater gun control (Cillizza, 2013). The failure to connect opinion to action is often blamed on powerful interest groups like the NRA (Medlock, 2005).

Tracking and analyzing public opinion surrounding gun control has been an area of scholarly engagement for at least 40 years. Erskine (1972) analyzed gun control survey results going back to 1938 and was troubled by some of the same things we see today, noting, "it is especially difficult to understand how the rifle lobby has been able to inhibit legislation when a majority of gun-owners themselves have for years been telling public opinion interviewers that they believe guns should be registered" (p. 455). When charting more nuanced statistics in 1996, Young et al. located a new trend in public opinion writing that "a large and increasing percentage of Americans think that the NRA has too much influence" (p. 637). This notion transitions us into a popular topic among social theorists: understanding how gun-rights groups like the NRA are so successful when, as Medlock (2005) notes, "polling data consistently shows that the positions taken by the NRA are not the positions favored by the American public" (p. 41).

Sociologists and political scientists have grappled with this question for at least the last 20 years. Their explanations have tended to fall into two distinct threads. The first tackles the problem from a delivery standpoint, analyzing the use of media, electoral politics, and the power of interest groups. The second takes on the substance of gun rights content, attempting to explain influence through merit in argumentation. While our inquiry is more concerned with content, both threads are critical in understanding the broader rhetoric.

The most critical is the singleness of purpose identified by Spitzer (2012) in the 5th edition of The politics of gun control as "prototypical" (p. 89). The sole focus of the NRA appears to be the promotion of gun ownership through the protection of gun rights. This solitary purpose...

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