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‘Gun Safety’ versus ‘Gun Control' - Which Does the U.S. Need?

By: Sydney Kovach

Contrary to popular belief, ‘gun safety’ and ‘gun control’ are not the same. Before fully understanding why these terms can be interpreted in vastly different ways, it is important to know how critical word choice can be in the political sphere. A change of a single word can influence how people attempt to solve social issues, for example crime, and how they make “well-informed” decisions; the effect of a metaphorical framing is covert, as people do not realize metaphors are influential in their decision making processes.

Democrats and Republicans often use specific wording to invoke an emotional reaction from the public. For example, Democrats largely use the terms ‘pro-choice’/‘anti-choice’ while Republicans prefer the terms ‘pro-life’/ ‘pro-abortion.’ These two sets of terms may seem like they mean the same thing, but invoke very different emotional responses from the people each group is trying to influence. Because exposure to a single metaphor can cause significant differences in opinion about how to address social problems, it is clear that ‘gun safety’ and ‘gun control’ can be interpreted in very different ways, inducing different responses from key stakeholder groups.

This is not to say that replacing the words ‘gun control’ with ‘gun safety’ will yield a major shift in public opinion with regards to firearm policy. Rather, people who are not firm in their stance on gun policy could be swayed in one direction or the other. During the large push for sweeping changes to firearm policies after the shooting at Sandy Hook, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said “You and I are literally surrounded. The gun-grabbers in the Senate are about to launch an all-out-assault on the Second Amendment. On your rights. On your freedom... They're coming for your guns.” In framing the issue in this way, McConnell weaponized the term ‘gun control’ by equating gun ownership and accessibility to freedom – a concept that Americans largely believe should not be controlled by the government.

As seen in McConnell’s rhetoric, ‘gun control’ can be interpreted in very different ways, depending on the values and perspectives someone holds. For someone who equates their right to own a gun without any conditions with their freedoms as a whole, any form of ‘control’ could exemplify a significant overstep of the government. For these people, ‘gun control’ can mean an imposition into someone’s freedom – something that many Americans feel is unacceptable due to historical context. However, ‘gun control’ for people who value children’s safety in schools – and more broadly for those who do not equate their entire freedom with the right for every adult in the U.S. to own firearms without any preconditions – means rational boundaries and limitations on Americans’ access to firearms.

‘Gun safety’ is something that the former group may find a bit more rational because it may seem more realistic and less of an imposition on Americans’ Constitutionally-endowed rights. This framing makes it harder for pro-gun advocates to equate policies that improve gun safety with government overreach, since there the concept of safety is something everyone should get behind. By communicating firearm violence prevention policies as legislation that would grant improved safety (rather than imposing on individual’s perceived concept of their Constitutional rights), opponents to these policies will face more obstacles when attempting to demonize said legislation.

Because there has been such fierce opposition from gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, the U.S. has failed to pass comprehensive firearm policy to address the public health crisis of firearm violence. As seen with Mitch McConnell, pro-gun policymakers often take the term ‘gun control’ and manipulate it into something much larger than it actually is. In doing so, they garner opposition to any form of gun control.

In contrast, if advocates proposing firearm legislation framed the debate as one around safety – a hard concept to oppose – they may be more successful in passing such reforms. Using the term ‘gun safety,’ as opposed to ‘gun control,’ provides the most viable avenue for the successful prevention of firearm violence in the U.S.. Pro-gun voices like McConnell’s would have a much harder time fostering adamant opposition to the concept of safety than they do with any form of government ‘control.’

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