Op-Ed
Op-Ed

'Culture bundling' and other obstacles to a real gun control debate

I enjoy unproductive talk. Bloviating, berating, snarking and swearing about politics are all pleasures, and not even particularly guilty ones. Most of the time, I remember that my self-indulgence doesn't accomplish much. It pleases me, it entertains like-minded people and it reaffirms whatever my “team” already believes. But it doesn't persuade. It neither seeks nor finds common ground.

Much of our modern American dialogue about gun rights and gun control is like that. We yell, we signal to the like-minded, we circle our wagons, we take shots at opponents.

Imagine that we wanted to have a productive conversation. Imagine that we wanted to identify our irreducible philosophical and practical differences, seek areas of agreement and change some minds. What might we do?

First, we could stop culture-bundling. We culture-bundle when we use one political issue as shorthand for a big group of cultural and social values. Our unproductive talk about guns is rife with this. Gun control advocates don't just attack support for guns; they attack conservative, Republican, rural and religious values. Second Amendment advocates don't just attack gun control advocates; they attack liberal, Democratic, urban and secular values. The gun control argument gets portrayed as the struggle against Bible-thumping, gay-bashing, NASCAR-watching hicks, and the gun rights argument gets portrayed as a struggle against godless, elitist, kale-chewing socialists.

That's great for rallying the base, I guess, but that's about all. When you culture-bundle guns, your opponents don't hear “I'm concerned about this limitation on rights” or “I think this restriction is constitutional and necessary.” They hear “I hate your flyover-country daddy who taught you to shoot in the woods behind the house when you were 12” and “Your gay friends' getting married would ruin America and must be stopped.” That's unlikely to create consensus.

Second, we could recognize that accurate firearms terminology actually matters to the debate. Confused gun control advocates may suggest a ban on “semiautomatic weapons,” believing that means automatic rifles, when it actually refers to nearly every modern weapon other than bolt-action rifles and shotguns. Such linguistic flimsiness drives the perception that mainstream gun control advocates want to take away all guns.

If you think precision doesn't matter, forget about guns for a second. Imagine I'm concerned about dangerous pit bulls, and I'm explaining my views to you, a dog trainer — but I have no grasp of dog terminology.

Me: I don't want to take away dog owners' rights, but we need to do something about pit bulls. We need restrictions on owning an attack dog.

You: Wait. What's an “attack dog”?

Me: You know what I mean. Like military dogs.

You: Huh? Pit bulls aren't military dogs. In fact “military dogs” isn't a thing. You mean like German Shepherds?

Me: Don't be ridiculous. Nobody's trying to take away your German Shepherds. But civilians shouldn't own fighting dogs.

You: I have no idea what dogs you're talking about now.

Me: You're being both picky and obtuse. You know I mean hounds.

You: Hounds? Seriously?

Me: OK, maybe not actually “hounds.” Maybe I have the terminology wrong. I'm not obsessed with violent dogs the way you are. But we can identify breeds that civilians just don't need to own.

You: Apparently not.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we can't debate gun rights when we're terrible at talking about rights in general.

The 2nd Amendment debate is full of assertions like “My right not to be shot outweighs your right to own a gun” and “I have an absolute right to own any gun I want.” How can we evaluate these assertions, except on a visceral level?

When it comes to rights, we've lost the plot, particularly since 9/11. We don't know where rights come from, we don't know or care from whom they protect us, we don't know how to analyze proposed restrictions on them, and brick by brick we've built a fear-based culture that scorns them in the face of both real and imagined risks. We've become a nation of civic illiterates, mystified by the relationship between individuals and the government.

It is therefore inevitable that talk about gun rights will be met with scorn or shrugs, and that discussions of what restrictions are permissible will be mushy and undisciplined. Unless we approach all rights in a principled manner — whether it's the right to free speech in the face of offense, or the right to due process in the face of the war on terrorism — we're not going to have a productive debate about any of them.

I know. Productive debates sound like hard work. Unproductive debates are more fun. But can we leave those to Facebook?

Ken White is an attorney in Los Angeles. He writes about free speech and criminal justice at Popehat.com.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 13, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "What we talk about when we talk about guns - The nation's unproductive firearms debate is rife with culture-bundling and imprecise terminology." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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