"Gun Control" Advocates Must Overhaul Their Talking Points

And, oh, remind Americans about that expired federal assault weapons ban

Publisher’s Riff

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As usual, the conversation following a string of major mass shootings heads into the wash, rinse and repeat cycle. Gun control advocates and outraged Americans can’t understand why, after so many domestic terrorism attacks, policymakers can’t get their act together and unify around an effective approach. It’s very likely that it has a lot to do with messaging and perceptions. In short: gun control advocates must dramatically reset expectations and the lexicon surrounding the gun control debate if they can hope to make any headway. Several thoughts to insert in that conversation:

The National Security Threat

It is a little encouraging that federal authorities, right off the bat, are treating the El Paso shooting that killed 20 innocent civilians as a case of “domestic terrorism.” In the past, federal law enforcement tended to avoid that designation for multiple reasons, chief among them a reluctance to accept that organized white nationalism is a major national security threat. However, there is still a long way to go - and a new administration - before that’s the standard. What’s needed is an acknowledgment, or an admission, that any mass shooting whereby it’s clear the motivation is political or ideological should be automatically labeled as domestic terrorism. That acknowledgment could be pushed by public pressure. There’s no difference between the armed white nationalism in the U.S. and groups such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda other than clear differences in racial composition.

In terms of the overall debate and discussion, gun control advocates, progressives and other concerned policymakers should underscore that this is a War Against Domestic Terrorism and Right-Wing Extremism. That level of extremism, as the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Seth G. Jones notes, is on the rise …

Terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists in the United States have increased. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of such attacks was five or less per year. They then rose to 14 in 2012; continued at a similar level between 2012 and 2016, with a mean of 11 attacks and a median of 13 attacks; and then jumped to 31 in 2017. FBI arrests of right-wing extremists also increased in 2018.

This is what that rise looks like …


Emphasizing the rise of this extremism as a total “national security threat” (versus a “hate crime” or as a string of disconnected isolated incidents) helps to crystallize it further for the public and could potentially force more voters to demand immediate action from policymakers on both left and right. If conservative voters want to truly claim their “patriot” status, they should have no problem fighting against the “national security threat” unfolding before our eyes, right?

Focus on Ban of “Battlefield-Grade Weapons”

Gun control advocates are fighting a losing battle if they proceed with a broad, all-guns conversation demanding full public disarmament. It’s America: expecting Americans to relinquish a fetish for guns and gun culture is unrealistic. See recent polling data on this question, for example, according to Pew

There are considerably more guns than people in the United States. And data above show quite a few people - at least those that we know of - being honest about their gun ownership, legal or otherwise. Citing more from Pew …

Protection tops the list of reasons why gun owners have a gun. Two-thirds of gun owners (67%) say this as a major reason why they own a firearm. Considerably smaller shares say hunting (38%), sport shooting (30%), gun collecting (13%) or their job (8%) are major reasons. While men and women are about equally likely to cite protection (65% and 71%, respectively) as a major reason they own a gun, women are more likely than men to cite protection as the only reason (27% of women vs. 8% of men). Higher shares of male gun owners than female gun owners point to hunting (43% vs. 31%) and sport shooting (34% vs. 23%) as major reasons for gun ownership.

Regardless of whether they live in an urban, suburban or rural area, Americans are much more likely to cite protection than other considerations as a major reason for owning a gun. Rural gun owners, however, are far more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to say hunting is a major reason why they own a firearm (48% of rural gun owners say this, compared with 34% of suburbanites and 27% of urbanites).

Gun rights advocates have successfully misconstrued the gun control message as a mission to take all guns - and, as a result, take away personal “protection.” Gun control is successfully, and incorrectly, framed as a “slippery slope” towards the full elimination of gun rights. It’s one why we see numbers like these where there is still a considerable number of Americans who don’t want strict gun laws: 41 percent in a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll say a ban on assault guns is a bad idea, 34-40 percent in a Quinnipiac poll oppose stricter gun laws overall …

Additionally, according to Gallup historical data

Line graph. Do you have a gun in your home? 1959-2018 trend. High 51% "yes" in 1993; currently 43%.Line graph. Americans' views in changes on strictness of gun laws. 61% in late 2018 say they should be more strict.

Gun control advocates need to start sharpening the message with laser focus: Eliminate all “battlefield-grade weapons.” Get veterans who’ve used those weapons to back that up. Leave other guns such as small arms, handguns and basic hunting rifles out of the discussion. Basic message:

“You can keep your sidearms. We just want those battlefield-grade/military-grade weapons off the shelves, safely kept in military hands.”

That’s it, keep countering with that, pressing that as the main, uncompromising maxim of all gun control efforts: remove “battlefield grade weapons” from the civilian marketplace. Add clever clap-backs like “you must not know how to hunt if you need an AR-15 to kill a deer, rabbit or duck.”

Revive The Federal Assault Weapons Ban

For 10 years in U.S. history, there was a national ban on “battlefield grade” weapons or what are also known as “assault weapons.” The ban was created as a subsection in what is now the infamous 1994 Crime Bill. But, it was allowed to expire in 2004 and has been on shelf since.

Gun control advocates should be constantly raising and reviving the still expired assault weapons ban, using it 1) as a primary litmus test for 2020 Democratic candidates (“will you revive the federal assault weapons ban you first 100 days?”) and 2) forcing media to constantly pepper the current president with that same question about the assault weapons ban.

Another messaging mantra is this particular data point relevant to the assault weapons ban, based on research from University of Massachusetts-Boston researcher (per Politifact)

Klarevas examined incidents before, during and after the assault weapons ban when six or more people were shot and killed.

• 1984 to 1994: 19 incidents

• 1994 to 2004 (ban is in effect): 12 incidents

2004 to 2014: 34 incidents

That shows a 183 percent increase of incidents in the decade after the ban, compared to the years during the ban.

Apparently, while the ban didn’t totally stop mass shootings, it certainly showed some effectiveness based on data above. Which means it’s a very worthwhile and easy step in the right direction. Why that hasn’t been a daily and prominent, lead mantra of the gun control movement is confounding. Even more confounding is how 2020 Democratic candidates, including the 1994 Crime Bill author Joe Biden, have - up until the recent El Paso and Dayton shootings - failed to bring up the ban. Gun control advocates should be reviving a grassroots movement built around the ban of battlefield/war zone-grade weapons.