Lethal Weapons

Lethal Weapons

Lethal Weapons

How you look at things.
April 30 1999 3:30 AM

Lethal Weapons

Clinton reloads the gun control debate.

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Tuesday, a week after the Colorado high-school massacre, President Clinton proposed new gun control legislation and asked Americans to rethink the issue. "We've got to keep working until people start thinking about this stuff the same way they think about X-rays and metal detectors at airports," he declared at a White House ceremony. "We have to redefine the national community so that we have a shared obligation to save children's lives." To the gun control advocates in attendance, Clinton pleaded, "You change the culture, we'll change the laws."

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Clinton's speech was a textbook illustration of how to use a national trauma to reframe an issue. Congress has opposed gun control for years. By changing the "culture"--i.e., the way voters "think about" firearms--Clinton hopes to swing public opinion in favor of gun restrictions. In the past, he observed, rural Americans have thought of guns in terms of hunting and the right to bear arms. In the future, Clinton wants Americans to think of guns in new terms: bombs and kids. His strategy is threefold.

1.Co-opt the "culture" argument. Opponents of gun control have framed the debate as a choice between blaming weapons and blaming people who abuse them. "Guns don't kill people; people kill people," goes the famous slogan. Since conservatives tend to oppose pornography and divorce as well as gun control, they get a twofer by attributing tragedies such as the one in Colorado to a degenerating "culture." Monday, Republicans put out the word that House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott were going to kick off a "national dialogue on youth and culture" to address nongun-related causes of the massacre.

Clinton tried to neutralize the importance of culture by acknowledging it. In her opening remarks, Hillary Clinton invoked prayer and religion and repeatedly charged that the "culture of violence" in television, movies, music, video games, and the Internet "is having a profound effect on our children" and "causes more aggression and anti-social behavior." "We must resolve to do what we can to change that culture," she proposed. Both Clintons claimed that several of their pet causes and projects were ameliorating anti-social conduct: V-chips, children's television, Internet filters, and mental health awareness. By suggesting that the cultural causes of violence were being sufficiently addressed, they sought to shift attention and pressure to the remaining factor: guns.

2.Focus on kids. Adults who can't stand the idea of the government telling them what to do are usually willing and often eager to have the government impose identical restrictions on teen-agers. So the Clintons aimed their legislation and rhetoric at kids and young adults. "Guns and children are two words that should never be put together in the same sentence," argued Hillary Clinton, who managed to squeeze off countless criticisms of guns in between her eight invocations of "our children." President Clinton repeatedly drew applause as he announced proposals to "raise the legal age of handgun possession from 18 to 21 years" and "prevent juveniles who commit violent crimes from ever buying a gun."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

3. Equate guns with bombs. Americans love rights and recreation but hate crime and mayhem. The most important element of Clinton's strategy, therefore, is to get the public to stop associating guns with hunting and self-protection and to start associating them with explosives and terrorism instead. "We have a huge hunting and sport shooting culture in America," Clinton observed. But "I want to make a plea to everybody who is waiting for the next deer season in my home state to think about this in terms of what our reasonable obligations to the larger community of America are. ... Next time you get on an airplane, think about how you'd feel if the headline in the morning paper right before you got on the airplane was 'Airport Metal Detectors and X-Ray Machines Abolished as Infringement on Americans' Constitutional Right To Travel.' ... And right next to it there is another headline: 'Terrorist Groups Expanding Operations in the United States.' "

To fortify this unorthodox analogy, the Clintons bound guns and bombs together in their legislation and in their analysis on the Colorado tragedy. While Hillary Clinton preached against juvenile access to "bomb-making materiel" and decried "the arsenal of guns, rifles, and bombs that the two young men in Littleton were able to bring into their school," President Clinton earned another ovation by proposing to "require Brady background checks on anyone who wants to buy explosives."

If opponents of gun control don't recognize soon how the emerging prominence of kids and explosives is transforming the nation's image of deadly weapons, Clinton may succeed in reshaping the debate and turning the political tide against guns. Advocates of gun rights say Clinton is "exploiting this tragedy in Littleton to further his gun control agenda." Of course he is. They're missing the point. Politicians don't ban guns. Politicians with persuasive arguments ban guns.