Every mass shooting, there’s a brief flare-up of discussion about gun control, followed by an inevitable dropping of the subject as liberals give up hope that anything can be done about guns when conservatives control the discourse so thoroughly. It’s become so predictable that even lamenting the process has in itself become a cliché. The notion that owning semi-automatic assault rifles that can shoot off six rounds a second is a “right” has become so embedded that many people, including our president, have calculated that it’s fruitless to even try to start drafting legislation that would restrict the sale of such weapons. Facing this stalemate, it’s time for gun control advocates to start changing the conversation.
I propose we do this by starting attacking not the guns themselves, but gun culture. And we can start by calling for restrictions on the advertising of guns.
A lot of liberals aren’t tuned into this, because they live in their own enclaves and absorb media that doesn’t really cater to the gun crowd, but gun advertising is common in many markets—so much so that a South Carolina newspaper had to apologize because it ran a gun ad next to a story about the Sandy Hook shooting. Major corporations like Wal-Mart or Cabelas frequently advertise gun sales, and manufacturers often directly try to stoke interest in their products with print ads. On top of this, entire magazines such as Guns and Ammo and Shooting Times basically exist for no other reason than to sell guns.
While gun enthusiasts frequently deny being paranoid, or drawn to guns to “prove” their manhood, Mark Murrman at Mother Jones discovered gun manufacturers disagree with their customers about their motives. He collected a series of gun ads, and showed that they often riffed on anxieties about masculinity or right-wing paranoias. Bushmaster, which makes one of the guns that Adam Lanza used to snuff out the lives of 27 people, ran ads in Maxim with copy reading, “Consider your man card reissued.” Remington ran an ad claiming that private gun owners constituted an “army” that politicians should fear. These kinds of ads increase gun sales, but at the cost of perpetuating the toxic culture in which guns proliferate as a panacea for anxious masculinity and overblown fears that one has to protect oneself from government breaking down your door or criminals invading your home.
There’s two reasons to support legislations banning gun advertising. One, it’s a strategy that has been tried before with a different deadly product—cigarettes—which makes it an easy sell and relatively protected against court tests. Two, it would put the National Rifle Association (NRA) on the defense, exposing their true nature as an industry lobby and not as a rights organization.
Cigarette advertising in this country has been increasingly restricted for decades now, and really the only opposition that these restrictions face anymore comes from the hated tobacco industry. Just as with cigarettes, the arguments could be framed as a youth-safety issue above all other things. No one is attacking the right of grown adults who have experience to buy guns, but we can at least keep gun manufacturers from trying to lure in young, inexperienced customers with flashy ads promising them they’ll be manlier and more adult if they buy guns. Guns analogize to cigarettes very easily as items that the public largely believes should be legal but now necessarily celebrated.
More important, trying to pass restrictions on gun advertising would put the NRA in a very bad position. There’s almost no chance they wouldn’t immediately and vociferously fight any attempt to restrict gun advertising. In fact, over the summer, there was a minor kerfuffle when Google decided to ban weapons advertising from its ad network, and conservatives threw a fit, suggesting this is a fight they can’t resist having.
The NRA currently likes to cast itself as the defender of the individual’s right to own guns, but defending advertisers would look more like they’re putting corporate profits over common-sense advertising regulations. They’d also look fringe-y, since they’d have to use arguments that make it sound like they’re against popular advertising regulations of other dangerous products.
It would also help shift the discourse about guns away from individual gun owners and toward the enormous industry that profits handsomely from selling products made for no other reason than to kill. Right now, guns are understood as a culture-war issue, and when liberals call for gun control, gun owners feel personally attacked and demonized. But the brutal truth is that the gun industry treats its customers like marks, manipulating them with deceitful marketing into buying a bunch of guns that are more likely to lead to their violent deaths than to protect them from violence. If any other industry lobby dared react to a tragedy by saying the solution was buying more of their products, most of the country would recoil at the naked manipulation. This is what the NRA does, and focusing on their role as a spokesman for industry can help people see this.
As long as the debate over guns stays in the rights vs. safety framework that currently rules now, gun-control advocates will lose. Americans simply don’t like giving up perceived rights, a quality that liberals need to avoid attacking, since it tends to go our way in every other debate. But the gun issue isn’t about rights so much as it’s about a predatory arms industry that stokes people’s, especially right wing people’s, irrational fears and fantasies in order to separate them from their money. We should put the NRA in a position of openly advocating for corporate profits over the lives of schoolchildren, and the best way to push them into that position is to start pushing for bans on gun advertising. Getting even this victory over the NRA can help derail the myth of their omnipotence, and help create momentum for more direct regulations of gun sales that would save lives.