WASHINGTON — When the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence wanted to promote more restrictions on firearms after the Connecticut school shootings in December, it hired a firm to help publicize its position. The firm’s name? Point Blank Public Affairs.
When Vice President Joe Biden promised ideas for responding to the massacre, he said he was “shooting for Tuesday" — even as he warned that there is “no silver bullet" for stopping gun violence. When President Barack Obama noted that he was reviewing those ideas, he said on a different topic that he would not negotiate “with a gun at the head."
No wonder it is hard to get rid of gun violence when Washington cannot even get rid of gun vocabulary. The vernacular of guns suffuses the political and media conversation in ways that politicians and journalists are often not even conscious of, underscoring the historical power of guns in the American experience. Candidates “target" their opponents, lawmakers “stick to their guns," advocacy groups “take aim" at hostile legislation and reporters write about a White House “under fire."
The ubiquitous nature of such language has caused people on both sides of the emotional debate in recent weeks to take back, or at least think twice about the phrases they use, lest they inadvertently cause offense in a moment of heightened sensitivity.
“It’s almost second nature," said Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association. “They’re such mainstream phrases, you almost have to check yourself and double-check yourself."
But it also says something about the long American romance with guns and the nation’s self image.
“All of that ties into the frontier tradition, rugged individualism, a single American with a flintlock or a gun of some kind holding off the Indians or fighting off the British," said Robert Spitzer, a scholar of gun control at the State University of New York at Cortland.
While Spitzer called that more mythology than reality, even he found himself using such references in a recent speech responding to comments by Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s vice president, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack. “My opening line was, his speech was a misfire; he missed the target," Spitzer recalled. “I liked using the gun metaphor because I think it’s doubly appropriate for him."
In that case, of course, he was doing it deliberately. And others use double entendre purposefully. The National Shooting Sports Foundation says on its website that it is “always shooting for more" to promote the future of sport shooting. For an editorial last week criticizing Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, for his past solidarity with the NRA, The New York Times used the headline, “Senator Reid Takes Fresh Aim."
But much of the time, such phrases come spilling out without apparent irony. Candy Crowley, the CNN anchor, introduced an interview by highlighting “our conversation with NRA point man Asa Hutchinson." Christiane Amanpour on the same network featured a story about a Tennessee lawmaker known for supporting gun rights. “So why did the NRA take aim at her?" she asked.
After Alex Jones, a gun rights advocate, erupted during an interview with Piers Morgan, the Internet lit up. As of Tuesday, the phrase “Alex Jones goes ballistic" drew 357,000 hits on Google.
The Brady Campaign found itself in the awkward position of using a firm called Point Blank when it needed help last month. Point Blank, named for the Bruce Springsteen song, had an archery bull’s-eye on its website. But it has since dissolved and one of its principals, Debra DeShong Reed, has founded a new firm, called Five by Five Public Affairs, that is now working for the Brady Campaign.