Tropes in the Rhetoric of Gun Rights: A Pragma-Dialectic Analysis

By Duerringer, Christopher M.; Justus, Z. S. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Tropes in the Rhetoric of Gun Rights: A Pragma-Dialectic Analysis


Duerringer, Christopher M., Justus, Z. S., Argumentation and Advocacy


On April 17, 2013, Joe Biden did something uncharacteristic for a Vice President-he took his place as President of the U. S. Senate to preside over the defeat of a gun control bill he supported. Typically, the Vice President only makes it to the Senate chambers to cast a tie-breaking vote or to be present for a historic victory--certainly not to witness a historic defeat (Obama: Background, 2013). The legislation proposed was not draconian, or even aggressive gun control. Senators PatToomey (R-PA) andjoe Manchin (D-WV) put together a bi-partisan bill full of provisions supported by 65% of Americans (Metzler, 2013). The timing seemed to be appropriate as well: in the wake of the school shootings at Newtown, families who had lost children were lobbying congress alongside Gabrielle Giffords and a host of other high profile advocates urging action to prevent future tragedies (Sherfinski, 2013). Despite all of this strategy, pageantry, and timing, the bill failed and Vice President Biden was there to watch. This is just one in a long series of peculiar episodes in the gun control debate in the United States.

At the most basic level, this manuscript addresses the question: how do things like this keep happening? Despite broad popular opinion that it is wrong on multiple issues (Gun Control, 2013) and wields too much power (Young, Heremway, Blendon, & Benson, 1996), the gun rights lobby is incredibly effective at achieving legislative goals and directing the national conversation about guns. In this manuscript, we trace the most popular arguments in favor of gun rights (i.e., opposed to gun regulation) as they surface from opinion leaders, propagate in mainstream media, and come alive in social media. The origins of these arguments are sometimes opaque, but our concern is not so much where they start, but the places they end up and the effect they have on public deliberation about firearms. The content of these arguments should tell us about the status of the gun rights conversation in America and how it can be improved. Our engagement of these fallacies requires a move away from fallacious reasoning as an atheoretical taxonomy of bad arguments, and toward a systematized understanding of bad arguments grounded in the pragma- dialectics of van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1987). This case study serves as an example of how this can be operationalized.

The rationale for engaging these arguments is four-fold. First, there is durability to the argumentative structure of gun rights rhetoric. Specific arguments like guns don't kill people, people kill people and its variants have been in circulation since 1959 (Sarasota HeraldTribune, 1959). The controversies motivating them also stay the same; in 1972 Erskine analyzed polling data about gun control and noted many of the same trends we see today (e.g., a disconnect between policy and public opinion) going back to 1938. The faces and formats may change, but the durability of the arguments and issues begs for further examination.

Second, this ongoing public controversy is an issue of significance. Guns are an important civil right identified by the founders and consistently recognized by the Supreme Court. These rights are sometimes at odds with public safety issues. And this topic looms especially large in our current political context as politicians attempt to deal with the overwhelming tragedies of mass shootings through stricter gun control laws.

Third, these arguments seem to produce stalemate. Their historical durability suggests their appeal to the faithful; but they do not appear to win many new adherents. Despite grandiose claims that gun control efforts have led to record enrollment, the NRA's membership is estimated by the Washington Post to have topped out at about 3.1 million Americans (Kessler, 2013, February 8). That number represented slightly less than 1% of the population at the time this essay was drafted. The gun rights lobby has enormous financial resources and has, to a great degree, succeeded in thwarting efforts at gun control. …

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