Editorial: Spin Cycle

No matter where you are on the issue of gun ownership, you’ve got skin in the game regarding the recent Supreme Court decision (Heller) and the one they are deliberating on now (City of Chicago). I’m not going to try and sway you one way or the other within the scope of this article, but I’d like to explore one aspect of the gun debate that you might not have considered – and how it affects you and your opinions on the subject. By “spin” I’m not talking about a washing machine, or how fast you can rotate cartridges in a wheelgun. Nope. I’m speaking of “spinning” within a P.R. context – how one side or the other takes a fact and recasts it in a light favorable to their side.

In marketing-speak, we call this “re-framing the debate,” in other words, using words (and sometimes pictures) to change the audience’s perspective on the issue – a perspective that is automatically more favorable to their own positions. How does this work? Let’s take it out of the realm of guns for a second, and talk about…um…apples.

Back in the 80s, orchards across America discovered a chemical called Alar. It was very effective in controlling pests that could ruin an apple crop, devastating farmers and driving prices through the roof. There was a small, but vocal, group of environmentalists that believed Alar was dangerous.

Strike that. They believed that ANY pesticide was dangerous. Now there are two sides to that argument. It makes a certain amount of sense that “less is better” and any additive, no matter how innocuous, automatically increases the risk of some kind of problem in the food chain. You can also argue that anything that is toxic to bugs could be toxic to humans. Sounds reasonable, right?

Not so fast. Humans and insects have different DNA. (Unless you’re a lawyer or a used car salesman.) What affects a bug’s central nervous system does not necessarily have any effect on a human’s. And despite what the environmental crowd would have you believe, most companies and manufacturers routinely behave responsibly. After all, if they sell something that harms people, sooner or later, they’ll be caught and their business will be ruined. It’s in their rational self-interest to sell products that are safe and effective.

The regulatory agencies play a role, too. Nothing inspires a Congressman to (over)action more than the high drama of a food scandal. Add in the news media’s lust for ratings and you have a perfect storm that can brew over the business of just about anybody, all for the sake of a few groups that have a vested interest in destroying something for their own, selfish goals.

Because of the alarm sounded by these environmental groups, Congress held hearings on “The Alar Crisis.” That noted scientist and neurological expert witness, Meryl Streep (yes…THAT Meryl Streep), testified famously against Alar, saying that it must be banned “for the Children!

Naturally, Congress did the (ir)responsible thing. With no real hard data or scientific information to prove up the case, they banned Alar. Not “ordered a committee to study the evidence.” They just banned it. As a result, apple prices rose. Dramatically. Which hurt two groups: Kids and the poor. (Thanks, Meryl!)

By reframing the debate on Alar (and using Meryl Streep as a useful idiot) the enviro crowd was able to reframe the debate from a question of “is there any evidence to suggest that Alar may have side effects” to the much easier (and sound-byte friendly) question “are farmers killing our children?”

So how does this pertain to the gun debate? Glad you asked.

Notice how, throughout this article, I’ve referred to the “gun debate?” That was a conscious decision, for “debate” is a neutral word. On the other hand “gun control” is not. “Control” sounds innocuous, but it’s not. It implies that the current situation is out of control. The mainstream media (in and of itself a biased term) has embraced the term “gun control” with almost religious fervor.

Not convinced? How about the term “assault rifle.” Makes the media and anti-gun groups sound so much less wacko than trying to get a ban on “all-black carbines” doesn’t it?

Here’s the truth about guns, campers: There’s no such thing as an ‘assault’ rifle. ALL rifles are used to assault something – be it a paper target, a ten-point buck, or a guy trying to steal your Porsche. The word “assault” implies intent…and since there isn’t a gun on the planet that qualifies as a sentient being, it’s a little much to expect that a rifle could intend to assault someone. There’s no such thing as a rifle that is designed for assault – the same AR-15 you can use for a SWAT team assault during the week works just fine to go out hunting on the weekend.

How about “cop killer bullets”? No such thing. “Bullet proof vests” are a misnomer, too. They should more accurately be referred to as “bullet resistant,” in the same way that there’s no such thing as a “waterproof” watch, but instead watches that are “water-resistant to XXX fathoms.”

My favorite distortion was a golden oldie from a few years back. Remember the media panic over the so-called “plastic guns” that would enable bad guys to get guns through metal detectors at our airports? Um…not so much.

The plastic guns to which they refer were…wait for it…Glocks. Um…but wait…aren’t Glocks made of plastic? Sure…but they ALL have steel barrels and slides. And magazines and trigger assemblies, too. A gun with a plastic barrel might fire one bullet. Might. After that, the force of the gasses would blow up the barrel, the slide, and the gun, making a second shot impossible. And I promise you, the barrel or slide of a Glock would be more than enough to set off a metal detector in any airport.

“Plastic guns” was a hysterical reaction of a media hungry for drama, stoked by an anti-gun lobby that was looking for a sensational story they could use to advance their own agenda.

Those that believe the country would be better off without guns have done a masterful job in framing the debate in the media. Even that supposed bastion of right-wing values, Fox News, frequently refers to “gun control” and “assault rifles.” It’s virtually become the de facto language for discussion. Which is exactly what they wanted.

On the other side of the debate, the NRA and friends are doing their best to reframe the debate to be more favorable to their own goals. Instead of “gun control advocates” they refer to “gun grabbers,” which sounds ever so much more thuggish. (Of course, if you know anything about the behavior of the mayor of New Orleans and the police force immediately after Hurricane Katrina, “gun grabbers” is a shockingly accurate label.) I’d love to cite more examples of hyperbole on the right, but when compared to the spinning done by the left, those on the right are slackers.

In a world where most people get their news via sound bytes, it’s increasingly important for us as citizens to avoid taking things at face value, and examine the very words used to describe and shape the debate. It’s far too easy to get sucked into seemingly-innocuous language and find yourself leaning to one side of the debate, without ever taking the time to consider how you may be a victim of manipulation. If you want to avoid getting dizzy from all the spin, take the time to do your homework, and try thinking for yourself. It beats getting (re)framed.

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