The classroom can and should be a place where students learn to engage critically, and develop the skills necessary to enter nationwide debates as active, democratic citizens. In order to do so, they must understand the rhetoric used by the media, by the government, and by proponents on either side of an argument. The warrants, assumptions, and terminology used in public debate – especially regarding hotly contested issues – often go under-examined.
Case in point, the choice of terminology used in discussing the role of guns in American society reflects the most essential differences between those on different sides of the debate about Americans’ right to own guns. In the aftermath of the most recent school shooting, proponents of restrictions on gun ownership have increasingly used the term “gun safety” rather than the term “gun control” to draw attention to their primary concern. Weighing in on that side of the debate is the emotional appeal provided by Parkland students—and thousands of their counterparts elsewhere—giving a public face to the victims and potential victims of gun violence and voicing their plea for new legislation to prevent similar massacres in the future.
Even though it is difficult to argue against gun safety, so far legislators have not been swayed by the terminology or the tactics. Is it simply party loyalty that drives a legislator to vote against restrictions on assault rifles? Is it campaign contributions from the NRA that prevent legislators from voting to increase the age at which an individual can buy guns? Why have some businesses proved more willing to restrict gun sales than our government?
If the most basic fear of gun control advocates is that more children and young people will die without more restrictions on guns, the most basic fear of gun control opponents is giving any modicum of control up to the government. Their simplest defense is that the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to bear arms. There is no room in their philosophy for the historical context of that amendment or the consideration of changes in guns that have come about since it became law. Does the right to bear arms mean the same thing in an age of automatic guns and armor-piercing bullets? Does the Second Amendment mean that there can be no restrictions on the type of arms any citizen can bear? What can be more important than keeping schoolchildren safe? The answer has to be keeping American citizens safe from the government. Not just from government restrictions, but from total control by an armed government of an unarmed citizenry. It is the ultimate result of the slippery slope that begins with giving an inch. It is the ultimate extension of the argument by gun owners that they have the right to protect their families. After all, what was “a well regulated Militia” designed to protect our young nation from? What were the Founding Fathers afraid of when they devised this means of protecting “the security of a free State”? The citizenry must be able to protect themselves against enemies from without or enemies from within. Since we have our armed forces to do the first, the only justification for a well-regulated militia is to protect from the latter.
This sort of analysis of the warrants or assumptions underlying arguments for and against restrictions on gun ownership can help to clarify, if not resolve, the stalemate regarding any changes in existing laws. Encouraging students to participate in such an analysis not only hones their understanding of argument, but also invites active citizenship.