Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Why Are Anti-Gun Control Memes So Bad?


A friend of The Omnivore asked The Omnivore to look into the above meme to see if there anything to it. He’d argued with his son about whether or not large scale civilian ownership of guns made the world safer—using the US (lots of guns) vs. the UK (guns are banned). The argument is that the UK is something like 800 times more violent than the US [ because no guns ]. Never mind that the claim is comparing actual assaults and homicides to things like threats that only marginally count as ‘violence’ or that it basically gets even that wrong, The Omnivore was shocked that it would even pass someone’s sniff test. After all, no one is contending that the US’s murder rate is lower than the UK’s—even the above meme compares the US to the Top 10 violent countries in the world (like Swaziland at #7) to the European Union (It doesn’t even break the world’s Most Dangerous Places!).

Comparing murder-rate to non-touching (‘simple assault’) ‘violence’ is like saying it’s better to have cancer than the common cold—cause there ain’t no cure for the common cold but sometimes you can ‘cure’ cancer! For the record:

We’re Number One! We’re Number One!!

The Omnivore is not a gun control advocate, per se (we’ll get to nuance in a minute) but even with some sympathy towards the cause, the messaging of the pro-Gun memes has been awful. The US-UK example was just the most recent The Omnivore ran into. The question is: Why? Why are pro-gun memes generally so bad? (And what’s up with anti-gun memes, while we’re at it?).

Why Are Pro-Gun Memes So Awful?

There’s a wide, wide world of memes out there—but let’s let Google, our cultural concierge, tell us which ones are the top-dawgs. Let’s start with “Gun Control Memes”

Google Category Example Message Type Notes
Will Wonka MISGUIDED The all-purpose Wonka-sneer can use his powers for good or evil.
Hitler MOTHER, SHOULD I TRUST THE GOVERNMENT? Look at the background contrast on the bottom row …
Obama LEGISLATIVE HIPOCRISY He’s wearing the cap backwards. Why is that?
2nd Amendment MOLON LABE That Jefferson quote is spurious—but what would Tom have said about her outfit!?
General BLAME THE TOOL USER Interestingly, the Empire probably did ban lightsabers
General SELF RELIANCE Yeah, I know—BUT LOOK!
General MORAL HIPOCRISY Number one murder weapon in the world is the hand-gun—is this arguing in favor of banning those!?

There are more—and variations on the themes—but these are the major categories. Now, to be fair, not all of them are equally bad—but these are in general committing some fairly egregious unforced errors—specifically being transparently disingenuous. Let’s do the numbers:

Message Type Error type Error
MISGUIDED Logical Flaw The argument that making something illegal will not prevent it is ridiculous on the face of it: making something illegal and thus riskier/more expensive will produce less of it (if you are a conservative, you believe ‘incentives matter’). This is the push behind making abortion illegal—not because it will end all abortions (in fact, it will make those abortions that do occur far more dangerous to the mother)—but because there will be fewer of them.
HITLER (MOTHER, SHOULD I TRUST THE GOVERNMENT?) Exaggeration While it’s pithy to compare Obama to Hitler or Pol Pot, it’s also clear that’s totally hyperbolic. If the tyranny that Obama has actually unleashed compared to Stalin is proportional to his gun-banning, we ought not to worry about it according to this meme.
LEGISLATIVE HIPOCRISY Logical Flaw The issue is the Fast and Furious gun-running investigation which allowed illegal guns to be sold so they could be tracked. Was it questionable? Sure. Was Obama actually selling guns to gangs for normal reasons (profit motive)? No one—not even Fox News--alleges that.
MOLON LABE Exaggeration This is what you say when someone (Xerxes) is coming for you—not what you say when trying to convince people you are basically normal and law-abiding.
BLAME THE TOOL USER Logical Flaw While the bad actors with guns should certainly be blamed, the problem is that a is a force-multiplier in the hands of a bad actor. The meme studiously avoids the actual issue in favor of the sound-bite. Put another way: Unarmed, Darth Vader could have done some damage—but he wouldn’t have been able to kill all the younglings.
SELF RELIANCE Logical Flaw Again, the issue avoided is that guns are force multipliers in the hands of bad actors. Few liberals speak against the self-defense use of guns. They are concerned about what bad people are doing with them. So are pro-gun owners, of course, it’s just that the debate about what to do about those bad people isn’t happening and this meme mischaracterizes it badly.
MORAL HIPOCRISY Logical Flaw This meme is disingenuous: while hammers are more common than rifles, the most common murder weapon by a wide margin is the handgun and the meme maker wouldn’t want to control those. Additionally, once an assault-weapon style rifle makes it into the hands of a bad actor it’s way, way more dangerous than a hammer. The meme avoids this obvious bit of logic as well.


What Is Going On?

When someone’s primary arguments are straw-men (logical flaw) or exaggerations, it means something specific is going on: they think they will lose with their best argument. Is that the case here? The answer: probably yes.

The Real Arguments Against Gun Control

There are real, actually valid arguments against some / any gun control—however, they are not, in their basic form, going to be popular. These arguments are:

  • The 2nd Amendment: We get to have them. We get to have handguns because we are, in fact, given both a constitutional and moral right to self-defense. We get to have assault weapons because they are functionally rifles (hunting is morally valid) and despite their looks, assault weapons are just rifles. Furthermore, the 2nd gives us the constitutional right to protect ourselves against a tyrannical government. The goal is not going to be to win—but to make occupation too expensive in blood and treasure to continue with (something the larger capacity magazines would be necessary for as well). We have seen from Afghanistan and Iraq that assault weapons will fill that role in a way handguns would not. Full stop.
  • It Won’t Work: There are perhaps 300+ million guns in America. Most of America will not settle for house-to-house confiscation. There is no reasonable laws or set of laws America could pass that would restrict them.
  • Keeping Guns Out Of The Hands Of Bad People Involves Gross Violations of Privacy: While there might be some success in having mental health workers report potentially dangerous people who say they own guns, the fact is that the results would be hugely unpalatable to a lot of people and increase distrust of the mental health profession (remember: these are people who have not indicated a willingness to harm anyone—just someone who the psych thinks might somehow do it … and has said they own a gun). Having the FBI (NSA?) patrol YouTube and Facebook and get warrants on suspicion would make the IRS’s missing Lerner emails look legit (SEE WHAT I DID THERE!?)

The problem with these arguments is that they boil down to: Just Live With Periodic Mass Shootings (alternate solution: increase legal carry so that victims of mass gun-violence have more of a fighting chance—a not entirely illegitimate solution but one with a HUGE potential downside if things don’t go the way concealed carry advocates think/hope they will). It’s hard to fault anyone not wanting to take those risks). The fact is that these horrific mass shootings are comparatively pretty rare. If you want to talk about societal risks, they hardly rate.

That’s a logically winning argument (that the cost to reduce them would be either illegal or worse than the “disease”) but it isn’t an emotionally winning argument. This is why the gun-advocates, by and large, aren’t making it.

On the other hand …

The Anti-Gun Position

On the other hand, the anti-gun position is straight-forward:

Descriptor Example Message Type Notes
Tragedy TRAGEDY Every parent’s nightmare
Will Wonka WHY LARGE CAPACITY? The all-purpose Wonka-sneer can use his power for good or evil!
Sarah Conor MORAL HYPOCRISY Look at that knife she has too!
2nd Amendment STUPID Gun nuts are stupid? AMIRITE?

The anti-gun position is a far easier emotional sell than the pro-gun one. Specifically:

  • Gun massacres are tragic and frightening. As they happen, all too often, in schools, they kill children. This is horrible.
  • Explaining to someone who doesn’t believe that the government is going to take guns and become tyrannical (which is most people) that you need a 30-round magazine is a losing battle. Saying you get to have one ‘because 2nd’ is true—but it is not convincing. Most shooters who have been stopped by unarmed (or un-gunned) civilians have been stopped when reloading. Making this event more frequent passes the sniff test (note: a trained/experienced shooter will be able to swap mags very quickly—but The Omnivore has seen trained infantry fumble a magazine from time to time—forcing smaller mags, were it possible, would give civilian attackers a small but existent edge).
  • The charge that gun owners care more about their rights than “dead children” is (a) true and (b) just ask Joe the Plumber (‘Your dead kids don’t trump my rights’). He is correct (were someone’s child somehow killed by free-speech we would not get rid of free speech)—he is also an idiot and the worst possible ambassador for pro-gun activists for saying so.
  • While one can argue about the 2nd Amendment’s meanings (The Omnivore is pretty sure it’s meant to shut down a tyranny and assault weapons enable that), the issue here isn’t constitutional law (The Omnivore is also not a constitutional lawyer): it’s image.  Let’s talk about that for a moment.

Brand Wars: Pro-vs-Anti Gun Branding

The problem with the “debate” and, really, the reason why the pro-gun memes are so bad is that while we are arguing about constitutional law and utilitarian outcomes on the surface—underneath the argument is branding (remember, branding is the set of ideas / concepts we associate with a certain thing). In the branding-war the anti-gun side holds a massive edge over the pro-gun points (the reason this has not moved the dial in voting is because when it comes to actually believing that voting will make a difference, no one actually believes it will).

The anti-gun side gets to express outrage and sadness (and incredulity) about the killings guns like assault weapons enable—while the pro-gun side doesn’t get to (or else they “give the whole game away”). This leads to the pro-gun side sort of coming out ‘side-ways’ with a battery of straw-men and exaggerations which mimic the contours of ‘debate’ without actually (mostly) making points. To see this in another light, look at that diagram above:

What you see there is an ‘assault weapon’ compared to a “hunting gun”—the gun in question is illegal in the event of an assault weapon ban (there was one, it expired, it has not been renewed). The gun in the lower right would be legal under an AWB.

It is possible to get a non-assault weapon gun with the same operational specifications as the legal hunting-style rifle (same bullet, same rate of fire, same accuracy, same weight, etc.): pro-gun people believe this difference (the appearance of the gun, some marginal changes in performance and profile) is evidence of stupidity or at least ignorance on the part of gun-banners. They are (often, and to an extent) right: most people who advocate for an assault weapon ban haven’t used one and aren’t that familiar with shooting in general.

Worse, many anti-gunners can’t tell you why they think an assault weapon ban would make any kind of difference if the assailant could get a legal gun with the same specs. Oh, they might argue that collapsing stocks make them more concealable (mass shooters have just used trench coats). They could suggest a pistol-grip makes it more controllable—arguable (and certainly not more accurate if firing ‘from the hip’). They could talk about how larger magazines give them more shots to work with (which is true—but don’t underestimate how fast one can change out a magazine).

However, this is all missing the point. The reason the assault weapon is the preferred weapon of the psychotic mass shooter is its branding: the assault weapon, looking identical to a military fully automatic assault rifle, is a gun made to kill people. It is a weapon of war (the assault rifle) and the similar appearance is what appeals to them. That wood-stock rifle?

It won’t give you your ‘Man Card’ back. The branding for a psychotic shooter with an AR-15 in black tactical gear is “I am a man-killer. I am a soldier.” A guy with that wood stock? “I’m ah hunter! Hi guys!!” This is a very, very big difference. There is a reason a guy writing for Gawker suggested a law making guns pink.

This would probably work better for keeping assault weapons out of the hands of mass shooters (assuming they would not just spray-paint them) than anything else we could possibly do. Why? Because you don’t front like a bad-ass with a Hello-Kitty rifle. It messes up the internal narrative you are telling yourself and it ruins your legacy to the world.

Look, if you read that—and felt even the least bit angry at the idea that you might be ordered by the government to paint your guns pink? That’s how you’d know it works: after all, it isn’t changing the operational characteristics of the rifle at all, is it?

NOTE: the first pistol grip on a rifle was 1840!



  1. Hypocrisy is everywhere. Even among disposable heroes.

    And most other sandwiches, too. See what I did there?

    -- Ω

    1. Delicious, delicious disposable hero sandwiches. Also note: the issue isn't *exactly* the hypocrisy (which, yes, is everywhere)--it's emotional integrity. The reason the pro-gun memes are bad is because the pro-gun people (probably correctly) feel they can't just express sadness and outrage over the shootings without getting beat up for it.

      They have to circle the wagons to defend the 2nd Amendment which places them, emotionally--not logically--in sort of defending the shooter's (they can suggest the shooter should never have had a gun, sure--but there's no way to operationalize that which they would agree to).

      This leads to a lot of anger coming out side-ways: illogical gun-memes.

      -The Omnivore

  2. A lot of the information in this piece is inaccurate at best. Not that I care really.
    Oh and thanks for all the great posters.

  3. What are your sources for your statements? (i.e. "the most common murder weapon by a wide margin is the handgun..." ) I have never once seen any type of record stating that handguns are the #1 murder weapon in the world. Otherwise, this seems like a relatively well thought out article, and certainly grants me a healthy look at the issue from your perspective.