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The Loaded Language Of 'Gun Speak'

Donald Trump
In this Friday, May 20, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Ky.
Mark Humphrey/AP Photo
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gunspeak_web.mp3

Update from Edgar B. Herwick III, October 5, 2017: Like many of us, I’ve been closely following developments in Las Vegas, following the tragic violence that unfolded there Sunday night. Today, a quote from Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo in a Newsweek story caught my eye:

"What we know is Paddock is a man who spent decades acquiring guns and ammo, and living a secret life. Anything that would indicate this individual trigger point, which would cause him to inflict this harm, we're not there yet."

Trigger point. Right there, in an update to the press on the investigation into a mass shooting, the sheriff casually used a gun-related phrase.

This is by no means an indictment of Sheriff Lombardo. Almost all of us do this, and we do it a lot. It reminded me of this story — which ran last year following the tragic shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando ­­— about just how common “gunspeak” is in our culture. And what, if anything, that says about us.

Have you ever found yourself "sweating bullets" because you were "under the gun" at work? Ever hatched a "bulletproof" plan? Or took a "shot in the dark?" Told a joke that totally "misfired?" Ever had an idea that was "shot down" right on the spot? If you have, did you "stick to your guns?"

By almost any measure, guns are prevalent in America. There are an estimated 270 million of them in Americans' hands. Tens of thousands are manufactured here every year, and thousands more are on display everywhere from the NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Virginia to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They are also a mainstay in our everyday conversations, whether we realize it or not. 

Yes, here in America, we seek "silver bullets" for complicated problems, and "smoking guns" to prove guilt in the court of law—and of public opinion. We’re practically awash in "gun speak."

Bob Myers, a cultural anthropologist at Alfred University in New York who lectures on language, violence and culture, suggested listening to people talk to unearth deeper, cultural themes.

"It’s just part of our way of talking," Myers said. "It’s so common. It reflects this longstanding obsession that we have with guns."

Myers says that "gun speak" has permeated American culture so deeply that it’s used by everybody—men and women, Republicans and Democrats, gun owners and people who have never even seen a real gun—often without thinking.

"I’ve tried to pay attention to whether this is a more- or less-educated style of speech, and I don’t think it breaks down by education or social class," he said. "I think it’s just throughout the culture."

Indeed, an urban-dwelling business executive is just as likely to "pull the trigger" on a deal as a deer hunter is to pull the actual trigger on his rifle in the wilds of New Hampshire.

So is this a uniquely American thing?

No other modern, wealthy country is as obsessed with guns as American are, Myers said.

"Does that mean nobody speaks about guns using these expressions and idioms? I’d put my money on ‘Nobody does,’ but I can’t be sure," he said.

To be sure, many of of these expressions are just that—expressions—long stripped of any truly violent intent. So the million-dollar question is, does it really matter that we use them so freely in casual conversation?

"We are far and away the most violent wealthy society, and we are the most prone to use guns to kill somebody," Myers said. "I have a hard time saying that the way we speak is causative there. I think it’s clearly a deeper comfort level that we have with guns."

And that comfort level, that ease with which we use these loaded words and phrases, in Myers's estimation, does matter.

"I can’t say that we use this violent language and imagery and that makes us more violent," he said. "But I can ask the question, 'Well, if we spoke with all kinds of racist words were we more likely to be more racist or more comfortable being racist?'"

In the end, Myers says that simply changing the way we speak won’t alone change the way we behave, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking about the words we use.

"How we talk matters," he said. "If we’re uncomfortable with the fact that so many people get killed by guns in our culture, it would be a good thing for us to slow down and listen to how many different expressions that we use that have to do with firearms, and shooting, and guns. Awareness of how we speak is always a good idea."

And if you do decide to take a shot, and target the expressions that you use for more careful scrutiny—even just for a day—be prepared. You might be blown away by what you find.

If something's caught your eye that you are curious to know more about, email Edgar at curiositydesk@wgbh.org.

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