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    It's Not a Tragedy

    What can we say about the children massacre? “OK, Jay, do something,” says Melinda, a college English instructor in Colorado. “You’re the argument man….Every religious right idiot is posting cliched sayings on TEE SHIRTS for goodness sakes that this terrible tragedy occurred because we have taken prayer (and therefore God) out of public schools. I know there’s a fallacy there.”

    There is, Melinda. More than one, actually. (Post hoc ergo propter hoc and Straw Man lead my list). But remember, pointing out fallacies generally fails to persuade. 

    Besides, this is more of a framing issue than a mere argument. You want to redefine the terms and focus the issue to achieve your goal.

    What goal? I have one: Make it harder to pour bullets into small children. That’s something a majority of Americans should agree on, right? In practical terms, that means restoring the laws that expired under the Bush presidency—laws that banned assault weapons and large-capacity bullet clips. 

    So let’s talk about how to frame the issue, getting Congress to restore the ban on assault weapons and large clips.

    1. Don’t call it a tragedy. “Tragedy” implies an act of the gods, something terribly sad but inevitable. Instead, call it a massacre. A massacre is the most violent kind of crimes, and it implies that more than one person was involved. (We’ll get to that in a bit.)
    2. Keep the focus on the children. This was a massacre of children. Gundamentalists will try to focus on the shooter. That allows them to make a reasonable-sounding case for school prayer: As our morals deteriorate,  more sick people will do horrible things. Frame the issue around making it harder to massacre children. You can’t pray away legally acquired assault weapons and large-capacity ammo clips. 
    3. Demonize the NRA. I like Robert Shrum’s label, the National Rampage Association. There’s more than one culprit in this massacre. While the NRA didn’t specifically set out to massacre children, they did work with brutal efficiency to allow the massacre to happen. 
    4. Make the wafflers sound weak. Obama wiped a tear away while reading careful language avoiding direct talk of gun control. Demand that the President, and leaders in general, stand up to the NRA. It’s the ultimate classroom bully—a bully that allowed every small terrified child in a first grade to be killed with legally acquired assault weapons. 
    5. When the Second Amendment gets mentioned, bring the focus back to the children. The Second Amendment calls for a “well regulated militia” to protect the “security of a free state.” Ask what the security of a free state has to do with massacring children. Laws that make it easy to massacre children arguably violate the Second Amendment. Eleven bullets into a small child: Security?
    6. Be the moderate in the debate. Ultimately, the more moderate-sounding argument wins. As long as the issue stays focused on the children and not on the shooter, on the children instead of “freedom,” then the issue comes down to this: Are you for or against the massacre of children? 

    It’s all about the children. As long as the issue focuses on them, their deaths—their criminal massacre—won’t be entirely meaningless.

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    Reader Comments (28)

    Jay, I agree with every single word you just said. I said some similar things on Huffington Post Friday afternoon, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-mcelroy/my-plea-to-the-supreme-court_b_2303510.html.

    I am going to use your piece in my classes on persuasive writing this spring. It's all about word choice.
    December 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa McElroy
    I so agree. Clouding the argument with trying to understand the shooters mental health is unproductive at this point in time. How did a young man get assault weapons? Stop enabling that transaction. Period.
    December 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlizreap
    Good point, Liz. That "transaction" entailed taking his mother's legally acquired weapons and shooting her in the face.
    December 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Love "gundamentalists"! Is that yours?
    December 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandina Watson
    Yes, it's a portmanteau, to get technical. Gun-loving fundamentalists with an unusual interpretation of Jesus' peace message.
    December 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Well put & thought provoking.
    December 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Merchant
    Very well put Jay,
    December 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterroberto
    C'mon Jay, This is nothing less than a tragedy and you cant cloud that with terminology. As far as the focus on the children, to say that it is all about the children is ridiculous. What about the teachers who lost their lives? What about the families of the victims who are affected? What about the community and the whole nation for that matter? Yes the children were innocent but werent all the victims and everyone who this had an impact on? As far as the NRA, people need to take responsibility for their own actions and trying to place blame on others. Do we attack car manufacturers for lives lost because of drunk driving? I wish i could go on and on but i wont i just thought i would share my opinion.
    December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLucio Montoya
    I'm glad you're focusing on the language, Lucio. That's the key to rhetoric. The ancients defined tragedy clearly: it's when the main actor brings about his own downfall. So if you want to look at the real meaning of a tragedy, this isn't one--unless the tragedy comes from what society is doing to itself.

    This massacre isn't all about the children. But rhetorically, the focus should be on the children. That's the only way to bring Congress around to the need to restore the restrictions on assault weapons and large-ammo clips.

    NRA: I agree that people should take responsibility for their own actions. That should start with the NRA, whose scorched-earth lobbying and extremist stand have led to fearful citizens arming themselves with military gear. Your analogy with car manufacturers doesn't really hold up, I think. Car manufacturers don't lobby to allow drunk driving. They don't lobby against strict licensing and registration rules. In other words, car manufacturers take responsibility for their actions.

    I enjoy guns myself, used to hunt, and welcome hunters to my land. The passion for assault weapons has nothing to do with hunting or the responsible use of guns. We're not talking about a total gun ban here. Just a sensible restriction on guns created to kill people. Lucio, that responsibility for moderation should start with you and me. Agreed?
    December 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    If its not a gun it's a bomb strapped to their body.
    If its not a gun it's a knife
    If its not a gun it's a vehicle run into a building or another
    Weapon that can be imagined to terrorize and accomplish
    What this man wanted to do.
    Let's move to a country where guns are banned
    And live in fear from all the mass killings happening
    Every day. Check out Puerto Rican news, England
    And other countries that have banned guns and see
    How fast you move back to America.
    America will never be overpowered by another Nation as long as
    It's citizens are armed.
    Doesn't anyone feel the video games this young
    American terrorist played, the music he listened too
    And the movies and programs on TV held no fault in this?
    December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterConcerned
    I'm glad you brought up other places, Concerned. Here's some more information that might help.
    December 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Yo Figaro! FYI, the Washington Post link you just posted doesn't work. There's an extra apostrophe at the end which needs to be deleted...
    December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBonzilla
    Thanks, Bon. It's fixed now.
    December 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Figaro, thank you for this incisive post and for your careful responses to comments. I've linked to you from my own blog today.

    By the way, I was able to antedate "gundamentalist" to a 1926 "New Yorker" item. More here: http://bit.ly/UujmIS
    December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Friedman
    Thanks Nancy. Doggone it, every time Figaro thinks he's original...
    December 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    What do you make of Adam Gopnik calling the Gun Lobby the "Child Killer Lobby"? http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/12/newtown-and-the-madness-of-guns.html
    December 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAri
    A little over the top, and I'm not sure it would convince the undecideds. But it does follow the right strategy: demonize the NRA.
    December 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    For someone who claims to be so well read you do not seem to understand the consequences of prohibition. Just as the ban on alcohol in the early 20th century didn't eradicate alcohol (it only drove it underground and made matters much more dangerous), the same would occur with a ban on guns. Complex social issues cannot be solved with State aggression/violence, it only makes matters worse in the long run.

    So please stop advocating the use of State aggression against me for the opinions I hold. I don't advocate State aggression against you. I prefer consensual relationships.

    If you want to understand why this horrific event happened, look into the shooters history and childhood.

    Real positive change will only come when we fully extend the non-aggression principle to children.
    December 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterwowbobwow
    Wowbobwow- prohibition isn't a good analogy, banning methanol as a drinking liquor is. We're not talking about ALL guns. Prohibition made ALL alcohol (except for medicinal purposes) illegal. This is more like banning 4Loko... And most people weren't saying that was infringing upon their freedoms, because it was a public health concern...as are assault weapons!
    December 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlpine, RN
    I'm glad to see such sophisticated readers on this site. I've been surprised by the hand-wringing response among some people following the massacre, falling under several categories:

    1. Laws infringe on our freedom.
    2. Laws don't work because people will break them.
    3. Outlawing guns just makes people turn to other weapons.

    The first assertion is certainly true. The more laws, the less free we are--but only if we ignore other restrictions on our freedom. The actions or threatening behavior of others can restrict our freedom, can't they? The implication of #1 is that government is an evil that needs to be removed--a scary, radical notion in a democracy. We elect that government.

    Second assertion: All laws do get broken, but surely that's not an argument against laws.

    Third assertion: Have you ever tried to make a bomb? Figaro's understanding is that it's rather hard to do without blowing yourself up. Assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols appear to be the most efficient way to commit mass murder.

    More arguments welcome!

    December 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterFigaro

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