Match-Grade Jargon

My recent column on the language of gun-related legislation seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist. The talking heads now refer mostly to gun violence, and Peter Baker’s recent New York Times column points out that “Gun control advocates these days generally do not use the term gun control; instead, they talk about curbing gun violence, recognizing that ‘control’ stirs opposition among legal gun owners who fear their rights being trampled.”

That same column, meanwhile, observes that the language of guns permeates our discourse. Certainly, some of the phrases Baker cites—no silver bullet, gun at the head, shooting for Tuesday—refer directly to guns. But others are not specific to firearms, and I find it intriguing that we now think so regularly of guns as our central projectile launcher that we lump all such phrases with “gun vocabulary.”

Take point blank, central to Point Blank Public Affairs, the firm the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ironically chose to publicize its position. The term actually comes from old English longbow practices, wherein archers generally had to aim above the white skull of a bull in order for the arrow to arc into the bull’s eye socket; but if the archer was close enough to the skull, he could aim directly at the point blanc, or “white point,” where the eye was located.

Taking his cue, presumably, from point blank, Baker also cites point man as a phrase in the gun lexicon. But such a man is in the lead of an infantry patrol, like the point of a V of geese—an army term to be sure, but not necessarily gun-related. Misfire is gun (or internal-combustion) related, but not in the way that the gun-control scholar Robert Spitzer was quoted as using in reference to Wayne LaPierre: “My opening line was, his speech was a misfire; he missed the target.” A misfire is a failure to fire properly, not a problem of aim. Many accidental deaths are the result of poorly aimed shotguns; far fewer are the result of misfires. Similarly, go ballistic, also cited in the article, stems from the failure of a military guided-missile system, the effect of which was for the missile to be governed not by its planned trajectory but only by the laws of ballistics (projectiles in flight).

Finally, of course, there’s taking aim, which can be done with any weapon—gun, bow and arrow, slingshot, argument.

Do these distinctions matter? I think they do. When extreme gun-rights advocates claim that legislators are trying to take away their guns, an overly zealous attention to language that presumably refers to firearms when in fact its range is far wider can create an atmosphere of censorship that is unhelpful to this very serious debate.

Meanwhile, the debate itself, now that we seem to be calling it a gun-violence controversy, is morphing curiously. What is gun violence, after all? Can a gun be used in a nonviolent way? My dictionary’s first definition of violence is “swift and intense force,” which would apply even when the gun is aimed at a clay pigeon. But presumably the talking heads consider target practice a nonviolent use, as they do the sporting use of rifles—an idea the deer might disagree with. Perhaps we are trying to separate the specific violence made possible by semi-automatic weapons in the human population—that is, we are making it possible for a person to say, “Look, I’m not opposed to violence, only to gun violence”; just as another person might say, “I’m not opposed to guns, only to gun violence.” Both these utterances sound strange to me. But then, I’m not among those legislators who are caught in the cross hairs.

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