I had intended a longer text for my inaugural analysis, but seeing as starting small is probably the best thing to develop my analytical skills, as well as the only scale my busy life will allow, I’ve decided to start with one phrase:
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
This seems a timely subject in light of the shootings in Santa Barbara and Las Vegas and on and on ad nauseum, as well as one rife with power dynamics and semiotic significance that seem perfect for a Critical Discourse Analysis.
First of all, what is the context and genre of the utterance? A lengthy web search indicates that the phrase is an unofficial National Rifle Association slogan, used primarily by pro-gun supporters in the US whenever a new massacre occurs and public sentiment turns towards the so-called ‘liberal agenda’ of restricting or regulating firearms. It is thus normalized and disseminated popularly in right wing camps to provide justification for keeping power in the hands of individual gun owners, while indirectly benefiting the gun industry and lobbies such as the NRA. As such, it can be seen as a tool of hegemonic struggle, specifically to keep the gun industry and right wing power nexus on top by appealing to individual gun owners on the grounds of keeping their freedoms. This linking of individual freedom and corporate or elite benefit is a defining feature of US right wing public discourse, as evidenced in the domination of US economic discourse by Neoliberalism, and is a structure that has come to dominant American discourse in toto.
Next, what are the syntactic and semantic features of the utterance? The first proposition, “guns don’t kill people”, by using the inanimate ‘guns’ as the subject, takes agency away from people and thus depicts gun deaths as blameless and unavoidable affairs. The stripping away of all identifying particles such as articles and inflections like verb tense, while retaining the universal plurals of ‘people’ and ‘guns’, creates a ring of truism about the phrase. By pairing this first proposition with the second tautological clause, “people kill people”, the idea of the unavoidable violence of human nature is reinforced and opposition silenced. The normalizing ‘common sense’ nature of the utterance’s grammar is precisely the kind of blindingly irrefutable shared logic warned of by Gramsci.
Of course the two propositions together constitute a false equivalence – no one is saying that guns rise up magically and kill people, but that their easy access leads to greater gun crime and deaths. This is borne out by statistics ,
(http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html), but such facts have no place in this type of discourse. This simplified equivalence also ignores the material effect of guns in accelerating death – people may kill people, but may also kill many more in a shorter time with automatic weapons. All these details are brushed aside in the mesmerizingly clean circular logic of the phrase “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
The most pernicious facet of this utterance is that the listener has to admit the first proposition to a certain degree before the second is delivered. It is in this ambiguity linking the two propositions that the utterance as a whole gains discursive power. Once you admit, “Yes, guns don’t kill people by themselves…” the remainder of the phrase is driven home by the binary relation between the first and second propositions, and the false equivalency slips in and derails dialogue. Any chance to debate the details left out of the utterance (“Guns by themselves,” “Automatic guns,”) are swept aside in the overwhelming perlocutionary force of the phrase.
One irony to note here is that the slogan stands for an unregulated access to guns which is the exact opposite of the supposed origin of the phrase as spoken by head of the Colt Patent Fire Arms Co. President Fred Roff is supposed to have said, "Our big concern is to make sure that guns get into the hands of only those who know how to use them. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Considering the recent history of NRA opposition to background checks, waiting periods and other forms of gun registry and regulation, the volte face in discourse is extreme and indicates an almost Neoliberal valuation of market forces appealing to individual freedom over concern for social costs or welfare.
What about creation and reception of the phrase? It’s existence as a ‘bumper sticker’ slogan of gun owners without any attribution to one speaker reveals the popular appeal to common logic that mark discourse about cultural norms such as gun ownership in the US. Even the speeches of politicians and pundits in the gun debate pale in comparison to the illocution and force of this pro-gun bumper sticker, which is understandable in light of the difficulty of making memorable utterances about such ‘hot button’ topics while not offending voter and industry demographics. As for reception, the aforementioned enforced necessity of acknowledging the first half of the phrase renders opposition weak and ineffective, which implies the inability of liberal or anti-gun forces to marshal an equally forceful response or slogan.
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” allows gun supporters to feel satisfied within their bubble of rhetoric masquerading as logical thought, while creating unease and frustration among gun opponents, who have not been able to satisfactorily pierce the ‘logic’ of the slogan with concise or forceful objections. The way in which the phrase shuts down opposition to and dialog with the dominant party about redistribution of power or reordering of the status quo is an example of the silencing defensive strategy identified generally by Pierre Bourdieu, and specifically in terms of Neoliberal Discourse by David Harvey
This was my first practice CDA. It is rough and weak, but like any exercise program I intend to make it the first step on a long journey to strengthening my analytic skills. If you have any comments or suggestions, leave them below. Please note that I will not be discussing the gun debate nor responding to any comments that try to.