Rhetorical Recap: On Guns, Both Candidates Could Use a Rhetorical Reload

In separate speeches on guns, Clinton and Trump failed to describe a possible compromise.

This weekend Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spoke about the issue of guns before sympathetic audiences. It’s a reliable topic to rouse emotions on both sides. Talk of gun policies summons tension-filled threat scenarios Americans have internalized from a lifetime immersed in superhero movies, suspense serials, first-person shooter games, gangsta rap, and other pop genres. Mentioning guns also brings to the fore the glum burdens of dealing with the aftermaths of heavily mediated calamities, from terrorism to toddler accidents to mass shootings.

Some politicians avoid the gun issue as much as they can. Both presumptive presidential nominees for 2016 raise it often, in sharply contrasting ways. Trump hunts for red meat, Clinton gathers mother’s milk. We live today in a transgendered social environment, but our two POTUS finalists are in their 60s and of the 60s. Trump and Clinton use the topic of guns to play to mid twentieth-century archetypes of masculinity and femininity, one to revive them, the other to revise them.

Donald Trump read to the NRA leadership conference from a script, with numerous riffs and digressions. He catered to those Americans whom Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, has aptly dubbed nostalgia voters: “a culturally and economically disaffected group that is anxious to hold onto a white, conservative Christian culture that is passing from the scene.”

TRUMP: I’ve been watching what’s going on, and looking at airplanes being blown up in the air, lots of bad things happening, it’s just not the same and we’re going to bring it back…to a real place where we don’t have to be so frightened.

Where Clinton drafts emotions stirred by the Sandy Hook and Charleston shootings, Trump tells counter-factual tales about Paris and San Bernardino. “No guns on the other side, folks;” if there had been, “the carnage would not have been the same.”

Trump promised the NRA faithful he would end gun-free zones in his first hour as president. He said he carries a concealed weapon now and then, which made me wonder if he was packing right then and there, since the Louisville venue where he spoke is a gun-free zone.

Trump claimed Clinton was the most anti-gun candidate ever to run for office, that she would abolish the Second Amendment, release violent criminals into society, and disarm law-abiding citizens in unsafe neighborhoods. These assertions exaggerate and mischaracterize her positions –but she lacks public trust as no other presidential candidate has lacked it in recent decades with the exception of the man distorting her remarks. Trump dared Clinton to release a list of persons she would nominate to the Supreme Court, as he has done. He derided what he saw as her hypocrisy on guns, as distilled into a tweet the next day: “Crooked Hillary wants to get rid of all guns and yet she is surrounded by bodyguards who are fully armed. No more guns to protect Hillary!”  

Hillary Clinton broke the ice at her speaking event by joshing about the shoe choices of a couple of the women present. Then she affirmed the Circle of Mothers: “The sisterhood that is here is so overwhelming in its love and I am grateful to see all of you and it in action.” In talking about Trayvon Martin’s family, she adopted a funereal pace and tone, measuring out her sentences clause by well-formed clause. She argued that all Americans have a moral obligation to the families of gun violence victims, and that citizens should admire and emulate how they are turning grief into political action. Her voice rose as she delivered a string of “Something is wrong when…” statements about how gun violence hits the poor and black disproportionately. “We’ve got to dismantle the school to prison pipeline,” she proclaimed. Clinton closed with Scripture, raising her right hand in a quasi-benediction.

Of Trump, she said, accurately: “This is someone running to be president of the United States, a country facing a gun violence epidemic, and he’s talking about more guns in our schools,” Mrs. Clinton said. “He’s talking about more hatred and violence in our streets.” Trump denied that he called for guns in schools in a tweet, but his record indicates otherwise.

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The American public and even a majority of NRA members support universal background checks on gun purchasers. A slighter majority also favors concealed carry permits. This suggests a possible compromise –typically ramshackle and as unsatisfying as satisfying to each side, yet with the possibility of reducing gun violence with limited restrictions on citizens. The presidential campaigners could set the stage for such legislation with repeated calls for their preferred items in speech settings beyond their base camps and a minimum of demonizing as they campaign this summer and fall.

This weekend, however, such rhetoric was absent. Trump promised NRA members protection against monsters and win after win (a favorite line of his) with unspecified spoils for them. Clinton commiserated with the bereaved, linked gun policy reforms to a bigger and broader agenda, and steeled the Mothers for action as though it would consist mainly of protest.

Maybe later, as the electoral imperatives of reaching beyond the base become clearer, we can hear something different when the topic turns to guns. I promise to listen very, very hard for such signals.

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