A “Blanket of Safety” For American Schoolchildren
The answer to a criminal with a gun is not to take away their gun, but instead to give a good person a gun — at least according to Wayne LaPierre, the executive for the National Rifle Association. In his response to the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, he claimed that the only way to defend schoolchildren from shootings is to put armed security in every school. The speech is what publicists refer to as a “spin job”. Its purpose is simple: defend the NRA. Overall, responses to the speech varied from mild surprise to outrage. Most articles point out that LaPierre scapegoats the government and the media, which is undoubtedly true, but this claim is too simplistic. A closer look at the methods behind his blame-shifting reveals remarkable and complex metaphors that constitute a two-pronged defense. LaPierre first dissociates the organization from the shooters, then frames traditionally accepted authorities as the enemy and the NRA as a white knight; in combination, these tactics convey a narrative of oppression that victimizes the organization and alters who the audience considers the “bad guy”.
To prevent calls for legislation and preserve their interests, LaPierre must dissociate the NRA from the violence and actions of the killers. He characterizes them as otherworldly predators, creating an apocalyptic scene in which the state participates. His language is notable for its extremism and insistence. Killers are ubiquitous, with an innate instinct like “predators”, who act “evil” and “insane”. They are “genuine monsters” driven by demons. “Demonized”, which has roots in actual demon possession of the body (OED), suggests that even removing guns from the situation would not prevent any potential harm to society. While such dramatic language naturally vilifies that shooter, it also polarizes the gun-owning community. In this instance, the only alternative to being a demon is being human. Thus the language sets up most gun owners and NRA members as rational, not driven by base urges like shooters looking for prey. His language is so effective at separating these populations that he can claim that gun laws are enacted unfairly on “peaceful, lawful people” even after his descriptions of the killers.
If shooters are hot-blooded predators, the state is their cold-blooded counterpart. LaPierre connects the violence of the perpetrators with the actions of the government, the first place people might look to in a crisis. For example, he says that Obama “zeroed out” emergency school policies, echoing his earlier statements of killers who “make their mark”. It presents the President as shooting a metaphorical bullet at the citizens’ welfare, much in the same way killers shoot innocent people. With this language, gun control advocates become violent and calculating. Fiscal language pervades his descriptions. They “invest” and collude to “inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk”, and the media is in a “race to the bottom”. Such phrases convey actions that are designed for systematic harm. These parallel characterizations of the government, the media, and potential shooters use language associated with weapons to re-appropriates terror from shootings to his opponents.
LaPierre simultaneously engenders paranoia that spawns apocalyptic visions. However, the fear he inspires is effective because it is focused: he directs it specifically against the agents he vilifies (e.g., the media). A few of his fear tactics are generic, like when he compares society to a body in which criminals “spread like cancer”, and thus are intractable, or the equally uncontrollable process of “ripening”. The term “national media machine” inspires images of weapons and destruction at the hands of an abstract entity. Other phrases invoke food metaphors, like “recipe”, “fill”, and “toxic mix”. In reference to the state of the nation, these phrases suggest an agent that is creating unsafe conditions. After all, someone must be fill, mix, and create a recipe. In addition, he describes hundreds of other potential shooters as “waiting in the wings”. This theater metaphor brings to mind a scripted scene, one written, directed, and performed by a variety of actors. No one is safe from LaPierre’s accusations: everyone from the media to stockholders to corporate managers to lawmakers are “complicit” in the harm done to American children. They are “enablers”, acting as “corrupt” “co-conspirators”, who “shock”, “violate”, and conceal truths from the public. Implied collusion is present in abundance and feeds conspiracy and paranoia. When working in conjunction with the weapon metaphors, LaPierre imagines not a broken society, but one that has been deliberately manipulated by malevolent forces that allows shooters to take center stage.
Criticism of these forces requires the audience to consider one alternative: the National Rifle Association. He describes the children and the organization in similar terms, and thus his victimization carries with it a sense of innocence. The contrasts between these and the earlier “conspirators” are so extreme as to be painfully obvious. The Sandy Hook victims are “beloved”, “innocent”, “vulnerable”, and “defenseless”. LaPierre uses the same language to describe the NRA and connect the two. He claims that they the government is “consumed by fear and hatred of the NRA”, and has “den[ied] us the right … to protect ourselves”. Legislation is “imposed” against their will, and he can “imagine the shocking headlines” that unfairly turn the public against the organization.
Most ironically, LaPierre equates guns with caring and reimagines weaponry as protection. We care about the President, for example, so we guard him with “armed Secret Service agents”. The same goes for banks, airports, offices, power plants, and courtrooms. LaPierre’s most egregious suggestion is when he calls for a “blanket of safety” to be put in place that consists of armed security in every school. If you care about something, you must protect it — in this case, by surrounding it with guns. He also says that dedication and courage can be “deployed” much like parachutes delivering supplies. In fact, in the last page he uses this word no less than five times in reference to the organization. Instead of graphic gun imagery, he uses military language associated with authority, control, and safety. He reassociates the military and guns, and thus the NRA, with valor. Another example is his description of the Sandy Hook school principal, who is forced to “shield” the schoolchildren, an antiquated and feeble form of protection when compared to Adam Lanza’s Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle. Compared to such outdated self-defense, LaPierre’s call for armed school security appears logical, even appropriate. He seems to embrace the concept of persuasion by sheer repetition: he describes those in charge of this safety blanket as qualified, trained professionals eight times, reinforcing that “good guys” can also carry guns. He demands a “cordon of protection” around the children, creating an evocative visual of wall-to-wall troop protection that would be appealing to distraught parents.
Throughout the speech, LaPierre dramatically re-envisions a world with access to guns. By characterizing the current state of affairs as dangerous and apocalyptic, he can introduce a new agent (armed security) and present this alternative as a panacea for school shootings. Of course, this solution is one in which the NRA naturally plays an indispensible role. His language simultaneously blocks or redirects any associations between the NRA and the shooters, and offers an alternative of complicity between the shooters, the media and the government. Fears of a conspiracy would effectively distract from the events at hand, whether or not people believe his claims. The quantity and persistence of his attempts to reimagine guns as reasonable, protective agents matches his need to shut down backlash and gun legislation. Ultimately, LaPierre strives to reassociate who the audience views as good or bad. Perhaps his depictions are too dramatic to have an immediate effect on the gun debate, but they are thorough enough to serve their purpose of altering the public’s view of the organiza