The Politically Divisive Power of Pathos in the Gun Control Debate

Rhetoric occasionally earns a bad reputation because people associate it with lying or manipulation.   Even though I refute that sometimes unfair reputation in other posts, the recent gun control debate illustrates how some use rhetoric to circumvent logic and promote argumentative fallacies.

Both pro-gun control and anti-gun control advocates frame their arguments and their opponents through their use of all three rhetorical appeals – logos, ethos, and pathos.

Some rhetoricians consider pathos the strongest appeal.  After all, we tend to initially respond to a situation more viscerally than logically.  The argument against pathos, though, is that emotion rarely changes our mind.  It does a fine job, however, of powerfully solidifying our existing beliefs with a group of people already in agreement.

Perhaps that’s why one of the most effective pathos appeals anti-gun control advocates have stems from the “slippery slope” claim.  The idea incites fear with the assumption that any legislation will eventually result in more stringent restrictions on gun ownership.

Larry Bell contributed an article to titled “The Slippery Slope of Gun Control: Time to Stand on Firm Ground.”  Bell argues that the government is attempting to destroy our “successful and constitutionally-guaranteed American freedoms with government nanny state authoritarian control.”  He further argues that so-called compromises on gun control laws will “establish precedents for private gun ownership restrictions which are literally disarming.”

Pro-gun control advocates frame this “slippery slope” argument as mere irrational fears of “survivalists.”  Charles M. Blow writes in “Reframing the Gun Debate” that we should not consider organizations like the NRA as gun rights groups but instead as “anti-regulation, pro-proliferation groups” that “prey on public fears – of the ‘bad guys with guns,’ of a Second Amendment rollback, of an ever imminent apocalypse – while helping gun makers line their pockets.”

Hyperbole abounds on both sides.  Not everyone buying assault weapons are survivalists; not everyone calling for gun control is an affront to the Second Amendment.

And although I tend to agree with Joe Scarborough, some criticize him for taking his pathos approach too far by blaming the NRA for making “millions” over the “slaughter of 20 innocents.”  Furthermore, anti-gun advocates will likely criticize President Obama tomorrow as he details his proposals to curb gun violence surrounded by school children who wrote him letters in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, arguing that he is merely politicizing the tragedy to pass legislation.

Instead of predominately using the pathos appeal, both sides should stick to their move convincing arguments through ethos and logos.

Firstly, anti-gun control proponents could be more successful if they promote their ethos approach – an appeal to one’s credibility or authority on a subject – to highlight their expertise in the realm of firearms.  Many argue that the mainstream obsession with banning assault weapons is a misguided and meaningfulness endeavor because “assault weapons” as a broad category does not exist.  In a section on the NRA’s website called “Media Misinformation,” Cam Edwards argues that gun control advocates created the phrase “assault weapons” to ban semi-automatic rifles.  Ensuring specificity would benefit any legislation and help put slippery slope fears to rest.

Secondly, pro-gun control advocates should continue with their turn to the logos approach – an appeal to logic through facts and statistics – through citing recent polling data which reveals that many Americans support stricter gun laws.  A recent article in the Washington Post, for example, cites that 86% of households with firearms support background checks at gun shows, 76% support background checks for ammunition purchases, 62% support a federal gun database, and 55% support a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.  Those numbers rise when also including numbers of households without firearms.

A stronger likelihood of compromise might emerge if both sides drop the exaggerated pathos approaches and embraced the more persuasive and less divisive ethos and logos appeals.



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