01/16/2013 05:42 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2013

Obama, Biden Swap Out 'Gun Control' Metaphor With Language Of Public Health Crises

During the Sunday political chat shows, which primarily focused on the issue of gun control and what was possible in terms of legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, I found myself frequently wondering: "Does it actually do the proponents of gun control good to keep calling what they're calling for 'gun control?'" And so here is Molly Ball, observing that neither Vice President Joe Biden or President Barack Obama used the term "gun control" on Wednesday.

Instead, Biden referred to previous efforts as "gun violence legislation," and the new ones being announced as "comprehensive action to prevent violence." Obama spoke about "reducing gun violence" and an effort to curb "the broader epidemic of gun violence" that began with the signing of a "directive giving law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community some of the tools they need to help reduce gun violence."

Per Ball:

The terminology is the latest effort by gun-control activists to get rid of the term "gun control," the same way estate-tax opponents always talk about abolishing the "death tax," gay-marriage activists now prefer to talk about "marriage equality," and advocates for the rights of illegal immigrants carefully refer to them as "undocumented workers." Whether you see these terms as laudably neutral or Orwellian attempts at culture-shaping probably depends on your view of the issues involved.

"Gun control" has obvious liabilities -- as a phrase, it conjures images of confiscation, reinforcing the National Rifle Association's allegation that the government is coming to take away the firearms of law-abiding citizens.

The problem, as Ball goes on to richly detail, is that many of the alternatives to "gun control" have been tried and they haven't successfully emerged as a replacement in the minds of Americans. But one thing worth pointing out is that today, Obama also used the term "epidemic" twice and mentioned funding "scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence." He also promised that the Centers for Disease Control would be directed to study the best ways of reducing gun violence -- research that, as Obama pointed out, "those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to de-fund," and insisting, "We don't benefit from ignorance. We don't benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence."

Perhaps the framing of gun violence as a public health problem is the gambit, here? One advantage to this approach is that it doesn't implicate or demonize people. There is a disease, it's called "gun violence," it spreads according to certain epidemiological vectors, and interceding at those points will curb the problem. "Responsible gun owners," who are the key constituency from which Obama needs to draw support, are cast as victims to this malady:

The law already requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks, and over the last 14 years that's kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun.

But it's hard to enforce that law, when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check. That's not safe. That's not smart. That's not fair to responsible gun buyers or sellers.

Of course, avoiding using the words "gun control" doesn't mean you avoid proposing some gun control, and Obama will be attempting to get assault weapons and high-capacity magazines off the shelves. As he put it, the only purpose those products serve is "to pump out as many bullets as possible as quickly as possible, to do as much damage using bullets often designed to inflict maximum damage." But as Ball's colleague Elspeth Reeve argues, it may be the restoration of research funding that scares the NRA the most -- not the assault weapons ban (which would have to be approved by Congress):

Last year, the National Institutes of Health was blocked from funding gun research. The efforts have had impressive results. According to a letter to Biden signed by 100 researchers, the NIH has funded just three studies on gun injuries in the last 40 years. Hey, that's three whole studies, right? Hardly censorship! Well, the researchers point out that guns have injured 4 million people since 1973, while four infectious diseases have affected just 2,000 -- and the NIH has funded almost 500 studies on them. The letter protests that "legislative language has the effect of discouraging the funding of well-crafted scientific studies."

One of the things that a lack of research on gun violence impedes, by the way, is White House Task Forces on Gun Violence.

Naturally, there's no guarantee that using the right words while standing at the bully pulpit is going to be enough to move comprehensive reforms over the finish line. But as we've seen with the outrage over the failure to fund the Hurricane Sandy relief effort, if there's one thing that people expect the government to do, it's to benefit the public health. It might be a stretch to get the majority of Americans to start thinking about gun violence as a public health crisis, but it's worth pointing out that not too long ago, for the benefit of the public health, the FDA managed to ban varieties of Four Loko energy drink, and most people didn't mind.

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