The Power of Language to Reform the Gun Problem: A Silver ̶B̶u̶l̶l̶e̶t̶ Remedy
How demonstrating careful word choice can foster much-needed social change
I never shoot the breeze anymore, even in the middle of a casual conversation. You won’t see me sweating bullets under any circumstances. And nothing can trigger me, although it very well might set me off. Such careful word choice is my way of helping to mitigate the toxic and pervasive gun culture in the US. It’s a small but direct verbal stance toward cultivating a more peaceful world. Perhaps you can try adopting the practice too, because this country needs every bit of help it can get to confront the intolerable scourge of gun violence.
My approach to modify gun-related language was prompted in part by a year living in Italy, where “the gun issue” came up regularly. While the USA’s militaristic reputation still had mostly positive connotations (since our WW2 prowess helped to quash Mussolini’s fascism), the predominant Italian impression was of an unsafe, trigger-happy country, overrun with guns. As a consequence, many Italians we met were fearful about ever visiting our homeland.
I was a bit of an apologist at first: “Yeah, but the US is a big country and crime is exaggerated. It sounds worse than it is.” However, I couldn’t deny that I was among countless Americans who had grown increasingly numb to gun violence. Who’s to say whether that’s a coping mechanism or conditioning that happens due to the ongoing saga of gun tragedies, punctuated by horrific mass shootings such as Sandy Hook, Parkland, or Las Vegas.
What is certain — and what underscores the horror — is that too many Americans accept it as “the way things are.” Perhaps we’ve embraced a toxic addiction to being “Number One!” even when that’s #1 among wealthy nations in gun violence and #1 in the world for gun ownership.
Sure, plenty of us get angry and protest, or we call our representatives after a mass shooting. Yet why does it feel more and more impotent, despite the cumulative grief of every new wave of families affected by gun violence? Because our government has acquiesced to navigating the warship named “The Gun Issue” with thoughts and prayers, as it sails through a sea of both rabid and dumbstruck citizens.
Fixing the problem continues to get punted until… when? Until enough Americans lose a loved one to gun violence? Until we arrive at a hundredth monkey tipping point? Or until we capitulate to a distorted notion that power lies in the hands of whoever holds a gun? Shame on us if we can’t find better ways to drive positive change.
A Refusal to Throw Our Hands Up
Despite the current impasse, I maintain the pen is mightier than the sword. Or more aptly put: Words are more powerful than an AR-19.
“Words have power” is a central concept shared across both cultures and time. For example, West African tribes believe there’s an active essence in the spoken word that can unleash change. The Japanese have Kotodama: the belief that good words will make good things happen (and vice versa). An assumption that words contain “magic” has made its way into new age thought, while modern psychology affirms that words can change our brain.
So if words have the power to create a filter that colors our thinking, which can affect our experience, then we need to pay attention to even the offhand remarks that aim, shoot and fire bullets at us. No doubt they contribute to our passive acceptance of gun culture.
We fill the air with gun verbiage without even realizing it. For example, how many of the following do you encounter on a given day?
- Bullet list
- Bite the bullet
- Silver bullet
- Dodge a bullet
- Sweat bullets
- Get triggered
- Pull the trigger
- Get shot down
- A shot in the dark
- A straight shooter
- Shoot from the hip
- Shoot blanks
- Shoot yourself in the foot
- Shoot the messenger
- Under the gun
- Stick to your guns
- The big guns
- Be gun shy
- Smoking gun
- Bang for the buck
- On the firing line
- Lock, stock and barrel
You probably don’t even notice the integration of such phrases in daily communication. This got me wondering: Do Italians, who enjoy relatively low gun violence in their culture, swim through the same profusion of idiomatic gun language?
I asked a friend in Genoa, Italy (who is a bilingual English professor) to share a list of idioms in Italian that use gun terminology, and she couldn’t come up with one. She could only bring to mind several idioms related to knives and stabbing — which of course English has too (e.g. “stabbed in the back”). A language crackling with gun words just doesn’t exist there — perhaps because Italy isn’t steeped in guns like the US.
The correlation between words used and guns used is impossible to ignore. For me, it lends credence to the whole “words have magic” idea. And given that little else seems to be working, why don’t we address the gun issue from this angle too, however unconventional it might seem?
We can take matters into our own hands (or mouths) and work to effect change through our word choices. Because every time the list of mass shootings grows, our collective psyche suffers: We grow more hopeless/helpless and we become further detached from our common humanity. So any means of being the change we wish to see in the world helps us to be proactive, instead of relinquishing our power to the gun mania in our culture.
What I’ve committed to doing, and I invite you to join me — one word choice at a time:
I go out of my way to avoid using any casual gun terminology in my communication. When I feel a gun idiom ready to roll off my tongue, I catch myself (sometimes too late) and I say to whomever I’m speaking with: “I’m getting in the habit of eliminating gun words.”
As I reinforce my budding habit, awareness grows. For example, take the word “trigger”, which is widely used these days. Somebody says, “That news story might trigger her.” I parrot back, “I hope it doesn’t set her off.” That’s followed quickly with, “I’m trying not to use gun language” — and our conversation moves on.
Sometimes swapping out a gun metaphor is near impossible and lands with a thud. For instance, when faced with a choice between a regular-priced item and a sale item, it’s obvious one offers more “bang for the buck”. But the boring “greater value” becomes my substitute, unless I remember to declare it “a screaming deal.” I’ve gotten better at correcting myself before I offer a ̶s̶h̶o̶o̶t̶-̶f̶r̶o̶m̶-̶t̶h̶e̶-̶h̶i̶p̶ quick response. And I’ve become more deft at weaving in a quick explanation of how we’re “too accepting of gun culture, so I’m trying to change my language choices.”
Some people may think my approach is dorky or ridiculous, but I don’t care. At a minimum, I know I’ll cause that person to think twice the next time they encounter a gun idiom. And maybe after another mass shooting, instead of caving in to despair or apathy, they will be more motivated to respond with their own form of activism. My goal isn’t to rewrite American English, but rather to raise consciousness. And in my small circle of friends, it has started to catch on.
Now I’m not so naïve to think that the elimination of gun words, such as those listed in the above ̶b̶u̶l̶l̶e̶t̶ dot list, will cause gun violence to magically disappear. But I consider all actions on a fundamental, energetic level. It’s like litter in the streets: Picking up a gum wrapper doesn’t mean you stop an oil spill, but doing so means you are resonating with a healthier environment. Whereas passing up the gum wrapper on the sidewalk — or worse, throwing one down — means you are resonating with the careless oil tanker. And the more we resonate with a healthy society, the sooner we will live in one.
Sure, we can and should continue to hold space for elected leaders to come up with solutions. But every day we wait for meaningful change, another 100 people die of gunfire, plus another 200+ are wounded. Instead, let’s embrace our personal power and give it our best ̶s̶h̶o̶t̶ effort to create a world free of gun violence.
Everything we do and say has a ripple effect, and what we don’t say can help calm the waters. Every time we stop a “bullet” from “shooting” out of our mouths, it could lead to one less bullet fired from a gun. The power of our words will also inspire others to Be the change. And instead of living in fear of getting caught in a crossfire, we can — one word at a time — make it more possible for everyone to pursue happiness in peace.
A version of this article was originally published at BecomingBetterPeople.us, where I share stories to actively build a better Us.