An anti-gun advertisement Arkadi Gerney helped to create featuring Omar Samaha, whose sister Reema was killed by Seung-Hui Cho in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
Last week on The New Yorker‘s website, gun policy activist Arkadi Gerney wrote about a deeply personal experience with firearms that lead him to his pro-gun-control career. As someone currently researching in the stories told by firearms advertising, I am also interested to learn about the techniques Gerney used to try and sway people in the opposite direction, to “un-sell” guns in the interest of gun control. Gerney talks about campaigns that worked and didn’t work, saying:
All these efforts depended on survivors and family members telling their stories. Internal public-opinion research we conducted showed that the scale of gun violence made the numbers hard to comprehend. It was important, we determined, to put human faces on the problem. People listen when victims talk to them.
It’s a way of making the abstract concrete. Humans are famously terrible at understanding the full meaning of numbers or complex statistical analysis. In many ways, the American gun control debate is a debate about who controls the gun narrative— the meanings and associations we embed into these objects. As Gerney writes:
The gun issue is emotionally charged—and ripe for emotional appeals. It’s easy to make data-driven arguments for stronger gun laws built on statistical evidence; but that levelheaded approach has never been enough.
Second Amendment advocates know this, too; they’ve developed a case with its own emotional weight, on which the core issue is not guns but freedom. It’s about liberty fought and died for two hundred and thirty years ago, and paid for with blood in fields in foreign lands ever since. Advocates for stronger gun laws would be unwise to diminish the deeply felt sense of history, culture, and liberty that for so many years has motivated millions to send thirty dollars a year to the N.R.A., call a member of Congress, hold a sign at a rally, or run for office.
Gerney goes on to say that “it’s the stories of the people whose lives are changed that can help to permanently change the debate, and thus make our country safer.”