In the wake of the latest mass shootings, gun control advocates are ramping up their sloganeering and rhetoricizing – sometimes coherently, but not always.
Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the few public intellectuals still countenanced by our lowest-common-denominator society, tweeted some statistical parallels on gun violence and terrorism that gained a lot of notice. He observed, for example, that 3,400 Americans died by terrorism since 2001 – and that the same number “died by household Firearms since five weeks ago.” Effective rhetoric (although it does beg the question of the definition of terrorism).
On the other hand, The Peace Team’s new bumper-sticker slogan, “People with guns kill more than people without guns,” fails on both rhetorical and grammatical grounds.
The meaning is a hopeless tangle, both grammatically and rhetorically ambiguous. The most obvious intended meaning, to me, is that there are more shooting murders than other types of murders, or – a related idea, but with a different statistical meaning – that you’re more likely to kill someone if you have a gun than if you don’t. (“If there were no guns, the lethality of crimes would be less,” says Charles F. Wellford, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland. “You can’t have a drive-by knifing.”)
To make that first meaning clear in the slogan, you’d need to insert a word: “People with guns kill more than do people without guns.” But, although grammatically correct, that would sound awkward.
On the other hand, the slogan could even mean that people with guns kill not only people who don’t have guns, but also kill other people – presumably, other people who do have guns. (Although it doesn’t specify who or what is being killed. People? Animals?)
That meaning doesn’t make logical sense, but it’s right there in the grammar.
It’s not easy to come up with a new slogan. But the first rule has to be clarity.