In September 2019, Virginia State Senator Amanda Chase (Republican) ran a Facebook ad where she warned gun control advocates that she was “not afraid to shoot” them down: an extraordinarily insensitive choice of wording in light of the exceedingly contentious nature of the issue of gun rights in the USA, along with the regular occurrence of mass shootings in the country. Chase blamed the language as a mistake on the part of the marketing company she had hired, and was quick to offer a correction.
This so-called mistake brings to mind Sarah Palin’s 2010 campaign against House Democrats who voted for health care reform (yes, the same Sarah Palin who had been the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate in 2008). In March 2010, Palin’s Facebook page featured a map with twenty gun sights, crosshairs for each of the twenty Democrats her political action committee want to unseat in that year’s mid-term election.
If you look closely, you might notice that one of the targeted Democrats is Representative Gaby Giffords, whose response at the time was the following:
We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district, and when people do that, they’ve got to realize there are consequences to that action.
This is the same Gaby Giffords who was later shot in the head at a 2011 rally in Arizona. Giffords survived the attack, but the gunman injured fourteen people and killed six. Contemporary reports claimed that the crosshair ad had incited the shooting. Although this was later debunked – the gunman had in fact planned an assassination long before Palin’s campaign – we might want to ask ourselves why the conventional language in Chase’s ‘mistake’ or the equally conventional images in Palin’s advertisement could plausibly be thought to inspire people to pick up guns and use them against other people.
A simple answer is that metaphor matters. In most circumstances, language such as ‘shooting down’ an idea goes under the radar, passing unnoticed as anything special. However, certain contexts – such as anything to do with Second Amendment rights – reawaken the link between the metaphorical meaning of refusing to consider an idea and the concrete meaning of killing someone with a gun. The link between these two senses simply become too obvious to overlook.
The metaphor is revived. And that may lead to consequences in the real world, as Giffords pointed out before she was gunned down.
Back to 2019 and Chase’s ad, we find that it was hastily revised to “I’m not afraid to shoot down any attacks by anti-gun groups”. While metaphorically shooting down attacks rather than the groups themselves is arguably a step in the right direction, this change can hardly said to be a great improvement given the context.
Best to keep gun rights activists away from shooting down anything or anyone at all, metaphorically or not.