In 1989 Steven Tyler and Aerosmith released a song, ‘Janie’s Got A Gun,’ which began with the following refrain:
Janie’s got a gun
Janie’s got a gun
Her whole world’s come undone
From lookin’ straight at the sun
What did her daddy do?
What did he put you through?
They say when Janie was arrested
They found him underneath a train
But man, he had it comin’
Now that Janie’s got a gun
She ain’t never gonna be the same.
This song became one of the group’s biggest hits, and if you don’t have the album, you can watch the video on YouTube. It’s been seen more than 38 million times. You can also listen to it on podcasts produced and distributed by various pro-gun advocates and organizations, in particular, digital broadcasting efforts of various Evangelical preachers and personalities, such as Albert Mohler, who happens to be the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and leads a religious denomination that is overwhelmingly pro-gun.
There’s only one little problem. Tyler began writing the song’s lyric’s after reading an article about gun violence which then got him thinking about child abuse. He talked about what happened in a Rolling Stone interview: “I looked over at a Time magazine and saw this article on 48 hours, minute by minute, of handgun deaths in the United States.Then I got off on the child-abuse angle. I’d heard this woman speaking about how many children are attacked by their mothers and fathers. It was f—ing scary. I felt, man, I gotta sing about this. And that was it.”
So here we have an interesting situation which needs to be considered and discussed if we’re really going to understand what to do and what to say about gun violence. Because Tyler wasn’t trying to make a positive cultural statement about guns and he certainly wasn’t trying to cynically promote himself to a certain type of audience which feeds off of pro-gun and pro-violence expressions a la the sick rantings of Ted Nugent, et. al. He was creating an artistic expression about an idea that meant one thing to him, but ended up being taken much differently by many of his fans. Or maybe they didn’t take it any particular way. They just like his music; the ‘message’ may not be what the song meant to them at all.
But either way, in a debate as emotionally-charged as the gun debate, I think we have to be careful when we use certain words, because those words may have very different meanings depending on who uses them and when. Take for example the word ‘defense,’ as in self-defense. In the pro-gun world, this is a very positive word because it represents the idea that a gun will protect you from harm. In the gun-control community (and folks, in the Age of Trump it’s time to stop pretending that we need to apologize for wanting to control guns) a weapon that can be used defensively usually ends up being used offensively.
Why do some people believe that a gun is a valuable, self-protective ‘tool’ when study after study indicates that access to a gun actually increases risk? And I’m not talking about pro-gun trolls who will say anything to get a rise out of the other side. I’m talking about, for example, religious leaders – among conservative Protestant clergy, of whom more than two-thirds hold to the idea that gun ‘rights’ should be taken more seriously than violence caused by guns.
If we have learned anything from the extent to which a Twitter account can be used to run the United States, what is believed to be a true by one person may not be perceived as a fact by someone else. And if we are looking for messaging that will resonate with gun owners to advance public policies like expanded background checks or smart guns, we better not assume that words like ’fact’ and ‘truth’ will carry the day.