Empty Symbolism on Gun Control

A product meant to keep beer and soda cans cold made Christy Clark hot under the collar.

A former North Carolina legislator and the current Democratic candidate for a suburban Charlotte seat in the state House, Clark took to Twitter on June 20 to share pictures of two foam can coolers sold in supermarkets emblazoned with pro-gun rights messages.

A bald eagle clutching a pump-action shotgun in its talons and Patrick Henry’s oft-quoted “Give me liberty or give me death” adorn one beverage holder, while the other features a Founding Father bearing an AR-15-style rifle and a Second Amendment parchment scroll with the words “Arms Change, Rights Don’t.”

“I am disappointed these coozies are being sold in an NC store,” Clark wrote, tagging Harris Teeter and Kroger in her tweet. “110 Americans die every day from gun violence and most recently children, educators, health care providers, and family members were killed in mass shootings. Please remove them.”

Harris Teeter, a North Carolina-based company with 261 stores in the Southeast and the District of Columbia, pledged to pull the products just three hours later. The can coolers were recalled the same day, according to a tweet from the verified Harris Teeter account.

Kroger, a nationwide grocery chain, offered a noncommittal response: “Thanks for reaching out, Christy. We will tell our leadership about your request that we remove these items from our shelves. We appreciate your feedback.”

The candidate’s request — and its rapid success in getting the merchandise tossed from one of the supermarkets — touched off debate on #ncpol Twitter, the network of lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, journalists and citizens who closely follow state politics.

Clark’s Republican opponent, Rep. John Ray Bradford, chided her for enabling a feature that limits which users are able to comment on her tweets.

“While standing up for her version of ‘political correctness’ she chooses to silence those who disagree by turning off their ability to leave comments,” he wrote. “Everyone has the right to be heard.”

By way of answer, Clark released a screen capture of her direct message requests. Users lashed out with vulgar words and sexist insults. The candidate doubled down, writing that she wouldn’t shut up and would continue her fight against gun violence.

The entire episode, a tempest in a Twitter teapot, was cheap political theater. Clark served up culture war catnip that invigorated the left and infuriated the right, elevating symbolism over substance. Getting can coolers evicted from a grocery store won’t curb mass shootings, nor will it erode the right to keep and bear arms.

If Clark sincerely found the illustrations offensive and didn’t seek their removal as a calculated political stunt, perhaps she thought they epitomized what restrictionists consider America’s unhealthy obsession with firearms. Considering that many supermarkets sell see-through squirt guns, toy pistols with orange plastic tips and action figures accessorized with miniature weapons, she’s far from the bullseye on reforming gun culture.

The foam containers that drew Clark’s ire don’t promote violence. They express a political sentiment — support for Second Amendment rights and opposition to gun control.

If Democrats want to sell independents and moderate Republicans on a “commonsense gun safety” compromise, part and parcel of that effort must be refuting the alarmist narrative that they’re scheming to dispatch squads of federal agents to confiscate law-abiding gun owners’ firearms by force.

Clark’s Twitter tantrum, then, is a failure of message discipline. Good luck convincing skeptics you don’t want to take their guns after haughtily demanding that stores purge mere pictures of guns from their inventory. Since the FBI began keeping national crime statistics, can coolers have been implicated in precisely zero deaths.

Harris Teeter may have been hasty in pledging to pull the products in response to a lone complaint, but every retailer is entitled to decide which merchandise it will sell. Choosing addition over subtraction, however, would have been a better solution for both Clark and the grocery chain.

Why not create competing drink-saver designs with gun control slogans and ask supermarkets to sell them along with the others? Going that route would allow Clark to make her political point without depriving others of the chance to make theirs.

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