The Law-Abiding Citizen as Ideobody

The committee hearing was in a cramped meeting room. Attendees crowded into pew-like rows, with latecomers huddled in the back, many spilling out into the hallway. The head of the Federal and State Affairs Committee broke the tense silence with an overview of rules and the general schedule. The proponents, who made up the vast majority of attendees, would present their individual statements first, followed by the three opponents who took up half of the front row. 

This committee hearing on House Bill 2074 (HB-2074) was held in February of 2017 to decide whether Kansas universities would be permanently exempt from the Personal and Family Protection Act (PFPA). The PFPA, passed in 2013, mandated that all public buildings must allow the concealed carry of personal handguns on the premises, a mandate that proponents of HB-2074 strongly opposed. Kansas universities were temporarily exempt from the provisions of the PFA under Senate Bill 342 (SB-342) until July 1, 2017. HB 2074, if passed, would allow universities, as well as mental health hospitals, community centers, and any other public building, the ability to permanently “opt out” from the PFPA and remain gun-free spaces. Teachers, administrators, staff, and students made their case at the HB-2074 committee hearing that guns on campus were a bad idea. In his statement, Jake*, an undergraduate student, provided the following argument (emphasis mine):

As a product of the Kansas public education system and a college senior in microbiology and a believer in the 2nd Amendment, I want to extend my adamant support for House Bill 2074 … regardless of whether guns make campuses less safe or not, every person who I’ve talked to on campus in my extensive network, the people who spend all their time on campuses, do not support this bill. So I urge you to please listen to the people who spend every day on their campus as opposed to lobbyists from the NRA.

Later in the hearing, a Missouri lobbyist backed by the NRA, Phil,* provided the following individual statement as a rebuttal to Jake’s argument: 

I’d like to stand on the position opposed to this law. Mainly because a law-abiding citizen is not the threat. If someone wants to walk into a classroom and start shooting, they’re going to do it whether there’s a law saying you can or cannot. It doesn’t matter. The ability of the person to defend themselves in that situation is what comes to question.

The differences between Jake’s individual statement and Phil’s are stark. Jake draws on his personal, lived experience as an undergraduate student at a Kansas university. His statement is grounded in what Abby Knoblauch terms an embodied rhetoric, a purposeful, reflexive gesturing towards one’s bodily experiences as knowledge, as witness (57). Jake foregrounds his positionality as a longtime Kansas resident and current college student who occupies the space under contestation. Phil, on the other hand, refers not to his own lived experience, but references a “law-abiding citizen,” a hypothetical school shooting, and the law-abiding citizen’s ability to defend themselves in that hypothetical situation. The law-abiding citizen functionally subs in for Phil’s lack of lived experience in the place he’s working to speak from: he doesn’t teach, study, sleep, eat, or socialize regularly on any Kansas college campus. 

The law-abiding citizen is a mysterious term, widely-utilized but undefined. It sounds normal, even self-explanatory. It’s not metonymic, allusive, or simply categorical, and can refer to a specific individual (the law-abiding citizen), an individual (a law-abiding citizen), a specific group (the law-abiding citizens), or a group more generally (law-abiding citizens). It’s ubiquity and ambiguity saturates the debates surrounding gun control in the United States. In this article, I theorize the law-abiding citizen (and its various iterations) as one example of an ideobody, a rhetorical tool for claiming experience outside of one’s own. I assert that ideobodies like the “law-abiding citizen” allow rhetors to establish analogous material claims to others’ lived experiences, serving as a powerful and flexible tool that can be observed and identified in public contestations like the HB-2074 committee hearing, where claims to place rest in asserting one’s lived experience as artifact and argument. Ideobodies are ideological, as they operate rhetorically to claim place and establish and maintain individuals’ roles within systems of power. Better identifying and understanding ideobodies allows rhetoricians to uncover, resist, and advocate for our bodies, our embodied experiences, and the places in which we work and call home. 

Fleshing Out the Ideobody

The concept of the ideobody stems from Michael McGee’s ideograph, an “ordinary-language term found in political discourse … a high order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal” (15). The concept of the ideograph expresses a basic connection between rhetoric and ideology, uncovering the ideological nature of terminology by highlighting the values, beliefs, and commitments laden in ordinary language. Ideographs are “historically and culturally grounded commonplace rhetorical terms and sum up and invoke identification with key social commitments” (Edwards and Winkler 395). Terms like “democracy” and “freedom” can be understood as ideographs because they invoke cozy-sounding values (who is anti-freedom?) while functioning for a myriad of political and social agendas (like the “War on Terror”). Ideographs effectively assert collectivity and shape public-decision making because they so often are invoked and received without comment or challenge. They serve as commonplaces, the “common sense” terms or phrases that circulate within ideologies (Hawhee and Crowley 76). As commonplaces, ideographs reveal ideological commitments and felt rhetorical consequences once critically examined.

Ideobodies, like ideographs, describe the ideological nature of everyday terms that serve as high order abstractions (who is the law-abiding citizen, specifically?) and represent collective commitment to a particular, yet equivocal, ill-defined normative goal (that of law-abiding-ness and citizenship). Ideobodies, too, carry ideological weight, often functioning subconsciously because they do not present as overtly political or inflammatory. However, ideobodies are distinct in that their power lies in their ability to assert and co-opt felt, bodily experience. While ideobodies are discursive, their rhetorical effects bear directly on bodies. As Abby Knoblauch forwards, “bodies may be imagined as texts, as cyborgs, as discourse itself. But that does not dismiss the very real lived experiences of that flesh, of people, not metaphors” (60). Ideobodies are not merely a rhetorical sleight of hand, but an intentional, often pernicious, means of utilizing an experience outside of one’s own, often at the direct expense of those who actually have lived, and are living, that experience. It is necessary to, as Candice Rai argues, not perceive “rhetorical structures … as universal, bloodless, or immaterial” but “imagine [them] in tension with the reified mechanisms, spaces, and bodily habits that reproduce and circulate rhetoric and within which rhetoric dwells” (38). Locating ideobodies is one way to name moments in rhetorical deliberation where lived experience is appropriated, where bodily authority is eclipsed, and where rhetorical violence to bodies occurs. In short, naming ideobodies leads to the identification of the appropriation of power.

The Law-Abiding Citizen as Ideobody in Gun Control Discourse 

The HB-2074 committee hearing is a location where we can see the law-abiding citizen-as-ideobody in action. The HB-2074 hearing, if passed, would have exempted certain state and municipal buildings (including public universities) from the provisions of the Personal and Family Protection Act (PFPA). The PFPA, enacted in 2013, mandated that “the carrying of a concealed handgun shall not be prohibited in any public area of any state or municipal building unless such public area has adequate security measures to ensure that no weapons are permitted to be carried into such a public area” (art. 75, sec. 20). “Adequate security measures” specifically entail armed personnel at every entrance in the building, metal detectors and metal detector wands, and gun lockers. Many state and municipal buildings, including universities, mental health facilities, and senior living facilities, opted for a temporary exemption from permit-less concealed carry, which held off the implementation of PFA provisions until July 1st, 2017. HB-2074 stood as a “last-ditch” attempt to maintain this exemption. 

Over thirty university faculty, staff, and students attended the hearing and provided statements in support of the bill, along with concerned parents, business owners, and other community members. Only three opponents to HB-2074 were present at the hearing: Phil, a Missouri lobbyist, Harry, an NRA representative, and Gregory, a former Kansas state senator. While proponents of the university appealed to their lived experiences as students, teachers, and staff, calling the university “home” and describing their offices, classrooms, and dining halls as places that felt already safe and secure, opponents consistently countered these claims with descriptions of these places as vulnerable and unstable, subject to inevitable gun violence. Opponents not only spoke about the university, but spoke from the space of the university by invoking the law-abiding citizen:

“You have to do something to try and make sure there won’t be guns [on campus] … otherwise, then all you’re doing is keeping the law-abiding citizen from being able to defend themselves in a situation” (Harry, NRA representative)

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t trust law-abiding citizens, I know that a criminal could come in, because there’s nothing to stop him, and he could shoot me, but I’m more concerned about law-abiding citizens.’ And that’s the issue here. Government should trust its citizens.” (Gregory, former Kansas state senator)

In Harry and Gregory’s statements, the law-abiding citizen functions as an ideobody. In Harry’s statement, the law-abiding citizen can be interpreted as a student, teacher, staff member, campus visitor, or anyone else present on campus when a hypothetical shooting occurs. In Gregory’s statement, he refers to law-abiding citizens as an entire group of people more broadly whose rights are being infringed upon because of a gun-free agenda, suggesting that such a group exists at the university. The law-abiding citizen(s) in both statements are ambiguous bodies, not marked by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or class, identities which many proponents referenced and spoke from in order to share and ground their own experiences on their college campus. Importantly, neither Harry nor Greg refer to their own identities as outside members of the university in their statements. The law-abiding citizen(s) are at the forefront of their reasoning and witnessing to the necessity of introducing guns on campus. As bell hooks describes, “the person who is most powerful has the privilege of denying their body” (137). Harry, Greg, and Phil are white, middle- to upper-class males that “deny” their lived experiences as a lobbyist, NRA representative, and former senator through their utilization of the ideobody of the law-abiding citizen and seek to appropriate the lived experiences of university “citizens.” Their embodied privilege readily enables them to reference this  generic, sexless, genderless, and raceless ideobody. 

Following the opponents’ individual statements, there was time for questioning by the Committee and proponents of the bill. Harry was called back up to the stand by Jake, one of the undergraduate students in attendance. Jake posed the following question to Harry:

“I guess I’m curious to know the end game here. Is it that law-abiding citizens carrying concealed weapons on campus make it safer? Is the end game to have a kind of ecosystem where security and police on campus and individuals need to be armed for the safety of this campus?”

In response, Harry replied: “Just putting a gun-free sticker up is not enough” and continued to advocate for the ability to carry a “personal protection firearm.” Although Jake directly invokes the law-abiding citizen, drawing from Harry’s statement, he does not challenge it as a viable, authoritative figure in the first place. The power of the law-abiding-citizen as a natural, common sense term evades critical intervention. Even in a room packed with people who oppose guns on university campuses, mental health facilities, and senior living homes, the ideobody of the law-abiding citizen broadens the rhetorical reach of Phil, Harry, and Gregory. The law-abiding citizen(s)’ experience, as described by the opponents, speaks over and for the very people in the crowded hearing room, speaking from places university members actually occupy on a regular basis.

Ideobodies and Intervention            

While it is useful to locate these moments as commonplaces and ideographs more generally, locating ideobodies provides opportunities for more critically describing moments of appropriation, and importantly, conceiving of salient responses and resistance to this appropriation. For rhetoricians working in political and public rhetorics, the concept of the ideobody provides a specific way to locate and describe moments where appropriation takes place in civic discourse. By foregrounding the bodily language and consequences of such appropriation, the concept of the ideobody also serves current work in embodied rhetorics by further describing and differentiating embodied terminologies (Knoblauch).

Since ideobodies are inherently ideological, they represent structural power that isn’t dismantled only by calling out the term itself. However, identifying, challenging, and resisting ideobodies can serve as productive and important rhetorical research and civic action. Identifying ideobodies and making critical interventions into the ways in which they are invoked in everyday discourse is not a panacea to foreclosing their potential appropriation of lived experience, but it can begin to expose the ideological underpinnings of such terms. Identifying ideobodies works to locate, challenge, and resist how power is distributed, sedimented, and upheld in particular institutional spaces by refusing a politics of invisible, universal, and neutral bodies. Following the committee hearing, HB-2074 stalled and eventually died in committee. As a current student and instructor at a university with concealed carry now implemented, I wish that I had recognized the ways in which ideobodies worked, in part, to eclipse my real, lived experiences, as well as those of the students, colleagues, and campus community members that worked to claim university space in their own terms. And while the law-abiding citizen is one example of an ideobody that circulates in gun control discourse, terms like the “prudent layperson” in medical insurance documents and “stakeholders” in local government proceedings might also be investigated as ideobodies. What are the felt consequences of such terms? Whom do they serve, and whose experiences and bodies do they eclipse or ignore? What happens when they are challenged? Pursuing the answers to these questions is one space for rhetorical intervention and disruption.

Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, 5th ed., Pearson, 2011.

Edwards, Janice L., and Carol K. Winkler. “Representative Form and the Visual Ideograph: The Iwo Jima Image in Editorial Cartoons.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 83, no. 3, 1997, pp. 289-310.  

“HB-2074 Committee Hearing.” YouTube, uploaded by Working Journalist Press, 2 Feb. 2017,

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.

Kansas Legislature Committee on Federal and State Affairs. The Personal and Family Protection Act K.S.A. 75-7c01 et. seq. 

Knoblauch, Abby. “Bodies of Knowledge: Definitions, Delineations, and Implications of Embodied Writing in the Academy.” Composition Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 2012, pp. 50-65.

McGee, Michael. “The Ideograph: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 66, no. 1, 1980, pp. 1-16.

Rai, Candice. Democracy’s Lot: Rhetoric, Publics, and the Places of Invention. The U of Alabama P, 2016. 

KEYWORDS: commonplaces, community, intervention, political, public