How not to argue against gun control

In the aftermath of a mass shooting the familiar arguments are revived once again. The past two years have been enough for a rough tattoo to imprint itself on my eardrums.

I don’t know what my exact position would be, if I had to draw a line in the current system. It is of course nonsense to say “pro-2nd Amendment,” since my interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is no more valid than whatever the basic line of the Supreme Court is at any given moment, and I have to assume some sort of Constitutional hermeneutics which I won’t be able to justify independently.

I know that I argue, most often, on the “pro-gun rights” side. There is, however, an argument I constantly see over on this side which is so obnoxiously foolish I feel the need to criticize it.

I’ve heard it a hundred times in different language. Here’s one version I just saw posted on Facebook in the middle of a really tedious argument:

[“There’s a huge correlation between all these shootings and the fact that people can easily buy guns at wallmart [sic]. Why are so many Americans denying that fact?”]

“There is a correlation between people being able to purchase guns and shootings? That’s enlightening. There is also a correlation between people purchasing cars and car accidents, purchasing fast food and obesity, etc. Go live in your padded room and leave management of society to the adults. There are plenty of examples of mass shootings, knife attacks, poison gas attacks, bombings, running people down with trucks, etc. If you think it’s the tool or method that’s the problem, you have guaranteed that you won’t really address the problem.”

This is an asinine response. It is the argument that “Well, if we ban guns, the killer will just use something else instead. Look at all these examples of spree killings with a blade, or just look at Nice two years ago.”

It says, explicitly, that the type of weapons we allow for civilian ownership do not matter, because massacres will either always happen anyway, or the killer will simply move on to the next legal weapon (which is basically the same thing).

Any time someone seriously makes this argument, we can simply respond, “Okay, so should we let civilians have nuclear warheads?”

Doesn’t it follow from their logic? Or maybe nukes are too non-analogous in terms of possible levels of devastation (like, you know, guns to knives); then we just ask, “Okay, so should we let civilians have RPGs? Or what about military drones? After all, it’s not the tool that matters, it’s the person.”

Of course, Recreational Civilian Nukes have become a sort of ironic platform of libertarianism online, but most of the people making this gun rights argument aren’t people who completely want to abolish the government and privatize the military — even if their logic implies that the scale of massacres won’t be significantly impacted by legalizing all sorts of elite weaponry for the public at large.

School shootings are horrible and frustrating. We should look at solutions first — find out what possible preventative measures are efficacious, if they are any — and only after that determine if they fit with our moral and political compasses. The above argument is clearly something that comes from a commitment to gun rights first and logic second.

And there is another ubiquitous gun rights argument that prides dogma before facts. Often times, pro-gun rights people will bring up how miniscule the percentage of deaths by firearm actually is in the States and across the globe. And when we look into the data on this, we see that the number one cause of death by firearm is suicide — I think 65% of the gun fatalities in the United States. From which, the pro-gun rights person announces, “See, these deaths couldn’t be prevented anyway.”

How absurd, both on the statistics and on simple reflection! The research on suicide indicates that the availability of highly lethal means does impact the decision to commit.

If you were going through suicidal ideation, do you think it might make a difference if your only available means were sharp objects (extremely painful), versus sharp objects and also a firearm? Or imagine if your only available means were pills (low probability of success), versus pills and also a firearm. Less lethal/more painful tools will have a higher ideational threshold for commitment — how much a person really wants to commit suicide — and plausibly lower the chance of someone committing.

There are Harvard studies on the correlation between highly lethal means and suicide rates which I can find if people are interested. But for the moment, I just wish the pro-gun rights crowd was a little more open to thinking about the facts and less about upholding their chosen position through sophistry.

10 thoughts on “How not to argue against gun control

  1. The reality is that more firearms are not correlated with more deaths of innocents at the hands of criminals. There are gobs of studies, especially in the medical literature, that are so laughably bad, I don’t even bother reading new ones that come out any more. Add to that the status of armed self defense as a civil right and the number of defensive gun uses in the U.S. (note: this is not justifiable homicide) are estimated between 55k at the low end to 4.7 million annually and you have pretty good arguments that 1) more gun control will not be effective at reducing the number of murders (which has been declining for decades in the face of more and more guns being purchased) and 2) that restricting firearms from innocents will cause tens of thousands and potentially millions of deaths or severe injuries each year.

    This is an effective way to argue against gun control.

    • Is it completely irrelevant whether or not a potential spree killer has access to a firearm (his only other tools being less deadly)?

    • Just realized that maybe I misread you and was being uncharitable. I agree that there are effective ways to argue against gun control (ones unlike the argument I criticized above). I do find actual statistic relationships much more compelling than the general appeal to it as a civil right, however. That is why I end up on the pro-gun rights side.

      • It’s not “completely irrelevant” but spree killings are far too rare to study with sophisticated techniques. It is the case that 98% of public mass shootings (defined as shootings that happened in public, not in someone’s home, in which 4 or more people died) since 1950 have occurred in so-called “gun free zones” where firearms are restricted. Though the evidence is clear that having more gun restrictions doesn’t reduce crime, it is clear that reducing potential victims’ ability to defend themselves makes them more likely to be victims.

        The civil rights argument is potentially not convincing on its own for some people, but I think it’s important that we are crystal clear that self defense is on par with speech, freedom from unreasonable searches/seizures, self-incrimination, etc. It’s *part of* the conversation that is, IMO, crucial.

      • Yes, and I agree with you that as a right its place among the rest is foundational. I think that adopting specious arguments, like that the types of weapons actually available — as opposed to simply which laws attempt to proscribe certain weapons — are irrelevant in the quantity and quality of spree killings, and that people who take their own lives have no preference about whether or not their suicide method is excrutiating, is drawn-out, or has a high chance of failure (with miserable effects like mental retardation or paralysis), are probably doing a lot to hurt the pro-gun rights side.

        It is one thing to say our laws won’t do a very good job in saving lives or preventing weapons from falling into a perpetrator’s hands. It’s another to say that from the standpoint of the depravity of the killing spree, it doesn’t matter which weapons are in the perpetrator’s hands — which I think is implied in the first argument I criticized above.

        I recognize though that the statistical evidence is probably in our favor most of the time.

  2. After I read the whole article twice I still have no idea what you are saying. Are you saying people should have access to a gun or should not? Or are you not saying either one, just miffed by the argument most often made by the pro gun side? What was I supposed to understand after I read this?

  3. Bill: I am generally sympathetic to your line of reasoning. It’s a welcome rejection of the automatic, drive-by responses common among gun rights defenders. But (but), you can’t have it both ways on the usefulness of correlations.You can’t reject summarily as “asinine” the parallel between the car purchase/car accidents relationship and the gun ownership/homicide relationship while relying on the latter for your main argument (I think). You seem to be making the usual point that correlation is not causation for the other guys and their cars, while accepting it implicitly from the beginning of your own line of reasoning. Seems to me that if you had begun with the sentence: “That there is both a large number of guns and a large number of mass shootings in America does not imply anything,” you would have written something else.

    Next, your view that the availability of firearms and the commonness of suicide are probably related is well taken. It’s certainly plausible. ( I have not seem the studies but I accept they may exist and be valid.) This view does not, however belong in the same discussion with firearms and homicide. The two belong in different moral universes. It’s possible to wish for gun restrictions to prevent homicides while opposing gun restrictions to,prevent suicides. I, for one am definitely in favor of fewer homicides; I am not sure I want to use the violent power of the state either to prevent people from ending their lives or to make it more difficult and possibly more painful.

    Last, I agree with the mental process you propose: “We should look at solutions first — find out what possible preventative measures are efficacious, if they are any — and only after that determine if they fit with our moral and political compasses.” It would be a lot easier to follow if we thought the same rationalism prevailed on the other side. Nearly every time I argue with them, or listen to them, I quickly develop the impression that they don’t just want to outlaw “assault rifles” but ultimately, all firearms. The fact that they use so often that meaningless category “assault rifle;” that fact that few of them seem to know that automatic weapons are illegal – for practical purposes, their indifferent ignorance, re-inforce my suspicion. (Why learn the technical details if I want the lot of them outlawed?) Given that impression, the discussion quickly becomes a Second Amendment issue in my mind. It’s as if we thought, Cut through the small crap, let’s get down to the real topic: Do I have the right to possess the means to defend myself or not? I ask because there are many powerful people whose answer is a loud, No! And, yes, by the way, Why not a grenade launcher?

    Good training exercise as I grope my way to an answer that satisfies both my understanding of the world and my values.

    • Apologies for the late response, my laptop was being repaired and I just saw this.

      Jacques, you are right about the correlation point, but I was not trying to make that point. Although I included it in the quote, I was not trying to respond to “There is also a correlation between people purchasing cars and car accidents, purchasing fast food and obesity, etc. Go live in your padded room and leave management of society to the adults.” This line of reasoning strikes me as distinct from the point I was criticizing — that intentional massacres can be performed with any variety of non-firearms, and so whether or not guns fall into the hands of maniacs is going to be irrelevant.

      The quoted section essentially argues that the world is a dangerous place and too chaotic to regulate effectively (or maybe, that regulation is only for children). So the quoted person is making two arguments in one paragraph: (1) life is full of risks and dangers we don’t/ought not to regulate, and (2) massacres will happen in equal proportion whether or not the would-be terrorist has access to a firearm. I only intended to respond to the second point — “There are plenty of examples of mass shootings, knife attacks, poison gas attacks, bombings, running people down with trucks, etc.” Quoting the whole piece was a mistake. Although I think the ambiguity was on behalf of the quotee, as he just jammed two arguments together maybe without seeing the distinction.

      I agree also with the suicide point. I only mean to reject the claim that suicide rates are a given that cannot be decreased or increased by the availability of weapons. I mean this to be beside the gun control debate — it is only the claim that “Suicides are unpreventable anyway” which bothers me as inaccurate, and a loathsome dishonesty. Yes, I don’t think state laws are the primary way to go about approaching mental health.

      This debate is so heated that I rarely dip my toes. It helps not having any personal attachment to firearms anyway, I prefer a form of self-defense that the state and public have long since forgotten about. It is certainly enough to go from the Constitutional rights angle.

      • Thanks. II think this is a simple common sense statement: Killing large numbers in a short time can only be accomplished with a vehicle, with an exploding device, or with certain firearms (aside from the occasional highjacked plane). I hate to say it but it’s hard to do with a knife or with a cudgel.

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