Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gun Control Conversation: Things Not to Say

I think there may be hope for a serious conversation about enacting sensible gun regulations in this country. But there is also a real danger of that conversation being quickly derailed. If the former is going to happen and the latter avoided, there are certain things people tend to say in these discussion that it would really be better to avoid. This is true of people on both sides.

I already talked, in an earlier post, about one such unhelpful remark: The accusation that gun control advocates are "politicizing a tragedy." Here are a few other remarks that it is better to leave behind:

1. "Our children are more important than your guns."

This statement is clearly true. Children are more important than guns. The problem is not with the truth of this statement. The problem, perversely, is that the statement is so obviously true...but is put forward as if this were what opponents of stricter gun regulations disagreed with.

Imagine that you enjoy tennis, and some child in your town was murdered with a tennis racket. Then imagine that a small group of people started arguing for restricting access to tennis rackets. You start to argue that tennis rackets aren't the problem and your opponents suddenly shout you down with "Our children are more important than your tennis rackets!" How would you feel?

I offer this example not because I think guns are comparable to tennis rackets. They're not. Many guns are specifically designed for the express purpose of efficiently ending the lives of human beings. Tennis rackets are designed to hit tennis balls. I offer this example to highlight how stating the obvious as if it were a matter of contention--in effect accusing your opponent of disagreeing with you on something about which no decent human being would disagree--doesn't settle the argument. It just gets your opponent more angry and less willing to engage in a serious conversation.

We all need to focus our attention where the disagreement actually lies. In the case of the safety of our children, the disagreement is not over whether their lives are more valuable than guns. So where does it lie? A big part of the debate is about whether stricter gun regulations will keep our children safer--and if so, what sorts of gun regulations will optimize their safety and what sorts will needlessly restrict gun owners to no good effect.

Much of the debate also turns on an ideological disagreement about the extent to which public safety should be secured by government institutions (police, military) and policies (such as various airport security regulations) and the extent to which it should be secured by extending to individuals the right to secure their own safety by the means they judge best. When it comes to such things as locks and security systems, we all agree that full autonomy should lie with the individual. When it comes to guns the debate becomes complicated because guns both pose a threat to the public safety (when in the wrong hands) and can be used by individuals to defend themselves and those they love from such threats. The conflict here is a case study in broader ideological disagreements about the right balance between individual liberty and communal action for the common good.

2. "In such and such a case of gun violence, greater gun control failed to stop the killer/ ready access to guns by private individuals failed to stop the killer/ ready access to guns by a private individual prevented the gun violence from being worse."

Here's one example of what I have in mind:


I've been trying to track down another one I saw--this one from the other side of the issue--but can't find it. I remember the gist of it well enough, though. It features an image of Nidal Hasan--the shooter who killed 13 people and wounded 29 others at the Fort Hood military base in 2009. It cites the number of people killed and injured and notes that this occurred on a military base, where presumably there were lots of armed people about with lots of training in how to use their weapons...and then it draws the conclusion that arming people more heavily won't stop mass shootings.

A facebook post by a philosophy colleague at another university called my attention to the extent to which specific anecdotes like these are being invoked on both sides as if they settled anything. They don't. The question is whether a particular policy or other will save lives--not whether it will bring an end to all gun-related deaths, all mass killings, etc. No matter what policy we adopt, there will be people who get hold of guns and succeed in taking human lives. We don't live in a perfect world, but we might be able to achieve a better one.

Anecdotes have a powerful impact on our imagination and can shape our thinking, but there is a reason why "anecdotal" evidence is treated with suspicion. And one needs to be careful about the anecdotes one chooses, since it may be a matter of debate whether they make the point you want. For example, according to a Mother Jones article, the Pearl shooting was apparently over by the time the vice principal got his gun. What he managed to do was hold the shooter at gunpoint in the shooter's car until the police arrived.

Of course, it may also be that the shooter was heading off to another location to shoot up some more people. The point is that now you're in a debate about what happened and what would have happened in a particular case when, in fact, the anecdote doesn't really speak to the broader issue. The substantive conversation about what policies are best both in terms of outcomes and in terms of other ethical considerations has been derailed.

3. "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will lave guns."

This statement assumes that the subject of discussion is nothing but whether a sweeping ban on private gun ownership is the best policy. But it is precisely this sort of all-or-nothing thinking that polarizes discussions and makes more nuanced conversations about sensible policies so difficult.

What we have to ask is not what the effects of a total ban would be, but what the effects of the more nuanced and realistic policy proposals on the table would be. We have to say, for a range of policy proposals, "If this proposal were enacted, then what?" And we have to decide which of these various proposals--proposals which regulate gun ownership in various ways as opposed to outlawing them--is the best policy given the social realities of our country, its history, the evidence of various policy effects on violence, the legitimate moral claims of individuals, and fidelity to our constitution (which requires a serious discussion of what a right to bear arms for the sake of well-regulated militias actually means for us today).

Besides which, even those who propose a ban on guns don't mean for that ban to extend to law enforcement and the military--so it's simply false that only outlaws would have guns.


  1. Is this it?:

    1. Yes! Spent half an hour trying to find it before giving up. Thanks.

  2. This kind of levelheaded thinking is just what is sorely needed in this debate/discussion. Kudos!

  3. Ah, a breath of fresh air! I'll be sharing this one.