The argument over gun ownership, gun control, and gun availability continues to rage, and gun advocates keep shouting the same lines, and gun opponents keep shouting their lines, and those who want ownership with more regulation keep shouting theirs. And nobody seems to be getting through to anybody. Everyone on all sides has dug in, and there seems to be no possibility of movement or compromise. It's not unlike the Congress in that way.
I do not propose to solve this problem, nor to provide startling new evidence that I'm right and everybody else is wrong. For full disclosure purposes, I support regulated ownership of guns appropriate for hunting and home protection. But my intention is not to convince you that you should agree with me or support me on any specifics of gun policy. Instead, I want to highlight one of the reasons these discussions are going nowhere. In a nutshell, nobody's actually arguing. They're just opining.
To be perfectly clear, an argument is a very specific kind of thing. An argument is a connected series of propositions, each of which can be backed up by evidence, which together lead to a supported conclusion. You know the simplest kind of argument:
- All men are mortal
- Socrates is a man
- Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Very different from arguments are impassioned pleas, imperative declarations, and anecdotes. And unfortunately, these are the main things I've heard as long as I can remember people arguing about guns. Let's start with some of the more common "arguments," and get them out of the way:
- Cars kill people more than guns kill people.
Yes. And this isn't an argument. It's an observation. Old age kills more people than guns. Cancer kills more people than guns. Cigarettes, too. And what does more or less have to do with it in the first place? Around 41 children per year in the U.S. are abducted by strangers in the "classic kidnapping" scenario. Only a few of them are killed. And we spend millions and millions of dollars on the Amber Alert system to prevent those few deaths. In the 1980s, a handful of people allegedly were victimized by poisoned Tylenol. Who knows how many billions of dollars have been spent since then on more and more elaborate tamper-proof packaging.
To be an argument, the car observation needs another proposition:
- Cars kill more people than guns.
- Therefore, we should not regulate guns.
When we look at it this way, it loses a lot of steam. Here's another one that gets thrown about an awful lot:
- We have to have guns so that we can protect ourselves in our homes.
No, we don't have to. We want to. (Some of us, anyway.) This is an impassioned plea, not an argument. There are countries where practically nobody has guns in their homes. We know this argument, right? Japan? Eleven gun deaths per year or so? And nobody has guns to protect themselves. And trust me, right now, most Japanese people are probably a lot more worried about nuclear contamination than gun ownership.
- We have a Constitutional right to bear arms.
Yes. And the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealed the 18th Amendment, because we decided it was a really bad idea. The right to bear arms was granted by the 2nd Amendment, which is subject to repeal or modification.
- Guns don't kill people. People kill people.
It's true, in a semantic sense. But what does it have to do with gun regulation? Remember the formula?
- People kill people.
- Therefore, we shouldn't regulate guns.
People kill people with guns, knives, screwdrivers, pillows, poison, bombs, baseball bats, cars, crossbows, fists, sharp sticks, piano wire, airplanes, and about a thousand other things. When enough people start killing people with a particular item, we think about finding ways to make it more difficult for them to do that. In particular, we focus on items such as poison and bombs, which have very few uses other than killing people. As guns go, they're quite good for killing animals, including humans. They're not as good at cutting down trees, and killing plants with guns is just silly. So it's at least plausible to put guns, bombs, and poison in the same category, while excluding knives, ropes, and baseball bats, which serve us in quite a few useful ways, while being somewhat unwieldy in the human-killing process.
- There are lots of responsible gun owners.
And? Again, this is not an argument. It's an observation.
- There are a lot of responsible gun owners.
- Therefore, we should not regulate guns.
There are gun owners in Japan. Not many, but some. The percentage of responsible gun owners in Japan is... all except around 11 per year. In every single country with gun regulations, there are responsible gun owners and irresponsible ones. What does this have to do with whether or not we should regulate guns?
There's one more "argument" that needs to be addressed. It's Wayne LaPierre's assertion that more guns in private hands will make Americans safer than they are now. And the "only a man with a gun can stop a man with a gun" cliche. Let's make sure we understand that this is not an argument. It's an assertion. It's formally the same as if I said, "Only by increasing the number of cars on the road can we hope to lower car fatalities." (See? You don't like it when people misuse an analogy against your position, do you?) To both claims, the only proper response is: "Prove it." Until there's a compelling empirical, logical, and scientifically backed demonstration that this is true, it's simply not a good enough foundation upon which to form national policy.
Hopefully the point has been made emphatically enough. The "pro-gun" side of this discussion is not bringing arguments to the table. They're bringing opinions, impassioned pleas, emotional appeals, and non-sequiturs. Does this mean they're wrong? No. It means they're not proving their case. There's a big difference.
CONSTRUCTING A HELPFUL DIALOG
One of the funny things about humans is our tendency to interpret criticism as disagreement. I've noticed in my own life that any time I offer one of these responses to a pro-gun person, I am immediately categorized as "the enemy." I'm one of those "liberals" who wants to let the black guy in the White House take all our guns away. I'm suddenly "anti-gun."
But if we refer back to the beginning of this piece, we might -- just might -- remember that I'm pro-gun. I am in favor of gun ownership for home protection and hunting. Also, in pointing out that the 2nd Amendment is subject to repeal, I did not advocate for its repeal. With this in mind, and saying this as carefully and clearly as possible:
If you are in favor of gun ownership and have made it this far into the piece, please realize that I AM HELPING YOU. I am showing you the errors in the rhetoric you have been employing, and explaining to you why you're not changing anyone's mind.
You and I both, I believe, support arms regulation. Should 11 year olds be allowed to buy shotguns? Diagnosed psychopaths? Convicted violent criminals? Should depleted uranium rounds be sold to the public? How about the anti-tank artillery that fires them? Are landmines appropriate for home protection? What about homemade fully automatic rifles? Do you want your neighbor to have anti-aircraft guns mounted on his roof?
This should be an obvious point, but it needs to be said: Arms are regulated. They will continue to be regulated. These are some of the questions we should be asking:
- How and to what extent should arms be regulated?
- Where is the balance between public and private safety?
- What is an appropriate punishment for improper gun use?
- Who is responsible, both criminally and civilly, when a gun is used improperly?
- Which arms are appropriate for private use, and why?
- What should qualify/disqualify a person from gun ownership?
Once we've all agreed to sit at the table and talk about questions like these, we realize that our initial rhetoric was both unnecessary and irrelevant. It's not important that cars kill people, or that we have a Constitutional right to bear arms, or that we want to have guns in our homes. We all get it. We're past that. We all know that there are both responsible and irresponsible gun owners. We all want to increase the percentage of responsible ones.
There are good questions on the table right now. For instance, is it reasonable to have the capacity to fire 152 bullets in under five minutes with 4 reloads for either hunting or home protection? If so, why? What is the prevalence rate of home invasions in which 152 bullets were necessary to repel the intruder? How do home invasion deaths in America compare with countries in which only 6 or 10 rounds can be discharged from privately owned firearms?
These are the arguments we need to be having. In order to have them, one side in particular needs to start responding to the actual arguments being made by the other. We -- those of us who favor heavier gun regulations -- have not asked you about car deaths, nor knife deaths. We have not asked if it's okay for us to disarm you in your home, or to prevent you from hunting your own food or trophies. We have not suggested repealing the 2nd Amendment. We have not challenged your right to bear arms. We are asking one question: What sorts of changes in the way guns are regulated would increase the safety of American citizens?