People who worry more about their toys than a child’s life quite frankly scare me, and I sure as hell don’t want a wave of fanatics protesting my blog. At the same time, my conscience is not letting me sleep at night. Since the Newtown massacre, I feel it is my moral obligation to do something, to contribute my voice to the growing chorus that is saying enough if enough!
The problem with guns in America is a problem with the gun debate itself. Solving gun violence is not a liberal or conservative issue, nor is it a freedom vs. tyranny issue, but an issue of common sense. Nobody wants more children to die, right or left. I think we can all agree on this. Our focus should be on reducing these crimes. But I find it simply appalling that so many who side with the NRA simply shrug their shoulders and accept these massacres as inevitable, as if more children need to die for freedom, as though there is nothing anyone can or should do about it. Evil will always be with us, but admitting we are powerless to do anything about it is to give murderers free reign. The truth is, we can make a difference. LESS is the key word. While we may never do away with murder altogether, we can at least work to LESSEN murders in this country. But the gun lobby refuses to acknowledge this simple reality, and rather than argue against the other side, they debate against “imaginary” positions nobody is making. They repeat logical fallacies ad-nauseam, that may sound good on poster boards and memes, but do not hold up to scrutiny. Their favorite tactics are straw man, slippery slope and false analogy. Here, I will tackle each fallacious argument one by one:
1) Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People: This statement is true. The problem is, nobody is arguing that guns magically lift themselves up and commit murder. This is an example of a straw man argument. While guns don’t kill by themselves, they do make it easier to kill. After all, that’s what guns are made to do, kill, and kill easily. If you’re Adam Lanza and you want to kill twenty or more kids before anybody can stop you, you’ll have much greater success with a semi-automatic rifle.
2) If You Ban Guns, What’s Next? Knives? Cars? Rocks? People Will Find Ways to Kill No Matter What: This statement makes three fallacies: straw man, slippery slope, and false analogy. I will go through these one by one. 1) Straw Man: Nobody is saying that by limiting access to guns, all murder will cease. But while we cannot reasonably ban every single thing that can be used to kill (hell, even a pillow can be used to kill) I think most people would agree that Adam Lanza would have been hard pressed to murder twenty children with a pillow. Yes, people will indeed find ways to commit murder, but by limiting access to things that make killing easy, murder becomes more difficult to commit. 2) Slippery Slope: Laws restricting gun use does not, by default, lead to bans on other things, especially if those things are benign in nature. Furthermore, things that can be harmful, like cars, do have restrictions. Why else do we have speed limits? Seat belts? Emissions tests? The pro-gun slippery slope argument, if true, can also be used in reverse. If people will find ways to kill no matter what, why ban anything? Why ban Gatling guns? Flamethrowers? Nuclear bombs? 3) False analogy: Yes, a kitchen knife can be used to kill, but the purpose of a kitchen knife is to cut food. If used correctly, a knife harms no one. If we could make knives safer, we would. A “safe” gun is an oxymoron. Guns exist for killing. Period. So, while we cannot reasonably ban things like knives, we can put reasonable restrictions on guns.
3) The Second Amendment States that Congress Shall Make No Law Infringing the Right to Bear Arms . . .: Gun nuts seem to have the 2nd Amendment memorized, but tend to ignore its establishing clause, which states:
as ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, then-Secretary of State:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
In other words, the “right to bear arms” does not pertain to any nut wanting to walk around with an AR-15. But even if we were to disregard its original intent, nobody is advocating a repeal of the Second Amendment. The notion that any gun control will lead to an overall ban is an example of slippery slope. The problem here is the word arms, which is such a vague term, it can literally mean anything. An atomic bomb can also be considered an arm, yet nobody is suggesting private citizens have nuclear weapons. Common sense dictates that the Second Amendment was intended to have limits. Even with the First Amendment, you cannot legally threaten someone, you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and you cannot, inexplicably, walk around naked. The Constitution is not a religious tract; it is not the Word of God and it is not infallible. In fact, the Founding Fathers meant for it to change, which is why the Constitution is called a living document, which is why they set up the Supreme Court to interpret it, to take into account new evidence and changing circumstances. An NRA member on TV stated that if the Founding Fathers had not wanted us to have certain weapons, they would have stated so, but they could only have permitted the types of arms they knew to exist, like muskets. Fortunately, they were wise enough to keep the law vague, realizing that muskets would not remain the arm of choice forever. They understood that times change and that the Constitution, to remain relevant, would have to change with it.
4) If You Take Guns Away from Law Abiding Citizens, Only Criminals Will Have Guns: Again, nobody wants to take guns away from law abiding citizens. In fact, the intent of background checks is to determine who the law abiding citizen is. Of course, criminals will find ways to obtains guns regardless. Nobody is contradicting this possibility, but just as in point #1, the idea is to make guns more difficult to obtain. In Australia, where guns have been outlawed, automatic rifles go for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market. No $35 grand for an AR-15? Less deaths at mass shootings! New laws also help get criminals off the streets should they be found in possession of a gun. And to say that criminals will simply ignore the law is like saying there is no point making murder illegal, since people will murder anyway.
5) The Only Way to Stop a Bad Guy with a Gun is a Good Guy with a Gun: Here I find some common ground with the NRA. I believe there should be armed security in all schools. I agree that private citizens should be allowed to have guns in their homes, if only to make them feel safer. The problem is that the facts don’t match the rhetoric. More people are killed by guns accidentally than are ever saved. In the case of a massacre, more guns isn’t the answer. A teacher with a pistol in her desk would never have had the opportunity to stop Adam Lanza. This is simply logistics. You cannot stop an attack if you never know when or where or if an attack is coming. A trained security guard might, if they were in the right place at the right time, have taken Lanza out, but again, schools, malls, and movie theaters are big places and it is entirely unrealistic to expect people to defend themselves at a moment’s notice.
6) Gun Restrictions Won’t Change a Thing/Places like Chicago, with Strict Gun Laws, Have More Murders than Other Places with Lesser Restrictions: This is an example of false analogy. Chicago has been infamous for its crime rate since the 1920’s, starting after prohibition, and which continues to this day due to drugs and gang warfare. With no border control between them, comparing any two cities in the U.S. is a pointless exercise. Anyone can buy a gun in Texas, drive to New York, and commit a massacre. It’s much more accurate to look at statistics in places before and after gun legislation has taken place, where border patrol limits outside influence, such as in the U.K., Australia and Japan. In those countries, murders dropped dramatically after gun legislation was enacted, yet gun advocates refuse to acknowledge these statistics.
7) Without Guns, the U.S. Government will Turn into Nazi Germany: This statement is demonstrably false, ignoring both history and common sense. Every tyrannical dictatorship started with economic collapse. The revolutions in France and in Russia took place because the people in those countries were desperate for regime change. They willingly elected tyrannical rule. Hitler was placed into power after the first World War, after economic sanctions bankrupted the country, leading to inflation of the deutschmark. Whether the Germans were willing to give up their guns is beside the point. They were not given a choice, nor could they have hoped to fight the Nazi regime. Remember Waco, Texas? The Branch Davidian cult had stockpiled guns for the coming apocalypse, in a well fortified bunker, yet they were powerless to defend against the FBI and S.W.A.T. If President Obama elects himself Emperor of the United States, you can be certain that a bunch of rednecks hold out in the Appalachian Mountains will stand no chance against the combined forces of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. While I agree that, as American citizens, we must remain vigilant against tyranny, stockpiling guns is the wrong way to go about it. Rather, we must use the vote to hold our elected officials accountable.
I have two young daughters, eight and two. When I learned of the Newtown massacre, it hit way too close to home (and heart). Those could have been my kids. I would do anything, give up anything, to keep my children safe. While we can never hope to live in a perfect world free of crime, we can at least strive for such a world. Gun advocates are convinced that new gun legislation will have no effect on the murder rate, despite statistics to the contrary. If I were 99% as certain as the NRA, I would still enact stricter gun laws, because a 1% chance at saving a life is enough. Quite frankly, I am appalled by the callousness of our society. The gun lobby seems to fear for the loss of their guns more than for their children. Look, if tomorrow twenty kids were killed by a bicycle, and the government was considering banning bicycles, I would be the first to give up mine. Freedom to enjoy things does not supersede a person’s right to live in safe world. There are many things we ban for the safety of our communities: drunk driving, drugs, dangerous chemicals, yet nobody cries foul that their personal freedoms are being infringed upon. I understand that protection is a concern, but nobody needs a semi-automatic rifle for self-defense. These weapons serve no purpose but to kill many people, and rapidly; they are machines ideally suited for mass murder. Gun advocates rattle off statistics that show many more people are killed by handguns, which misses the point. If we cannot ban handguns, why not make background checks universal? Why not make it at least harder for criminals to obtain them legally? Why not limit the power of firearms, and the capacity of magazines, so that as someone like Adam Lanza squeezes off rounds, one-by-one, or when they are reloading, more people might chance to escape? If one more massacre can be averted, if one more life can be saved, we, as a society, are morally obligated to it. One massacre is one too many. One dead child is one too many.
Post Script: After the recent shooting in Arizona on October 9th (2015), I wanted to get philosopher Sam Harris’ take on the gun debate, via his podcast, The Riddle of the Gun. His position is far more nuanced than that of the liberal media or the NRA, and he brings up a lot of points we both agree on. But we also disagree on a number of issues. Incidentally, Harris is a firearm enthusiast, so one must wonder about his own biases. I list my rebuttals to his points below:
8) Banning Guns in America is Impossible: Unlike in the U.K. and Australia, there are 300 million guns in America. Due to these numbers, Sam argues, there is no possible way to eliminate them. I think this is a very short sighted view. Just because something is impractical, does not make it impossible. Harris also comes across as somewhat contradictory, when he argues in favor of permits and training to restrict who can carry a gun, while disregarding his first point that, with more firearms in the country than people, it is just as difficult to stop criminals from attaining them illegally. Guns can be stolen, bought on the black market, or obtained through a simple personal transaction. While neither of us advocate for an outright gun ban, we can limit their size and power. It is not an easy challenge, to be sure, and there are far more brilliant people to tackle this problem than I, but here are some ideas:
1) Restrict the production and sale of bullets. Guns are useless without them! Of course, there are people who will stockpile ammunition, but it does not change my basic premise: that one dead child is one too many.
Scenario #1: A man in a domestic dispute reaches to shoot his significant other, only to realize he is out of ammunition. Keep in mind, this is in the heat of the moment, so he has no time to borrow bullets from a friend or call up his cousin on the Appalachian trail who hides million of rounds in his basement. By the time he can consider an alternative (a knife?), his wife/girlfriend/mom is long gone, and the next time they meet, temperatures have cooled and common sense prevails. Domestic abuse, incidentally, is a common prelude to gun violence.
2) Have a “buy back” program, similar to what was done in Australia. Harris dismisses this idea, because such a program wouldn’t get rid of “all the guns.” But why must we have all or nothing? Most crimes are committed by poor, desperate people, many of whom are drug addicted. So imagine this,
Scenario #2: A man hooked on oxycontin decides to rob a drug store to get his fix. Only problem? He can’t, because he sold his gun for drug money the week before. Point is, lessening murder is the goal here. Arguing that “we simply can’t ban guns” is another way of saying, “we can’t stop all murder, so let’s not even try.”
3) Limit the most powerful weapons. If numbers is the problem, this should be easier. How many AR-15’s are out there? But Harris calls this an empty gesture. The only sensible solution, he posits, is to have trained security everywhere, and a general public prepared to “attack their attacker,” the way crew members take out terrorists on planes. The latter suggestion, that teachers and children turn into guerrilla warriors mid-lesson, is patently absurd. In theory, five people going at a gunman with school books and pencils might be effective, but we’re human beings, not zombies. When someone is shooting at you, your instinct is to run. You can’t compare an elementary school to a plane, because people on planes have nowhere to go, so their only choice is to fight. While I agree that having a guard in a school might be helpful, how many hundreds or thousands of people occupy everyday public places? Has Sam Harris even been to a college campus? This is not a sensible solution.
Scenario #3: Congress passes a bill allocating enormous funds for security guards in every room in every school, mall, movie theater, library, museum, sports stadium and restaurant in the country. This accounts for perhaps half of all military spending, but at least people feel relatively safe from mass shootings, right? Knowing this, a shooter drives through the parking lot where a popular movie is premiering, and with an automatic rifle, guns down dozens of bystanders before a guard has a chance to respond. Had the shooter been limited to a pistol, casualties would have been LESS, and isn’t that the goal? This leads to my next point …
9) Coconuts kill more people . . . Apparently, more people die from nurses not washing their hands than from guns. But here’s the thing: nobody is suggesting nurses not wash their hands. If there was a campaign to boost sanitation awareness, I’d be the first to sign up. Harris recounts numerous statistics, comparing firearm fatalities to other things, and then, handgun homicides to that of automatic rifles. His facts are accurate, but his conclusions are erroneous and somewhat callous. Given this logic, nurses needn’t wash their hands either, when comparing sanitation-related deaths to cancer and heart disease. Mass shootings are indeed rare, and automatic weapons are involved in only a fraction of these incidents. But if you’re a parent, it does not matter whether your child accounts for less than 1% of 1%. I do not know whether Sam has children of his own, but when he describes how awful these massacres are, and in the same breath, goes on to call them “statistically negligible,” it makes me think he does not understand what it means to be a parent. If you are a devoted father, your child is your ENTIRE WORLD. And this brings me right back to the premise of my post.
Perhaps, if Adam Lanza had had a pistol instead of an AR-15, he might have killed one less child. Does Sam Harris suggest that one child’s life does not warrant a ban on high-powered weapons? We’re not talking falling coconuts here, or shark attacks, or lightning storms, or any of the other countless things that can and probably do kill children every year, we’re talking about weapons that serve no practical purpose other than to murder. What if it were your kid that died? Would you describe the death of your son or daughter in terms of statistical relevance? Or call a ban on assault rifles a show and a distraction? If you knew that a smaller magazine might have given your child a chance to run or hide, would you not push for greater restrictions? I think you would.
Too often, in this age of information, we become divorced from our humanity, and our fellow human beings are turned to little more than nameless, faceless numbers. This is why story matters. Why poetry matters. Science leaves too great a hole where something we once called a “soul” resides.
At the end of the movie, Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler breaks down in tears of guilt, after having saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, knowing he could have saved, “two more people.” That scene never fails to make me cry. And in that spirit, I would like to end with this quote from the movie, and the Talmud,
- Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. — Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.
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