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On guns: the facts, the reasons

I've wanted to write about the always highly contentious topic of guns for a long time (RS has covered the issue before: here and here, but I have never written about it). The aftermath of last week’s horrific events seems like a good time to do it (despite repeated calls from conservative quarters that it is “too soon” to do so, whatever that means). This essay cannot come even close to being comprehensive enough to cover all relevant aspects of the debate, and as it is often the case for my writings here, it is more a way for me to clarify my own thoughts than anything else. Still, I hope people will find these reflections useful for further (much needed) discussion.

First, the facts, broadly construed. I am perfectly aware that there is controversy about the studies that have been conducted on the effects of guns and gun control legislation, and I do know that when it comes to social science research it is far too easy to cherry pick whatever suits one’s preconceived notions. Still, some things need to be reckoned with, and a recent article in the Washington Post has provided a handy list to keep in mind.

Here are some interesting findings from that list:

* Shooting sprees are far from rare in the United States, and in most cases the perpetrator has obtained his weapons legally.

* “15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years took place in the United States.
... In second place is Finland, with two entries.”

* Contra apparently widespread mythology, Switzerland and Israel are not libertarian paradises when it comes to guns.

* The United States is by far the most violent society among member nations of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).

* Within the United States, the South (where there are more guns and less stringent gun regulations) is by far the most violent, with the Northeast being the least so.

* There is a clear link between guns and homicides. (Duh.)

* Contra popular conservative and libertarian lore, gun control laws do have a measurable effect, even within the US.

* While it is true that Americans on the whole do not support blanket regulation of guns, they do support a number of specific provisions (just like they don’t support “big government” in the abstract — who would? — but they sure as hell want to keep their medicare and social security).

After digesting the above facts, let’s take a look at some of the basic arguments that are thrown around by gun supporters:

* “The Second Amendment says so.” It’s the main mantra of gun enthusiasts, who consider their right to bear arms a fundamental one, guaranteed by the US Constitution. The actual text of said Amendment, as ratified by the States says:

“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.”

There is no sane way of reading this to mean that people have a right to bear arms except as part of a regulated militia. Yes, I know that legal “luminaries” like Supreme Court Justice Scalia have defended an entirely different reading of it (i.e., the one pushed by the NRA). But Scalia doesn’t even know the difference between a reductio and a slippery slope argument (the first being a valid form of reasoning, the second being an informal logical fallacy), so if that’s your standard of “reasoning,” you have a long way to go.

* “But car accidents kill more people than guns, so why all the fuss?” Because cars are necessary to move around, while guns (especially semi-automatic weapons) are not a necessity, but a choice usually justified on the grounds of sportsmanship, hunting or self-defense — none of which require anything like the number and types of guns currently permitted by US law. By the way, if you don’t recognize this as a red herring (another fallacious argument) you really ought to take logic 101.

Incidentally, terrorist attacks in the United States too have killed far fewer people than cars, and yet we have spent billions (without counting two wars, of course) to make us more secure. While I don’t actually think that this was the best way of spending tax payers’ money if the goal really was to increase our security (better to spend it on police intelligence operations, for instance), it seems interesting to me that the same people who absolutely refuse to even consider mild gun regulations are often the same ones who are most vocal supporters of strong governmental action to protect us from very rare threats. Make up your mind, people, consistency is yet another logical virtue you may want to cultivate.

* “You are limiting my freedom!” Yeah, well, that’s what it means to live in a society, as opposed to a deserted island. And the thing that really irks me is — again — the inconsistency of strenuously clinging to the Second Amendment when it comes to guns, while at the same time foregoing much of the rest of the Constitution (and our civil liberties) in the name of a misguided “war on terror.” More on the relationship between guns and freedom in a moment.

* “It’s useless to pass laws on gun control because they don’t work.” Besides the fact that — as shown above — this is simply not true, at the least this argues for better laws and/or stricter enforcement. Otherwise, we may as well give up on any law at all, since they all suffer from loopholes and partial efficacy, and (some) people will always try to get around them anyway.

But I sense you’d rather look at additional facts on this one. Very well, then. This study examined the results of a ban on semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and rifles in Australia, following a massacre where 35 people were killed. The results are striking: “In the 18 years before the gun law reforms, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia, and none in the 10.5 years afterwards.” The study also found a decrease in total firearm deaths, firearm suicides and firearm homicides. If the Aussies did it, why not good ‘ol US of A?

Finally, the philosophical argument. The New York Times’ Stone blog has just started a series on guns, the first entry being by Firmin DeBrabander (the second one so far is by Christy Wampole). One of the arguments put forth by DeBrander struck me as particularly apt. It actually goes back to philosopher Hannah Arendt (in her book, The Human Condition). As I mentioned above, gun advocates talk a lot about freedom, particularly their own. But the problem is that guns — especially when carried openly, as the NRA has been pushing and some States have already approved — are a huge deterrent against a much more fundamental freedom, that of speech (you know, First Amendment and all that).

As DeBrabander aptly puts it: “As ever more people are armed in public — even brandishing weapons on the street — this is no longer recognizable as a civil society. Freedom is vanished at that point. ... An armed society is polite, by [the NRA’s] thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening.”

Another way to put this is in terms of virtue ethics. We need to think about what an openly armed society would do to our character as individual members of that society. I personally doubt even the quality of character of someone who thinks that hunting is a sport worth engaging in, but I am okay with that and other limited use of lethal weapons (“sport” is another questionable application, and even self-defense is reasonable only under fairly unusual circumstances and as a last resort). But I am pretty sure that there is something fundamentally flawed in the character of a person who thinks it’s a good idea to arm teachers and students in school, to allow concealed guns in churches and bars, or to provide citizens with the sort of weapons that other countries reserve only for their military. The most profound damage the NRA and its supporters are doing to this country is not just in allowing the sort of carnage of young children we have seen this past week, as horrible as it is. It lies in a deep corruption of our very character as human beings and in the threat to the very idea of a free and open society.

Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.


Nice summary of the arguments. I read an interesting article in the New York Times (I think) that talked about the intent of the second amendment was a citizen militia such as in ancient Greece and Rome where free people were required to own a sword. Gradually, such as in Athens and later Rome, they were forbidden from carrying their swords in public for exactly the reasons you cite in your closing paragraph.

I argue regularly with some folks who are a little right of Attila the Hun. When I’m talking about clip size and minor specifics they are agreeable that those are reasonable areas to control in order to keep the community safer, but when it comes to actually regulating anything about guns their brains turn off and it is all a matter of culture and blind faith.

I’m always wondering when I see a few of these arguments if people are comparing gun ownership rates to violence - more than half the time, they’re only looking at gun violence, and not equivalently violent acts using different weapons.  Dead is dead, whether you got shot or hit over the head with a baseball bat.

I’m not going to argue against better laws and enforcement, but I’d like to be sure that the laws are actually lowering my *overall risk profile*, not just my chances of being shot, and unintended consequences are kept in mind - Australia’s rate of rapes spiked after their gun ban, and Britain is considering banning chefs’ knives - “knife crime” is the new “gun crime” there, and they’re also suffering from politically relevant levels of attacks with belt buckles (a nice improvised flail) and tightly rolled, wetted down newspapers (a surprisingly effective cudgel, comparable in effect to a sap or a blackjack).  While gun crime is down, overall levels of violence have actually increased.

With the increase in violence came creepy Orwellian omnipresent CCTV surveillance - unintended consequences in action.  It’s very easy to unintentionally make things worse overall by focusing too tightly on any one aspect of a political problem, and that worries me.

Another one worth mentioning is the notion that the real problem is violent video games and movies, not guns. The fact that other developed nations with similar availability of violent media have nowhere near the American level of gun violence is most curious.

@Alex: You mean “blind faith” can lead to faulty cognitive outcomes? You don’t say.

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