Gun control, 10 bad arguments, and maybe some ammunition for productive conversations

Introduction:

A sign for a gun show that states you should "get your guns while you still can." Used in a Scienceosaurus.com article about guns and bad arguments.
Figure 1: A sign for a gun show that states you should “get your guns while you still can.”

Tragically, yet another mass shooting in the U.S.A. has sparked some somber conversation.  Slightly less tragic, but still horrible, are the irrational tropes that are derailing some potentially constructive arguments (Figure 1).  This article will quickly examine some of the bad arguments used to dissuade gun control measures and stifle conversation.  Then a short list of conclusions from systematic and relatively-unbiased examinations on gun-control regulations is provided.

Caveats

This article’s goal and scope:

The primary goal of this article is not to change your mind or to promote gun control.  (Although the latter is a secondary aim.)  Instead, this article is meant to reveal the stupidity behind some arguments that are meant to steer your opinions.  The hope is that this will better enable more people to actually make up their own minds.

Also, this article is not comprehensive.  For instance, important complementary topics like comparisons between overall violence and gun-specific violence are not covered.  This is because they are tangential and this topic requires specificity.  Such comparisons are important, but they don’t change the fact that guns are used to kill people.  And they don’t address the fact that America has fairly unique gun issues (Figure 2).

Map of countries by per capita gun ownership used in a Scienceosaurus.com article about guns and bad arguments.
Figure 2: Map of countries by per capita gun ownership.

A note on “freedom”:

Of course, you’re free to trumpet the vague importance of the personal rights and freedoms of gun owners (although I’m never sure why this is more important than the rights and freedoms of others to live in a world not filled with guns).  However, if you deny the fact that guns are just carriable, wearable machines meant for quickly and easily making occasionally-deadly holes in things from safe and convenient, often-dehumanizing distances, you are sugar coating reality.  And this idealistic sweetening might bias your ability to evaluate the utility of gun-control measures.

The timing of this article:

As of this writing, America is wallowing in a fresh despair and sense of helpless confusion.  This has been forced on us by the latest gun-enabled mass murder tragedy.  My heart goes out to those who have been affected and I am writing this with the best of intentions.  I hope this article doesn’t somehow worsen tensions between an increasingly fractured American populace.  But, even if this article helps to bring some clarity, I still have to apologize for not writing it sooner.  With all of that said, some will insist that “now, in the wake of a tragedy, is not the time for such investigations.”  Which brings us to the next section…

Some bad arguments

Good arguments are beautiful things and should come from proponents of every side of every issue.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the topic of gun control, the good arguments are often swamped by ludicrously poor ones.  Here are some invalid, or downright stupid arguments (most aren’t cited due to their ubiquity) that are trotted out far too often on the subject of gun control with some quick rebuttals or illustrations of their silliness:

Bad argument 1:

“Now [after a gun-enabled tragedy] is not the time to scrutinize the politically-charged subject of gun control.”

  • Rebuttal: Yes. This is exactly the time for such examinations.  Because, unfortunately, as much as we are currently in the aftermath of one tragedy, it is horribly accurate to say that we are forever in the lead-up to the next one—especially until meaningful changes can be made.

Bad argument 2:

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

  • Rebuttal: Sure, and guns make it easier for them. The same logic dictates that germs don’t kill people, but rather breezes, handshakes, and kisses that spread germs kill people.  Falls from high cliffs are harmless; only the malicious conspirators “gravity” and “valley-floor” should be blamed.  Obviously, this is a bad argument.  It’s meant to deflect appropriate blame and procrastinate to deadly effect.  Moreover, it can be used for any and every deadly thing ever.  Thus, it’s a totally moot witticism.  Allowing such a pithy banality to displace real arguments enables thought-terminating clichés to end important progress.

Bad argument 3:

“I need guns to protect me and my family.”

  • Rebuttal: Nope. It’s a stretch to even claim that you need a single gun for protection, let alone several.  And this is not a matter of semantics; many gun-owners that turn violent seem to have a zeal for collecting, and using, several guns.  It shouldn’t be taboo to critically discuss the right to collect, or compulsively horde, well-engineered death machines.  Furthermore, arguing that there are essentially only two options: your family is in danger, or your family is safe because of guns is logically fallacious.  This is the fallacy of a false dilemma.  It’s also an example of the fallacy of a single cause, because it blatantly fails to recognize that other solutions may provide safety to your family.  For example: the absence of guns would be infinitely safer for the 5,790 children that are wounded by guns in America every year (Fowler et al., 2017).

Bad argument 4:

“Murder’s already illegal and bad guys don’t care, so gun-control measures will be ineffective.”

  • Rebuttal: The same logic dictates that seatbelts have no function because smashing things with your car is already illegal. Furthermore, this stance requires the neglect of many studies and real-world examples that reveal the benefits of gun-control measures (some are described in the next section of this article).  This also highlights an interesting, bias-revealing hypocrisy: many anti-gun-control proponents are supporters of the death sentence.  This support of capital punishment suggests that, when it suits their biases, gun-lovers do think that laws for punishment deter criminal behavior.  Additionally, suggesting that gun-control measures shouldn’t be attempted because they wouldn’t work perfectly is a form of the Nirvana logical fallacy.

Bad argument 5:

“Only a ‘good guy’ with a gun can stop a ‘bad guy’ with a gun.”

  • Rebuttal: Another way to phrase this is that more guns is the answer. Which makes me wonder what question the proponents of this argument think is being posed.  It’s terrifyingly, obsessively single-minded to insist that the cure for a society’s problem of too-many-death-machines-icitis is to add more death machines.  (Maybe it’s meant to be a homeopathic cure?  If so, it won’t work.)  Furthermore, it’s short-sighted (to say the least) to insist that good guys will always be good, no one else will ever have access to their guns, and that they are reliably effective in emergency situations.

Bad argument 6:

“…bad things happen to good people.” […] “But we can’t legislate away every problem in the world.”— Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) on 03 Oct 2017 (two days after 58 people were murdered and over 500 wounded by a single killer with multiple guns).

  • Rebuttal: This ridiculous, nihilistic platitude works equally well for arguments in favor of or against gun control. Example: Bad things happen, so why bother trying to fix stuff?  (This is the gist of the good senator’s argument, above).  Vs: Bad things happen, so why the hell would we tempt fate with guns—or tigers?  The only difference is what emotional strings you construct the statement to tug on.  This is called the if-by-whiskey logical fallacy.

Bad argument 7:

“Guns are just tools and anything could be used as a deadly weapon, so guns shouldn’t be targeted for restrictions.”

  • Rebuttal: Yep, some particularly well-trained, or well-motivated, or psychotic individuals could commit murder using any number of things. But they would have an easier time doing it with a gun than with a feather, or even a fork, hammer, or baseball bat!  Also, it’s funny how we see so much more gun violence than peanut, shovel, piano-wire, or herring violence.  Maybe that’s because guns make violence easy?  And maybe that should be the point?  Labelling guns as “just tools,” as though you may just as well mend some fences with them as kill someone, is obviously disingenuous.  This is also called a definitional retreat; it’s a type of equivocation logical fallacy.

Bad argument 8:

“This is the price of freedom.” —Bill O’Reilly on 02 Oct 2017 (one day after 58 people were murdered and over 500 wounded by a single killer with multiple guns).

  • Rebuttal: Who’s fucking freedom? Surely not the people that are getting shot!  Honestly, this is a stupid assertion.  Defining a society’s “freedom” by only considering the freedom of some citizens isn’t just mildly sociopathic, it’s also logically invalid.  It’s a form of the fallacy of composition.

Bad argument 9:

“The 2nd Amendment guarantees my right to have as many guns as I want so who cares if you, or your data, think it’s unsafe.”

  • Rebuttal: Actually, the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as originally ratified and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, reads: “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.” Clearly, this doesn’t say anything about how many guns, what type, or even who can own them.  And how this amendment translates to rights for individual citizens has been the subject of much debate.  For example: in 1876, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution” (United States v. Cruikshank).  And it wasn’t until 2008 that the Supreme Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment did protect the right of individuals to carry guns (Pollock, 2008).  So, at best, this amendment illustrates the fact that gun-control deserves continued examinations and the application of better arguments.  Furthermore, assuming that legislators in the 1700’s had the same perspectives on guns as we do today is called the historian’s logical fallacy.

Bad argument 10:

“There is no productive use whatsoever for guns.”

  • Rebuttal: This is hyperbolic and ignorant. For instance, many hunters perform a necessary culling action for some otherwise overpopulated species.  It’s noteworthy that this is, by far, the least dangerous of the bad arguments listed here.  However, it’s still bad, and it does still serve to derail important conversations.

Conclusions from gun-control research

Here’s is what some evaluations that have attempted to remove, or account for, potential biases have concluded.  Consider the following lists ammunition for constructing good arguments.

Guns and kids:

  • 91% of all fatal gunshot wounds to children in high-income countries occur in the U.S.A (Fowler et al., 2017).
  • Gunshot wounds are the third leading cause of death for American children (Fowler et al., 2017).
  • “Almost 40% of parents erroneously believe their children are unaware of the storage location of household guns, and 22% of parents wrongly believe that their children have never handled household guns.” (Parikh et al., 2017)

Mass shootings:

  • Since the tragic mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012, there have been more than 1,500 mass shootings in the U.S.A.
  • On average, mass shootings happen in America more than once per day.
  • Gun control laws are effective against mass shootings. “Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides.”  (Chapman et al., 2006).
  • Oddly, mass shootings inspire temporary increases in gun sales (Wallace, 2015).

General gun violence:

  • There’s a strong positive correlation between gun ownership and gun-related deaths at both state and country levels.
  • 66% (2 out of every three) of every American homicide is committed with a gun; “…findings suggest that the household may be an important source of firearms used to kill men, women and children in the United States.” (Miller et al., 2007).
  • Reviews of international literature reveal that access to guns consistently correlates to increased homicide rates (Hemenway and Miller, 2000; Hepburn and Hemenway, 2004).
  • Having a gun at home increases your risk of gun-related homicide, but not homicide by other means (Wiebe, 2003).
  • Several types of analyses conducted rigorously at international scales reveal gun availability to increase the risk of homicide in general and gun-related homicide particularly (Butchart and Mikton, 2014).

Benefits from gun control:

  • Previous gun control measures have reduced overall firearm-related deaths, including suicides and these reductions are not typically replaced by other means of violence (Killias, 1993; Chapman et al., 2006).
  • States that have stricter gun laws have fewer gun-related deaths.
  • Lenient, relaxed concealed-carry laws correlate to increased rates of adult gun violence (Ludwig, 1998).
  • Laws that regulate handgun ownership reduce rates of suicide and attempted suicide (Anestis et al., 2015).

Conclusion:

Gun violence and what to do about it is a tricky subject.  Especially for Americans.  It’s hard to objectively examine the available evidence, and this difficulty is revealed in the research literature itself.  This is because our cultural worldview trumps any other factors in determining a person’s stance on gun control (Kahan and Braman, 2003).  So, it’s harder than it should be for empirical evidence to persuade us with its sweet, sweet rationality.  This is all the more reason for us to focus on using well-constructed, logical arguments to make our points.  Which is true regardless of your stance on guns, freedom, and gun control.

Hopefully, by pointing out some facts and spotlighting some of the all-too-popular bad arguments, this article will help encourage more productive conversations.

References:

Anestis, M. D., Khazem, L. R., Law, K. C., Houtsma, C., LeTard, R., Moberg, F., & Martin, R. (2015). The association between state laws regulating handgun ownership and statewide suicide rates. American journal of public health, 105(10), 2059-2067. http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302465

Butchart, A., & Mikton, C. (2014). Global status report on violence prevention, 2014. http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/30034/

Chapman, S., Alpers, P., Agho, K., & Jones, M. (2006). Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings. Injury Prevention, 12(6), 365-372. http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/12/6/365.short

Fowler, K. A., Dahlberg, L. L., Haileyesus, T., Gutierrez, C., & Bacon, S. (2017). Childhood firearm injuries in the United States. Pediatrics, e20163486. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2017/06/15/peds.2016-3486

Hemenway, D & Miller, M. (2000). Firearm availability and homicide rates across 26 high income countries.  Journal of Trauma.  2000; 49:985-88. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/

Hepburn, L & Hemenway, D. (2004). Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature.  Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal.  9:417-40. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/

Kahan, D. M., & Braman, D. (2003). More statistics, less persuasion: A cultural theory of gun-risk perceptions. University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 151(4), 1291-1327. DOI: 10.2307/3312930

Killias, M. (1993). International correlations between gun ownership and rates of homicide and suicide. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal, 148(10), 1721. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1485564/

Ludwig, J. (1998). Concealed-gun-carrying laws and violent crime: evidence from state panel data. International Review of law and Economics, 18(3), 239-254. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014481889800012X

Miller, M., Hemenway, D., & Azrael, D. (2007). State-level homicide victimization rates in the US in relation to survey measures of household firearm ownership, 2001–2003. Social science & medicine, 64(3), 656-664. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17070975

Pollock, E. (2008). The Supreme Court and American Democracy: Case Studies on Judicial Review and Public Policy. Greenwood. pp. 375, 423. ISBN 978-0-313-36525-6.

Parikh, K., Silver, A., Patel, S. J., Iqbal, S. F., & Goyal, M. (2017). Pediatric firearm-related injuries in the United States. Hospital pediatrics, hpeds-2016. http://hosppeds.aappublications.org/content/7/6/303?sso=1&sso_redirect_count=2&nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%253a%20No%20local%20token&nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

United States v. Cruikshank; 92 U.S. 542 (1875)

Wallace, L. N. (2015). Responding to violence with guns: Mass shootings and gun acquisition. The Social Science Journal, 52(2), 156-167. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0362331915000336

Wiebe, D. J. (2003). Homicide and suicide risks associated with firearms in the home: a national case-control study. Annals of emergency medicine, 41(6), 771-782. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0196064403002567

 

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
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  • Mark Jackaman

    Your reference to the work of Philip Alpers shows how shallow your research has been. His 2006 paper has been exposed by the work of Dr. Samara McPhedran (Who has a doctorate as opposed to Alpers NZ Higher School certificate). Additionally, while New Zealand allows free access to all sorts of firearms by licensed people, there have been no mass shootings there since 1996. The factor that has worked in Australia and NZ has been licencing and safe storage legislation. Nothing more is needed. Australia’s gun laws are nothing more than a bonfire of the prejudiced vanities. Extremist nonsense. Australia and New Zealand have the same low and declining crime rates. One is free and the other is Australia.

    • Thanks for reading my post and for your comment. Did you write this as a Poe, or as an illustration of why my post was necessary? If so, well played good sir. If not, your language is pretty strong; apparently, asking for better arguments and listing statistics on gun control must be a bit of a trigger for you, huh? Anyhow, if, as your Disqus comment history suggests, you are serious, please read on for a point-by-point dismantling of your argument(s).

      I never referenced Alpers. Although he was a co-author on a study I did cite (Chapman et al., 2006), which I’ll assume you are talking about and I discuss below.

      I don’t know what it would mean to “expose” a published article—isn’t that sort of the point of the publication process? For the purpose of argument, I’ll assume that you meant to say “refute” instead; however, I do suspect that this ambiguous language is likely the product of your bias on this subject and that you automatically think conclusions that diverge from your own opinions need to be “exposed.” Feel free to correct me if my forced assumptions were incorrect. Regardless of the obfuscated meaning behind your inflammatory word choice, it’s clear that you’re trying to say that the research done by McPhedran is superior to the Chapman et al. paper that I referenced. So, let’s just have a quick comparison.

      Chapman et al. (2006) examined the potential effects of the 1996 Australian gun law reform by measuring several gun-violence metrics and total deaths, then modelling outcomes using a negative binomial regression analysis. I’ll assume (since I have to) that you are referring to the 2006 article by Baker & McPhedran as a superior paper. In remarkably comparable fashion, this paper also examined the potential effects of the 1996 Australian gun law reform by measuring several gun-violence metrics and total deaths, then modelling outcomes using an AutoRegressive Integrated Moving Average (instead of the negative binomial regression analysis). Strikingly similar, huh? Except, as Chapman et al. (2006) pointed out, the analysis chosen by Baker & McPhedran (2006) failed to account for variability in the dataset and the auto-regression model has no ability to elucidate the effects of the gun law reform. In other words, the 2006 study by Baker & McPhedran produced ambiguity that allowed much more room for arm waving in the interpretations. And, since Baker & McPhedran are both affiliated with gun lobbies, it’s no surprise that they spun the results towards an interpretation that minimised the effects of the gun reform laws.

      Furthermore, none of this was particularly important, since my post only cited Chapman et al. (2006) for a factual claim that required no interpretation (“…more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides”) and an interpretation that’s corroborated by another citation and well-supported by the bulk of the scientific literature (“…gun control measures have reduced overall firearm-related deaths, including suicides and these reductions are not typically replaced by other means of violence”). So, in addition to being analytically inferior, your suggested study also doesn’t even address the work I referenced (you claim it exposed something), but, conversely—and ironically—was refuted by the cited Chapman et al. paper. Thus, your paper had already been “exposed” as most likely being biased by undisclosed conflicts of interest.

      The most amusing aspect of your comment is the fact that you are arguing with comically obvious logical fallacies against a blog post pleading for better arguments! First, you imply that, since Alpers only has a high school certificate, his research is not good. This is the genetic logical fallacy. It’s a fallacy of irrelevance, because it fails to address the real issue, the work of Alpers, which, as I’ve described above, is quite similar to the study that you’re attempting to promote as superior, except the study Alpers is co-author on used more robust and objective analyses. Then, you claim that Alpers only has a high school certificate while failing to recognize that he is an associate professor at the University of Sidney! This is a clear straw man logical fallacy. You’re attacking an inferior version of your opponent that you’ve created. Please feel free to engage with reality and relevant aspects of the argument instead. Finally, in the crux of your argument, you imply that since NZ has looser gun control laws and relatively low rates of gun violence, gun control laws are useless. This is just a spin on the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. Simply put, correlation doesn’t equate to causation. The same shoddy logic would allow you to claim that, since you can safely travel on motorways at 70 mph, slower speed limits on other roads must be obsolete.

      New Zealand hasn’t had a mass shooting since 1996? Good for them. That is a great piece of tangential trivia. They also only have about 22 guns/100 people and their rate of mass shooting is in relatively good agreement with that statistic.* Many nations aren’t as fortunate, thus the need for better arguments, thus the need for my post (thanks again for illustrating this need).

      “The factor that has worked in Australia and NZ has been licencing and safe storage legislation. Nothing more is needed.” These are assertions. Please provide citations to relevant peer-reviewed research. If I was desperate, I could say that making such assertions without providing anything in the way of supporting research was “shallow.” (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

      “Australia’s gun laws are nothing more than a bonfire of the prejudiced vanities. Extremist nonsense. Australia and New Zealand have the same low and declining crime rates. One is free and the other is Australia.” Wow. The old guns = freedom canard. All you’re missing as a “Fuck Yeah!” at the end. Please take a few deep breaths and try to see this for the unproductive, snowflakey tantrum that it is.

      * https://www.salon.com/2017/10/02/six-things-to-know-about-mass-shootings-in-america_partner/