Thirteen Failures of Reasoning in the Gun Debate

lead_960As a citizen and a teacher of logic, I humbly offer as a public service this sampling of the many bad arguments made in response to even modest suggestions meant to reduce the number of deaths and injuries produced at the hands of individuals wielding assault-style firearms.

Some of these arguments are of a very recent vintage; others are clichés, well-worn by dint of repetition but still easily recognizable.  Many have been uttered by politicians, pundits, and other public figures; countless variations are continously issued from a multitude of social media feeds.  All represent failures of reasoning in the eyes of logic.

Logic is the science of argumentation.  Put in the simplest terms, logic defines an argument as one or more statements (called premises) that claim to provide reasons to believe another statement (called the conclusion).  Here’s an example of a simple argument:

“The easy availability of assault-style firearms has led to too many mass shootings.  Therefore, we need to ban these weapons, or at least more strictly regulate access to them.”

In my experience, this is where the gun debate starts, usually shortly after a mass shooting.  I also think that among gun control advocates this is the most typical response to such shootings.  I’ll call it the prime argument for gun control.

There are two ways to critique an argument: attack the truth of its premises, or show how the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises given.  Demonstrating the falsity of a premise cannot help but weaken an argument.  Showing that the conclusion doesn’t follow is to reveal a fallacy, a mistake in reasoning or the creation of an illusion that makes a bad argument appear good.  Philosophers have spent centuries naming and categorizing these failures of reason.

For the most part, gun control opponents don’t directly address the prime argument.  Instead, they rush to present counterarguments which they think are superior, but which often commit fallacies.  I have paraphrased them here for the sake of brevity (and made explicit the implied conclusions), followed by a brief explanation of the fallacy committed.  They are presented in no particular order.

(1) “Clearly, you people want to abolish the second amendment.” (Therefore, the prime argument is invalid.)  Except the prime argument doesn’t argue for the abolishment of the second amendment.  It argues for specific gun control policies, which is not the same thing.  This is the straw man fallacy, which distorts an opponent’s argument beyond recognition for the purpose of more easily attacking it.  The problem here is that this strategy leaves the prime argument completely unrefuted.

(2) “The second amendment gives me the absolute right to bear arms.” (Therefore, we must reject the prime argument.)  But no right in the constitution is absolute, and the Supreme Court has ruled that gun regulation is not incompatible with the right to bear arms.  This is the fallacy of suppressed evidence, which occurs when an arguer disregards a piece of information that would require them to draw a different conclusion.  Again, the prime argument remains unscathed.

(3) “Any attempt to regulate firearms will infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.” (And since we don’t want to infringe on the rights of law-abiding citizens, we must not accept the conclusion of the prime argument.)  This is the fallacy of false dilemma, where the premises present two alternatives as if they are the only ones available followed by the arguer eliminating the undesirable alternative, leaving the other as the only possible conclusion.  But the prime argument easily dissolves this dilemma because, as I have just noted, there is no disjunction between the constitutional right to bear arms and gun regulation.

(4) “Even if we pass stricter gun regulation, people will find a way to get these weapons and these tragedies will still occur.”  (Therefore, the prime argument is flawed.)  If we accepted this logic we would have to repeal all laws that are not 100% effective—that is to say, all  laws. This is known as the perfectionist fallacy, when realistic solutions are rejected because they are not perfect.  Most people advancing the prime argument are under no illusion that stricter gun regulation will completely eliminate mass shootings.   But any regulation that reduces the number of gun-related deaths is arguably a good enough reason to consider it.

(5) “The media loves to politicize these tragedies” or “millions of law-abiding Americans are being indicted as child murderers” or “it’s interesting that so many of these people who commit mass murders end up being Democrats” or “those who advocate gun control don’t even know the difference between a clip and a magazine, etc.”  (Therefore, the prime argument is mistaken.)  These are examples of red herrings.  This is probably the most common fallacy committed in the gun debate, and it has an infinite number of variations.  The way it works is by distracting the attention of the audience by changing the subject to a different but subtly related topic.  But think about it: even if all of the premises above were true, they could not count as blows against the prime argument because each premise is completely irrelevant to that argument.

(6) “We have a terrible problem with obesity, but we’re not banning forks and spoons.”  (Therefore, we cannot accept the conclusion of the prime argument.)  Arguments by analogy depend on a comparison between two different things or situations that have a sufficient number of similarities to draw a strong conclusion.  When there is not a sufficient number of similarities between the things compared, the fallacy of weak analogy occurs. This can be seen in the (actual!) example above, provided by Florida state senator Dennis Baxley.  The reason the analogy is weak should be obvious: I cannot recall the last time someone walked into a high school with a bag of silverware and force fed scores of students to death.  Arguments by analogy are another staple in the argumentative arsenal of gun control opponents, and more typically involve comparisons between guns and things like knives or cars.  But the mistake they make that almost always renders these analogies weak is that they assume that because any object is potentially deadly all objects are potentially equally deadly. This is obviously false.

(7) “Guns aren’t the cause of mass shootings. The cause of mass shootings is mental illness, drug abuse, violent video games, and/or gun-free zones, etc.”  (Therefore, the prime argument is based on a flawed premise.)  This line of argument at least has the virtue of addressing the causal nature of the prime argument, which asserts that the ready availability of assault-style firearms causes mass shootings.  Now it’s reasonable to claim that mental illness and drug abuse have played a factor in some mass shootings.  But to claim that guns have had no causal role whatsoever in any mass shooting is absurd.  In fact, the presence of guns is the one factor common to all mass shootings.  This is a variety of the false cause fallacy, more specifically, oversimplified cause.  After all, a person abusing drugs without a gun is . . . just a person abusing drugs.  Similarly, an unarmed person suffering from mental illness is not going to shoot anyone so long as they have no access to firearms.  Gun-free zones without guns are . . . gun-free zones where no one gets shot.  This fallacy is most succinctly expressed by the NRA slogan: “Guns don’t kill people; people do.”  No—it’s the combination of people and guns that kill.

(8) “Guns are not to blame because there have always been guns.”  (Therefore, the prime argument must be dismissed out of hand.)  First of all, the premise is historically incorrect, but if we interpret it in the spirit of generosity this is another case of oversimplified cause.  No matter how much gun control opponents would wish it otherwise, guns will always play a role in gun deaths—by definition.  Secondly, there is a lot of suppressed evidence here.  At the founding of the republic we had a much smaller population owning single-shot muskets and pistols.  Given the weapons technology of the time, it’s hard to imagine what a mass shooting would look like.  Today gun ownership exceeds our current population of 320 million, and many of these weapons can rapidly fire several rounds in seconds.  All of this disregarded data helps to explain the significant increase in the number of those killed or wounded by guns; it also undermines this argument.

(9) “As usual, the opportunists wasted not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain . . . What they want are more restrictions on the law-abiding—think about that . . . You should be anxious, and you should be frightened. If they seize power, if these so-called ‘European socialists’ take over the House and the Senate, and God forbid they get the White House again, our Americans freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever.”  (Therefore, we must soundly renounce the prime argument.)  These remarks from NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre are a perfect example of the slippery slope fallacy, which occurs when a conclusion rests on an alleged chain reaction of events when there is not sufficient reason to think this chain reaction will occur.  Will the banning or regulation of assault-style firearms kick off a chain of events that will result in the loss of all our constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms?  I am doubtful, especially since the Supreme Court has ruled that private gun ownership can be subjected to regulation.  There is also clearly an appeal to fear here, aimed at irrational suspicions and fears founded on no solid evidence.

(10) “But the purpose of the second amendment is to allow citizens to resist a tyrannical government.”  (Therefore, we must reject the prime argument.)  This argument is not fallacious, but it rests on a questionable premise.  It is not at all clear that this was the intended purpose of the amendment, and many historians have argued against this reading.  But as a practical matter it seems dubious that independent and disorganized citizens could effectively oppose the combined forces of the U.S. military armed with 21st century weapons technology.

(11) “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  (Therefore, the prime argument must be rejected.)  There’s no fallacy here but the premise makes so many assumptions that it can’t possibly stand by itself.  First, we already have “good guys with guns”: law enforcement officers trained to handle firearms to keep the public peace on our behalf.  If we want to supplement the firepower of law enforcement with armed civilians, how will we make certain they are sufficiently trained to confront an active shooter situation, which is not the same as hunting or target shooting?  But before we go this route, it would be interesting to first ask how many police officers actually draw their weapons over the course of their careers?  How many of them ever fire their weapons ?  What is the “hit rate” on intended targets for trained police in an active shooter situation?  We might also ask: in such a situation, how will police distinguish a “good guy with a gun” from the “bad guy with a gun”?  How will a good guy with a gun tell the difference between the bad guy with a gun from other good guys with guns?  How would tactical coordination work among good guys with guns and law enforcement and/or other good guys with guns, in a fluid, chaotic, and lethal situation?  Wouldn’t increasing the number of weapons in such a situation make it more lethal, not less—especially if we assume different levels of active shooter training ranging from none at all to expert, and even more importantly, different levels of experience?  Until these questions are adequately addressed, this is a very weak argument.

(12) “Gun control proponents are socialist snowflake libtards who are only interested in exploiting this issue for political gain.”  (Therefore, the prime argument is suspect.)  The argument against the person (or Argumentum ad Hominem) tries to refute an argument by verbally abusing the author of the argument, or by suggesting that their circumstances makes them presupposed to argue in a certain way.  Unfortunately, calling your opponents names does nothing to undermine their arguments, and noting that they might be inclined to argue in certain ways is logically irrelevant to the force of the arguments themselves.  The same holds true in the gun debate.

(13) “The so-called ‘victims’ of mass shootings are actually crisis actors who participate in false flag operations in order to engineer the mass confiscation of all firearms.”  (Therefore, we must not fall for the prime argument!)  This is an example of conspiratorial thinking, which has sadly become more prevalent of late in regard to this and other important issues.  Conspiratorial thinking is a form of hypothetical reasoning, and so is similar to the kind of thinking that happens in science.  Like scientists, those who advance conspiracies are attempting to explain phenomena by advancing hypotheses—but this is where the similarity ends. Scientists have a rigorous method of formulating hypotheses, drawing out their implications, and then testing these implications in an attempt to prove their hypotheses through careful observation, measurement, and mathematical expression, all of which are subject to peer review.  Conspiracy theorists, by way of contrast, tend to generate hypotheses in an ad hoc fashion, are lax about what does and does not count as legitimate evidence, have no well-developed method for testing their hypotheses, and there is no peer review in the “science” of conspiracy.  In fact, conspiracy theorists rarely attempt to prove their hypotheses.  More often than not they simply put forward a piece of speculation and then fall back on an appeal to ignorance, a fallacy that claims something has been proved by virtue of nothing being proved one way or the other about that something.  An appeal to ignorance in the present context might look like this: “No one has ever proved conclusively that the so-called ‘victims’ of mass shootings are not crisis actors, so we must conclude that these ‘victims’ are indeed crisis actors.”  Any rational person can see that this argument provides no positive evidence for its claim, and a lack of evidence reveals nothing but our ignorance.

I know this list is not exhaustive, but I am confident it is representative.  My point in making it public is to show that whatever else might be the case, reason is not on the side of those who dogmatically oppose common sense gun legislation.  Nevertheless, these fallacies muddle the debate and threaten to keep us trapped in a permanent state of confusion with no way out of a state of affairs that continues to destroy countless lives every year.  The sooner we as a society become wise to these failures of reasoning, the sooner we can move toward a reasonable compromise that will reduce the number of gun-related deaths and injuries on our streets and in our homes, schools, and other public places.

Originally posted February 25, 2018
Last revised March 11, 2018