Those Who Say Guns Don't Kill People Are Anti-American Bigots

Stars and stripes on gun
Stars and stripes on gun

Pro-gun advocacy has spawned a dangerous form of bigotry.

"Guns don't kill people. People kill people."

We've all heard this argument. Some think it ridiculous, while others chant it like a mantra--especially every time one of a thousand massacres in the US manages to get airtime, or a kid shoots another kid.

But rarely does either side bother to analyze it.

Ostensibly, the argument claims that guns are not the problem. However, in logic, this creates what is called an exclusive disjunction: only one of two options is possible. If the easy access to and proliferation of guns is not the issue, then it must be the case either that everyone in comparable countries is roughly as bloodthirsty as those in the US (even without guns), or that people in the US are preternaturally prone to violence (regardless of guns).

The former is demonstrably false. The latter makes you a bigot.

Regarding the former:

1. For those who say that gun regulations are pointless because they will only affect law-abiding citizens (i.e., criminals don't follow laws, so additional regulations won't have any effect, so we shouldn't bother), this is a version of a false dilemma called the perfectionist fallacy: if a proposed idea will not result in perfect results, it should not be attempted. If this were true, we should not have any laws ("Criminals don't follow laws, so why bother having laws?") or even any police ("Cops don't catch all criminals, so why bother having cops?"). Besides, assuming that regulating or banning guns wouldn't work is a form of circular reasoning called begging the question (deriving the conclusion of your argument from premises that assume it). If other comparable countries (e.g., Britain and Australia) have done it, the burden of proof is upon those to explain why it simply can't work here.

2. For those who want to illustrate the futility of strict gun laws by pointing to, e.g., Honduras or Mexico, this is a red herring (distracting by claiming something is relevant when it is not), if not a prosecutor's fallacy (overstating the importance of a particular bit of evidence, while paying insufficient attention to context). Apples-to-apples comparisons can only be done in countries wherein corruption is low, the rule of law is stable, social mobility is achievable, etc., This is obvious when examining any other domestic issue: there is a reason that people don't compare the US to countries like Mexico or Honduras when discussing health care. It is a failure of critical thinking to suddenly ignore the significance of this difference.

3. For those who want to compare the US to other countries with lots of guns, e.g., Switzerland or Canada, this is a false analogy (claiming kinship between two things that are not actually very similar). The vast majority of violent acts committed with a gun in the US would be impossible or unlikely in Switzerland or Canada. First, most of the guns you find in other nations are rifles (rather than handguns); these are extremely difficult to hide in your pants. Second, they are incredibly well-regulated. In short, this argument implodes because it weds the pro-gun advocate to an accidental defense of stringent regulation and/or removes access to certain types of firearms.

Therefore, the first part of the disjunction results in a failure of critical thinking, or a conclusion that contradicts the facts. Indeed, the only outcome of this line of reasoning that survives scrutiny is that we should have incredibly strong regulations and training for anyone who would own a gun. Irony.

So what about the second part? Are people in the US just condemned to be murderers?

1. For those who want to blame mental illness, this is another red herring, and a not-so-subtle form of bigotry. It may seem tautological--and it certainly makes everyone feel better--to think that anyone willing to shoot another person is deranged. But this is no more the case than the widespread assumption that much, if not most, of gun violence is gang-related. According to the FBI, the majority of homicides committed in the US with a gun are the result of arguments between individuals with no history of mental illness or gang affiliation. Remove the gun from the equation, and you are much more likely to end up with an injury than a corpse. More importantly, by erroneously blaming mental illness, you not only fail to constructively address the problem, you succeed in further stigmatizing mental illness.

2. For those who say that if you take away easy access to guns, people will find other ways to kill each other with just as much frequency, this is bigotry--and a bizarre new species of racism. It requires one to believe that the US population, due to some unexplained and inexplicable biological and/or sociological cause(s), is so breathtakingly violent that we will continue to murder each other at an extraordinary rate by any means necessary. Aside from catching the pro-gun advocate in several fallacies at once, this route also proves her remarkable prejudice against the US and its people.

3. Further, this entails (i.e., logically requires) a non sequitur (claiming something follows logically without providing any compelling reason to accept it): that people in the US are exceptionally good at violence. Fortunately, for almost all of us, it is much more difficult to kill someone--let alone multiple people--without a gun than it is with one. On the same day as the Newtown massacre, Min Yongiun attacked a group of school children with a knife in China's Henan province. While clearly horrible--he injured a total of 23 children, severing ears and fingers--he failed to kill anyone before being stopped. If the guns have nothing to do with the homicide rate in the US, you have to believe not only that people in the US will continue to be several times more likely (e.g., 4X more than Britons, 6X more than Germans) than comparable nations to attempt to kill each other, but also that they will be ninja/Navy SEAL effective at succeeding with whatever is at hand. This is not just false. It is ludicrous.

Thus, in addition to (again) resulting in fallacious, bizarre conclusions, the other side of this disjunction makes you an anti-American bigot. Irony abounds.

Sadly, everything about Oregon was predictable. It was predictable for there to be another mass shooting, because it is so easy to obtain a gun in this country. It was predictable for everyone to line up on either side of a policy debate spouting specious claims and sharing unsubstantiated memes. It was predictable for everyone to suddenly become an equally-informed pundit with equally-valid opinions, declaring that it is the guns or it is not the guns. It was predictable that we turn this completely tractable problem into a shameful impasse.

Because it happens all the time. And it will happen again.

But we can stop acting like there is some argument that justifies this macabre aesthetic choice. We could just admit that we love guns. We love them so much--and the cowboy/vigilante/hero/could-be-me mythology that comes with holding one--that we would rather keep seeing adults and kids needlessly, horribly killed than give them up. We love guns more than we hate the violence that comes with them. It's not logical at all. It's emotional.

Or, if we don't want to accept that disgusting state of affairs, let's at least strip the sham patriotism that is the pro-gun advocate's favorite armor. Maybe if we start calling pro-gun advocacy what it really is--either demonstrable ignorance or anti-American bigotry--then maybe we can have a meaningful dialogue about what is killing us and why.

So next time someone tells you, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Maybe respond by asking them, "Why do you hate America so much?"