This week at least 59 people were killed and over 500 injured in the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Naturally, the gun control debate — the same one we have been having for decades — has ramped up again, and opponents are using redundant, deeply flawed arguments against even modest proposals like more background checks or a federal database to track gun sales.
Given the current composition of Congress and the over $60 million from the NRA that helped create it, the chances for rapid reform are slim. But that doesn’t mean that the debate should end. Shoddy arguments should be exposed and people who make them should be challenged. To that end, below are five of the most common arguments against gun control, and why those arguments are wrong.
1. Gun Control Violates The Second Amendment
Many opponents of gun control argue that limits on gun ownership are unconstitutional because they violate the Second Amendment, which includes the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Opponents often emphasize the “shall not be infringed” part while ignoring the other clause about the right being connected to a “well regulated Militia,” but nobody’s perfect. Even emphasizing the “right” component, however, if we slow down and think about what an absolute right to bear arms would look like, it’s clear that even the people making the argument don’t believe in it.
If the right to bear arms cannot be infringed, mentally ill felons can own nuclear weapons. Children can own machine guns. Terrorists can bring hand grenades on airplanes, right? Because the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.
Since nobody who buys into the concept of society actually believes that, it’s clear that everybody believes in some level of gun control, including conservative courts that have allowed assault weapons bans, background checks, and other limits on gun ownership to stand for years. So the clear consensus among ordinary Americans and constitutional law scholars is that the type of gun control being proposed today does not violate the Second Amendment.
Slightly more reasonable people may concede that point and argue that Americans at least have a right to own military grade weapons, claiming that the Founding Fathers intended as much. But the truth is that we have no way of knowing what men who lived in the era of muskets would think of assault rifles. Anyone who says otherwise is some combination of insincere or foolish.
2. Gun Control Doesn’t Work
The two primary prongs of the “gun control doesn’t work” argument are that: 1) gun control does not reduce gun deaths largely because 2) it does not actually make it more difficult for people to obtain guns.
One fundamental problem with this argument is that gun control can mean a number of different things: more stringent background checks, bans on high capacity magazines, licensing requirements, etc. So making the general statement “gun control doesn’t work” without referencing a specific proposal is kind of like saying “this food tastes bad” before know what’s on the menu.
To be fair, both sides of this argument can always find evidence to support their position. Gun control advocates can point to Australia, where both suicide and murder rates plummeted after a national gun buyback of over 650,000 guns in 1996 and 1997. On the other hand, opponents can correctly state that Chicago has strict gun laws but an alarmingly high rate of firearm related deaths. Anyone can cherry-pick a city, state, or country to support their argument, which is why we need a larger sample size.
Luckily, we have a few large samples. One is called the United States. Another is called Earth. And both large samples establish a consistent correlation: places with more guns generally have more gun deaths than places with fewer guns. It’s not always true. But it’s usually true. And if something usually works, it seems foolish not to try it in this country, especially in light of our absurd level of gun ownership—we have 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but 42 percent of civilian owned guns.
As for the argument that gun control won’t make it more difficult for people to obtain guns, Ronald Reagan addresses that pretty well in the letter he signed supporting an assault weapons ban, stating that,
“While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”
That’s right gun control opponents. Even Ronald Reagan disagrees with you.
3. People Are The Problem and They Will Harm Others Without Guns
In my opinion, it’s a reflection of poor parenting or a subpar education system, but an alarming number of Americans actually argue that banning assault weapons is pointless because without them, criminals would just use knives or cars—as if a society without weapons of any kind would be equally dangerous to ours. For those who do think that, let’s concede that people killed people before guns and will continue to do so even if the supply of guns diminishes. Everyone agrees.
But the key element here is that guns make it a lot easier to kill someone than knives or cars. And it seems fairly obvious that making it more difficult to kill someone is a good thing since it may lead to some life-saving contemplation or a victim who has time to escape unscathed or with less severe injuries. Lastly, gun control doesn’t have to eliminate violence to be successful. A reduction in violence is still a success.
4. But I Need Guns For Protection From Criminals And The Government
First, contrary to what the NRA has led many to believe, gun control does not mean abolishing the Second Amendment or taking away all guns. Doing so would not only be unpopular, but politically and logistically impossible. We are talking about limits, not abolition. So the relevant question is not whether guns can be used for protection because of course they can. What matters is whether we can place some limits on gun ownership—like on certain types of guns or a total number of guns—while allowing Americans to protect themselves against criminals. The evidence indicates that we can.
Take assault weapons for starters. Despite the attention they get due to mass shootings, assault weapons are not a leading killer of innocent Americans. They account for only a small fraction of gun-related deaths—about one or two hundred a year out of over 10,000. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that every year people are killed by assault weapons who would not have died if the perpetrator had a gun without “military style” features. By contrast, there is little evidence that assault weapons are ever essential for self-defense.
Don’t get me wrong, assault weapons can be used for self-defense and they occasionally are. But it is difficult to find documented incidents in which an assault weapon was successfully used for self-defense by a civilian when a lesser gun would not have sufficed. On balance, it appears that assault weapons are far more frequently used for assault than for protection.
There is a similar lack of evidence that owing, say, eight guns, is necessary for protection. If that number sounds absurdly high, it isn’t—the average gun owning household in American has more than eight guns. If that many guns are essential for protection, we should be able to find studies or verified stories that prove it—“My first seven guns jammed but I was able to shoot the intruder with my eighth. Thank God I had eight guns!” Without such cases, it seems as though limiting individuals to say, three guns per person, would still give Americans the same level of “protection” they have today.
Lastly, as to the argument that guns are necessary to for protection from government tyranny, as noted above, gun control does not mean taking away all guns. But more importantly, if there were some unprecedented battle of government versus civilians, what good would guns, even assault weapons do, against the United states military? The military has tanks, drones, aircraft carriers, missiles, cyber warfare capabilities, far-reaching surveillance, and more. In the arms race between government and civilians, civilians lost years ago. Background checks, a federal database tracking gun sales, or a ban on high capacity magazines are not going to change the equation.
5. The Only Thing That Stops A Bad Guy With A Gun Is A Good Guy With A Gun
There is no dispute that law enforcement officers and sometimes even civilians use guns to stop bad people with guns. But once again, the question is not whether a gun can be used for good; the question is whether the protection guns provide equals or outweighs the danger. Polls show that a majority of people believe owning a gun makes them safer, but the available evidence indicates otherwise.
FBI data as recently as 2014 showed that almost eight times as many people were killed by guns in arguments than by civilians using a gun in self-defense. Multiple surveys, including the National Crime Victimization Survey, show that guns are used to commit crimes about ten times more often than they are used to stop a crime. And an analysis of hundreds of shootings in Philadelphia found that people carrying firearms were about 4.5 times more likely to be shot than those not carrying, likely due to unnecessary conflict escalation. So on balance, guns make situations more dangerous, not less.
When broken down in detail, the most common arguments against gun control share similar traits. They are based on cherry picked evidence, hypothetical situations that don’t happen in reality, or flawed reasoning. Facts and logic both support the idea that limiting the supply of guns and access to them generally makes people safer. Facts and the logic may not gain you much ground with opponents these days, but just like sensible limits on gun ownership, it’s worth a try.