March 24, 2018. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the subsequent March for Our Lives underline the need for sanity in improving the use of guns in the U. S. Opponents of gun regulation will undercut discussion of this hot topic using a blanket reference to the Second Amendment and three well-known slogans. These talking points appear to be self-evident, but careful examination shows they don’t stand up. If properly understood, this time they should not prevent well thought out reforms.
- Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. The intended conclusion is that guns are not to blame for gun violence, only the people who fire them are. Therefore, the NRA implies, restricting access to guns would restrict gun owners’ liberty yet not prevent violence. This slogan sets up guns and people as opposites. They are not opposites, but correlates. Except in the rarest of accidents, guns do not fire themselves. A person must pull the trigger, but as opposed to a knife or one’s bare hands, a person bent on doing harm with a gun is far more effective than without a gun. The issue is not the shooter versus the gun, it’s the increase in power the gun brings.
- If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. This is another false opposition. It’s technically called a reduction to the absurd. This slogan slyly evokes the fear that good people would be defenseless against evil people. It assumes a false contrast between a world in which law-abiding citizens own all guns, and one where only criminals have them. But neither is possible. The closer we get to either, the sooner we see change. We’re now tending towards a promiscuous, irresponsible extreme in which gun ownership is largely unregulated. It’s time for reform.
- The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Again, a false opposition. Here the slogan evokes a direct confrontation between a person intent on doing harm and an armed opponent. Good guys and bad guys have always confronted one another, but an armed confrontation is that much more violent. If the arm is a gun — especially an automatic or semi-automatic weapon — the confrontation escalates. It’s also possible that a violent rampage would be inconceivable to a deranged individual who could not get extra powerful weapons. This slogan uses circular reasoning. It implies, falsely, that without guns, there would be no way to stop a person intent on doing harm with a gun. This circular argument falls of its own weight. Instead: limit guns and have fewer emergencies.
The similarity between slogans 2 and 3 is the appeal to fear. In both cases, the public is expected to respond to the threat that evil people may pose to good people. This sophistical move makes it seem that anyone who approves gun control endangers the lives of innocent people. Instead, people who kill people with guns, kill more people. These slogans should not impede reasoned argument about the co-existence of guns and people in our country.
The Second Amendment. Neither the second amendment itself nor the Supreme Court’s decision asserting an individual right to bear arms says what many people claim it does. The Amendment states: “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.” In the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision, District of Columbia versus Heller (554 U. S. 570), the majority took the emphasis off the amendment’s apparent insistence on the use of arms within the context of a militia. In writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia declared, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.” He calls the first clause only “prefatory” and the second clause “operative” (p. 1). There is no reason why the two clauses shouldn’t balance each other equally. Giving one of the two priority over the other is an example of judicial activism. For some perspective, consider the First Amendment. The anti-establishment clause balances the free-exercise clause and thereby constructs a symmetrical opposition (called “the wall separating church and state”) between either extreme. Similarly, the statement that the citizen’s right to bear arms “shall not be infringed” should be balanced by the idea that the militia (or the citizens who form it) should be “well regulated.” Scalia himself recognized some limitations (i.e. infringements), when he said, “We do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation (p. 22. Scalia’s italics).” Writing for Slate, Sonja West observes that nothing in the court’s decision, in Scalia’s words “should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” The Heller case, as West observes, concerned handguns — not assault weapons modeled on the armaments of the military. Neither the Second Amendment nor its conversion into an individual right by Heller imagines for individuals the virtually unlimited freedom claimed by many NRA members and its most fervent supporters.
Legal reflections aside, there remains the gut reaction of many gun owners: “Without our guns, nothing would stop the government.” The speeches made at the March for Our Lives demonstrations prove, the NRA says, “they are coming to take away our guns.” By contrast, those who oppose unregulated possession of guns fear self-constituted militias who might impede the regular administration of the law or impose their own laws on areas they take by force. Their opponents cite a long history of lynch mobs and the camouflaged gun bearers who marched in Charlottesville. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump referred to the “Second Amendment people” as if they were a paramilitary force.
These fears are diametrically opposed. Dominance of one side by the other will only prolong the resentment. We need to find a middle ground. We may differ on which reforms will produce the best results, but we should no longer allow fallacious arguments to prevent regulation of gun ownership and use.