Politics and Love

Guns, Regulations, and Good and Bad Arguments

It is a dubious enterprise to write about gun control right now.

Our contemporary debate surrounding this issue is heated, emotional, and often fueled by fearful rhetoric. In cultural debates like this, one more blog post about gun control can sound like a bee buzzing in a roaring sea of hysteria.

Nevertheless, I have decided to write this post for three main reasons.

Why Another Gun Control Post?

First, I am deeply concerned about gun violence in schools. I was a middle and high school teacher for sixteen years, and I was a principal for three of those years. When I went back to graduate school, I wrote my dissertation on education and justice.

I believe in education, and I think the health of our nation depends largely on the health of our educational systems. Given the way gun violence has affected schools so profoundly in the last few decades, I am deeply concerned about it.

I am especially concerned when people adopt a hopeless or fatalistic view of our ability to prevent gun violence. When we do this, we give up on providing a safe and nurturing education for our students. And I believe this is a profound mistake that undermines the integrity and health of our nation.

Secondly, a few years ago, I wrote a book called Everyday Debate that teaches middle and high school students the art of discussion and debate.  Gun control was one of the example issues I explored in the book, and I examined good and and poor arguments on both sides of this debate. It troubles me how often poor arguments are used in contemporary gun control discussions, so I want to address some of those arguments in this post.

Lastly, I want to write about this issue because I have spent roughly half of my life in conservative circles and half of my life in liberal circles. I deeply respect people on both ends of the political spectrum. One of the things that saddens me is how difficult it often is for conservatives and liberals to speak to each other in a civil and productive way.

It is absolutely possible for us to have a civil and productive conversation on this issue. And one of the best ways to do it is stop relying on weak and ineffective arguments, which I will discuss in this post.

I should mention that I was raised in a Quaker household with strong pacifist leanings. And I was not around guns at all growing up. Nevertheless, I now have several family members who are hunters and gun owners. This has increased my awareness of the ways in which responsible gun owners behave.

In addition, I live in a neighborhood that, unfortunately, has a fair share of gun violence in it. I have had neighbors who were victims and perpetrators of gun violence. These experiences have definitely given me a more nuanced view of guns.

The Organization of this Post

In this post, I first will examine some gun arguments that I believe are ineffective. I will then suggest several things we might do to move forward in the gun control debate.

Photo by Houcine Nhib, courtesy of Unsplash

Bad Arguments

One: The Constitution guarantees us the right to bear arms, so any gun restrictions are unreasonable or a violation of our rights

It is certainly correct that the second amendment guarantees us a general right to bear arms. But people often seem to confuse the right to bear arms with the unlimited right for anyone to own any kind of gun and handle it as they choose (short of killing someone).

It is important to note that none of our constitutional rights are completely unlimited and open-ended. For instance, although we have the right to free speech, people cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Nor can they say libelous things about others or distribute obscene and lewd materials to minors.

As another example, even though we have the right to practice our religion freely, there are laws against polygamy in all fifty states and laws against marrying girls under a certain age. These laws hold even if a particular religion condones or encourages this behavior. (This is just one example of the way in which freedom of religion can be curtailed.)

The point is that the courts have always regulated various expressions of our constitutional rights for the sake of the common good. And gun laws are no exception to this.

Thus, the question is not whether the second amendment gives us the right to bear arms. The question is whether a particular expression of this right should be regulated for the sake of the common good, just like certain kinds of speech or religious practices should be regulated for the common good.

Two: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, so gun regulation is useless.

This argument fails to take into account that we regulate or prohibit all sorts of items, even though it is the people operating them who make these items dangerous.

For example, United States citizens are allowed own tanks[2]. But they are (no surprise) heavily regulated. Purchasers of tanks have to go through stringent background tests. They must have a sheriff they know personally sign off on their purchase and are subject to “additional taxation”.

Of course, tanks don’t kill people; people kill people. Nevertheless, tank regulation is in place, and rightly so. Tanks are highly destructive and can kill large numbers of people very quickly. (Full disclosure: I think private ownership of tanks is a generally bad idea.)

Picture by Roger Starnes, Sr., courtesy of Unsplash

As another example, even though bombs cannot kill people on their own, there are laws in many states prohibiting private citizens from owning or building bombs. That is because, once again, bombs are extremely destructive and can kill a lot of people.

As a third example, there are dozens of fireworks that are illegal. And given how many people conduct themselves around fireworks, this is the only reasonable thing to do.

So, just because a weapon or a device cannot kill another person on its own, it does not follow that we should not highly regulate, or in some cases, make that device illegal. We do this all the time for many things because we realize the public safety threat posed through unregulated use of these items is too great.

Three: Criminals aren’t going to follow gun laws, so gun regulation laws won’t stop people from shooting people.

There are at least two key problems with this argument.

First, this line of thinking assumes that people either are criminals or they are not criminals. This is an odd way to look at criminal behavior.

People are not born criminals. They become criminals because of specific acts they commit.

And people commit criminal acts because they the have the means, motive, and opportunity to do the crime. Good laws help to decrease these things.

Of course, laws are not the only thing that decrease means, motive, and opportunity. And there are some people, who for whatever reason, are so determined to commit a crime that they overcome any obstacle to do so.

Nevertheless, just because some people will be highly motivated to commit crime no matter what laws are in place does not mean that we should make no laws against crime.

This leads to the second reason that the above argument is a poor argument.

We make laws prohibiting certain crimes, not because we think it will end all crimes, but because we know that these laws will deter crime.

For instance, nobody thinks that laws against murder stop all murders.

Nobody thinks that laws against stealing will stop all stealing.

Why do we make these laws? We make them because we know that laws which carry a penalty deter at least some (if not many people) from committing crimes by reducing means, motive, and opportunity.

We also make these laws because they reflect the values we are striving for in society. For example, we take ourselves to be a society that values the lives of individuals and their property. And so we make laws protecting these things, and we do our best to uphold the laws, even though we know that people will still break them.

Therefore, the fact that certain people will still violate gun regulation laws even if we have them is not in itself a good argument. If it was, it would undermine every law we have in society right now.

The question is whether certain gun laws deter gun crime and reflect important societal values. (I will return to this issue at the end of the post.)

Photo by Naadine Shabana, courtesy of Unsplash

Fourth: We need guns to protect us from a tyrannical government, and gun regulation prevents us from doing this.

There is no doubt that the second amendment was written to enable people (through their locally armed militia) to protect themselves against a tyrannical government.

It is important to note, however, the difference between colonial and contemporary governments. Contemporary governments have tanks, drones, weaponized jets, and nuclear power, to name a few weapons of mass destruction.

While it is likely that a highly armed resisting population could prove very annoying and painful to such a tyrannical government, it seems delusional to think that a resisting population could destroy a tyrannical government that is armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction. (This article does a nice job of discussing this issue in depth.)

Perhaps the solution to this dilemma, some might say, is that civilians should have the right to fully arm themselves with tanks, weaponized jets, nukes, etc.

If we go the weapons escalation route (or what some might call the glorified pissing contest route), it seems like we have given up on society and are living in a state of nature.

In the state of nature, we reserve our right to hoard all the weapons we want and to mete out vigilante justice. The state of nature[3] is a kind of Wild West in which we are all on our own and always taking justice into our own hands.

It is also a condition in which any dreams of human progress and flourishing become more or less impossible because we are all living under constant threat of danger.

Furthermore, it is a place where any discussion of rights[4] is a moot point because there is no higher power to enforce and protect rights.

Society requires us to lay down some of our rights, like the unmitigated right to own and operate any and all weaponry, in exchange for the protection of human rights. Does one run the risk of tyranny by living in society? Certainly. In our society, however, we ideally have the power of voting, the constitutional balance of power, education, police, and a free press to decrease this threat. In the state of nature, we have none of these things.

My critique of this argument is not implying that all guns should be taken away. Rather, it is implying that stockpiling arms to fight against a tyrannical government in contemporary society is unwise and unrealistic.

In addition, I absolutely believe in resisting tyranny. I am just highly skeptical that the weapons escalation route, especially in contemporary society, is the best way to resist.

This article draws on historical incidences of successful resistance to tyranny and explains why guns are not generally a good means of resistance.

Update: I write this update as the war in Ukraine wages. Ukraine’s valiant and likely eventually successful resistance against Russia both undercuts and underscores my point. Armed civilians have fought along with Ukraine and definitely aided the resistance against tyrannical Russia. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s resistance has been successful largely because of President Zelensky’s powerful social and media presence which has garnered the sympathy and aid of countries around world. Without this extra help, Ukraine would have fell to Russia long ago. This suggests that armed civilizations can make a difference in resisting tyranny. Nevertheless, armed resistance alone is not sufficient. The ability to form partnerships and alliances with others and use media effectively has proven invaluable.

Photo by Visuals, courtesy of Unsplash

Fifth: The answer to gun violence in schools is to arm teachers with guns.

This is a poor argument for several reasons. One of the reasons is that it is highly suspect that the average citizen can accurately and safely use a weapon in a high stress situation like a school shooting. Many highly trained police officers and military personnel have difficulty shooting in these types of situations.

But the above argument is a poor argument for another and even more important reason. It fails to consider how much it undermines the school environment to train teachers to be prepared to shoot the students they are supposed to care for and nurture. How effectively are teachers able to teach in this type of situation? How effectively are students able to learn?

Stonekettle, a retired military personnel and gun expert, discusses at length the highly problematic nature of arming teachers.  This is an insightful twitter exchange about the matter.

If arming teachers was the only solution to gun violence in schools, perhaps we would have to pursue this route for a lack of a better alternative. Evidence indicates, however, that this is not our only solution (which I will return to in a moment).

Sixth: The answer to gun violence in schools is for kids to work harder at being nice to students.

As I mentioned previously, I was a middle and high school teacher for sixteen years and a middle school principal for three of those years. I deeply sympathize with the desire to reach out to lonely kids. And while I was a principal, I had a zero tolerance policy for bullying on my campus. However, communicating to teens that it is their responsibility to stop shootings by being nicer is deeply irresponsible and is a form of victim-blaming.

It assumes a number of things that are at best unlikely and at worst, completely untrue. For instance, it assumes that students are not already being kind to students who become shooters. And it assumes that if kids are nice enough, students will not turn violent.

It assumes that engaging with potential school shooters poses no safety risk to students. And it assumes that the only reason students become shooters is because they are bullied. It also assumes that teenagers should bear a greater responsibility for preventing school violence than adults do.

All of these assumptions are deeply suspect. By all means, we should work on ending bullying in schools. However, it should not be our primary solution to ending gun violence in schools. And it is teachers, not students, who should lead in this area.

When we tell students that it is their responsibility to be nicer in order to prevent school shooters, we communicate to teenagers that school shootings are their fault. This is an inappropriate emotional burden to place on students.

Seventh: If we bring prayer and God back into schools, that will stop gun violence.

I am a Christian, and so I definitely believe in prayer and God. However, the above argument is bad for several reasons. One of the clearest problems with it is that forcing kids to pray or listen to the teachings of a particular religion is a violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause. And if we are going to be concerned about gun rights, we need to be concerned about religious rights, too.

But another problem with the above argument is that just because one prays and believes in God does not mean that one stops beings violent. For example, Dylan Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston church massacre attended church regularly. And he belonged to a religious family. He also went to church camp and apparently claimed to be a Christian.

Roof clearly did not understand Christ’s teachings. But the point here is that just because someone claims to be a Christian or hears religious teachings does not guarantee the person will not become violent. History is full of plenty of other examples of people who claimed faith in God and did violent things.

It also seems likely that forcing religion on students is a good way to encourage, rather than discourage, rage and frustration.[5] I have both attended and taught in religious schools. And I have witnessed the anger that some students experience when they feel like religion is being forced upon them without their consent.

Eight: There is no gun regulation anywhere that is effective in reducing any type of crime. OR All types of gun control are clearly effective in reducing gun violence.

The evidence regarding the correlation between gun regulation and gun violence is mixed. There are certainly studies that suggest that certain types of gun control are ineffective in reducing some types of crime. Here are a few:

Gun Control: Myths and Realities (from the Cato Institute)

Gun Laws and Crime: A Complex Relationship (This one is from the New York Times)

No Proof Gun Control Reduces Crime (from CBS News)

Comparing Murder Rates and Gun Ownership Across Countries

However, there are also plenty of studies that indicate that some types of gun regulation are effective in reducing some types of gun violence.

There are also studies that suggest that there is something deeply wrong with United States gun culture when compared with the gun culture in other developed nations. Here are a few such studies:

Gun Laws and Crime: A Complex Relationship (This one is from the New York Times)

Right to Carry Laws Linked To an Increase in Violent Crime, Stanford Research Shows

How U.S. Gun Deaths Compare to Other Countries

U.S. Has More Guns and Gun Deaths Than Any Other Country, Study Finds

Gun Control Really Works—Here’s the Science to Prove It

Review of More Than 130 Studies Provides Powerful Evidence That Gun Control Saves Lives

What do these conflicting studies mean? One likely thing they mean is that the causes of gun violence are complex and varied. They also suggest that gun restrictions have varying levels of effectiveness as they are implemented in different countries with unique deomographics and cultural conditions.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that all gun laws are useless or ineffective in reducing crime. Evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

So, rather than assuming that gun control law absolutely are or are not effective in all situations, we need to think carefully about questions like these:

1. Why do some countries with gun bans experience little to no gun crime? What specific gun control laws do they have? How similar or different are these countries to the U.S.? Are there other factors, besides gun control, such as a strong social safety net and care for citizens that contribute to low crime rates?

2. Why do some countries with high levels of gun ownership have no gun crime? Are there other factors, such as social safety nets and a care for citizens that contribute to low gun violence? How similar or different are these countries to the U.S.?

3. Why does the United States have more guns than any developed country? Why do we think that the solution to our national problems is owning more guns? What other solutions are we missing out on? How does an excessive reliance on weaponry prevent us from becoming a fully mature, democratic, and flourishing nation?

4. In what ways do we as a nation or do our leaders bully our citizens and other nations? If bullying encourages violence, adults have the responsibility to set an example and lead the way. How do we teach bullying and violence to our children? How do our leaders teach them this?

For example, it is very odd for us to tell kids that they should be nicer to students to avoid school shootings while also tacitly condoning a President who Twitter bullies Korean dictators with nuclear power.

5. Are there gun laws that we have in place that we need to do a better job of reinforcing, rather than creating new laws?

Ten: Gun violence means we should confiscate all guns.

Sometimes in our fear over mass shootings, we think the answer is to confiscate all guns. This seems ill-advised for many reasons. But one of the most important reasons is that people have the right and responsibility to protect themselves. And in some situations such as violent neighborhoods or tragic situations (such as a woman protecting herself), a gun is one of the only ways to do this. This does not mean that people have a right or need to own any kind of gun.  But to confiscate all guns would be to deprive some people of the only means they have to defend themselves, and this seems wrong.

(Note: I do not argue that guns in homes are an unambiguous good. This article discusses the ambiguous nature of gun ownership and self -defense well.  I only argue that in some situations, a gun may be the only form of defense a person has. And it seems wrong to deprive them of this self-defense.)

Conclusion

I thought originally about trying to end this post with some kind of definitive proposal regarding gun control and gun violence. While I have opinions about this issue, I am more concerned that we learn to dialogue more effectively about guns than I am that people adopt my opinion about gun control. So, to that end, here are four suggestions for moving forward in the gun control debate:

1. We need to stop relying on the bad arguments above in our discussions about gun control.

2. We need to be willing to learn from other countries. The U.S. is a great country. But that doesn’t mean we have all the answers about gun control. We also need to be willing to engage with and consider evidence from the other side of the gun control debate. To often, we are only willing to listen to the evidence that confirms our current view of guns.

3. We need to reject all types of fatalism when it comes to the issue of solving gun violence. And we are a country that has led the world in civil rights, scientific inventions, and creative endeavors. We can certainly solve or at least greatly reduce the problem of gun violence.

4. We must value our children and teens more than we value our guns. They are our future, and our welfare rests in them.

Postscript: I would like to thank my friend and colleague James William Lincoln who helped me think through many parts of this post. He was especially helpful in discussions about the state of nature and the common good.

My friend and colleague Joseph Trullinger was also very helpful with several points in this discussion.

*****

[1] They sell for about a quarter of a million dollars.

[2] I draw my ideas of the state of nature from Hobbes’ Leviathan and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Both these documents were influential in the writing of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

[3] Besides the right to protect one’s life by any means.

[4] It is appropriate to mention here that I study and practice in my classroom something called Contemplative Pedagogy. Contemplative pedagogy draws on spiritual practices of the eastern and western spiritual traditions (such as mindfulness, contemplative silence, contemplative reading, and contemplative listening). It does this in order to create a more peaceful, loving, and nurturing classroom environment.

I introduce these practices in a religiously neutral way to create a safe space for students of all religions or no religious background. Studies suggest that contemplative pedagogy can reduce anxiety and stress in students and increase attention and learning. Practices like Contemplative Pedagogy are part of the solution to the issue of gun violence in our school. But it is only one small part of a larger solution.

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