Robert E. Shapiro is adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago and a practicing trial lawyer.
Updated: June 20, 2013 4:19PM
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 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 2008, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court held that this part of the Bill of Rights precluded a governmental ban on handguns, primarily because they were the most popular kind of “arms” that people were likely to “bear.”
Legal challenges to other forms of gun control are not inconceivable, but at present gun control seems a question more of prudence than of constitutional policy. What forms of gun control make sense?
Like all governmental decision-making, the best policy is a logical and clear-sighted one. Unfortunately, sensationalism has often dominated public discourse regarding gun control. School massacres such as the Newtown, Conn., horror have frequently, if understandably, triggered a kind of hysteria with calls for absolutist programs that would be ineffectual or worse.
There is no simple solution to the problem of gun violence in America. But it is the pro-gun lobby that seems the greater culprit in poor reasoning. Some of the key arguments against gun control fail simple rules of logic:
Fallacy No. 1: Guns don’t kill people, people do. This is what might be called a “truism,” something true that does not really address the key issue. Certainly, people are responsible for killing other people, but they usually do so with guns. Better social intervention and law enforcement is necessary to identify, treat and/or incarcerate prospective killers. But along the way, shouldn’t we keep the killers who are still at large from getting guns?
Fallacy No. 2: If guns are controlled, only criminals will have guns. This is a nonsequitur. Gun registration and background checks are designed to make buying guns a more deliberate process. But the average law-abiding citizen will have little trouble passing a background check in a timely way. Such programs will not catch all, or even most, criminals or the mentally ill trying to buy a gun, but they seem a minimally intrusive way of deterring potential malefactors.
Fallacy No. 3: America is a violent place, so guns are essential. Be wary of political arguments that begin with a condemnation of the society in which one lives. In this case, the argument seems to depend on a false correlative, or backward logic, in blaming violence for the guns rather than the other way around.
This is a little like saying trailer parks cause tornadoes because the latter often destroy the former. American society’s violence is partly caused by guns. There are, of course, other sources of that violence, but while we’re trying to solve our violence issues, it would help if there were fewer guns.
Fallacy No. 4: Better alternatives exist. These alternatives mostly treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The National Rifle Association argues that armed guards outside schools would be preferable to reducing the number of guns. Really?
Surely such guards would be a deterrent, but is the prospect of a gun battle outside a school really an alternative we want to countenance? And how would this help with shopping malls? Post offices? Movie theaters? Treating effects rather than causes seems wrongheaded.
Fallacy No. 5: Societies where guns are regulated have not experienced less gun violence. As Ronald Reagan used to say (paraphrasing Disraeli), there are “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Statistics can be manipulated to try to refute our common sense.
But here they are not even right. Australia is often cited as proof that strict gun regulation causes violent crime to increase. In fact, the gun control laws imposed after a school shooting there have been startlingly successful in reducing gun violence.
Fallacy No. 6: Gun control will eventually lead to a total ban. This is another kind of nonsequitur, the “camel’s nose under the tent” or “give an inch and they’ll take a mile” argument. It’s a scare tactic that lacks common sense. It’s a little like saying that requiring people to wear seat belts will lead to legislation prohibiting driving. It’s conceivable that a total ban on guns could happen, but there’s no reason to believe it would. And that “inch,” the small steps we can take toward reducing the misuse of guns in America, may do us some good, too.
Robert Shapiro, a practicing lawyer, is also an adjunct professor of philosophy at St. Xavier University in Chicago.