Saturday, December 15, 2012

(Gun policies): Is gun control unacceptable because knives kill people also?

In the last blog entry, I asserted what many others are arguing, that we should have a discussion about gun policies. I also indicated that this conversation should take time, and be careful and deliberate. I’d like to get the ball rolling. I do this in part because I’m bothered by the business-as-usual tone of Facebook. The victims of yesterday’s slaughter are still dead. For their families, today will be harder than yesterday because only now do they come face to face with permanence. Their children (and spouses, friends, and parents) are never coming back. In fact, this is true of the victims of Virginia Tech, the Aurora shooting, Columbine, the campers in Norway, and of anyone else whose life was ended through violence. I promise you, those families still feel the pain and nothingness, even if the rest of us have “moved on.” I certainly don’t expect the world to change their Facebook behavior permanently, but it just happened way too fast for me.

Here are the ground rules. All participants will be respectful and respected, and whatever passion is present in people’s comments, remarks cannot be insulting or abusive. I will delete personal attacks or comments from trolls. Second and equally important, philosophy has taught us that it is best to deal with one argument at a time. So, today’s entry will be about the most common claim I’ve seen on Facebook: gun control is unacceptable because knives kill people too. In future entries, I hope to address the arguments that we should be discussing mental health instead of gun policies, the role of collecting in guns, self-defense, hunting, and, of course, the relevance of the second amendment. If you have a question you’d like posed for the community, send it to I will, of course, continue to have non-gun related entries as well.

If I understand this particular argument against gun control, it goes as follows: guns are tools and people can kill with any object. Take knives, for example. They too kill, but we wouldn’t consider banning them. In fact, over the last few months, there have been two knife-related attacks in China. Just two days ago, a person slashed 22 school kids and one adult in rural China, and in August, a Chinese teenager killed 8 people with a knife. This, the argument asserts, is proof that we shouldn’t single out guns for regulation since there is nothing unique about guns.

The opponents to this position will argue that guns can do much more damage, much quicker than knives (the 22 kids in China were slashed, not killed). Guns can be fired from farther away and are much more likely to kill. So the issue is not, they say, that guns are the only weapons that kill, but rather, that guns kill so well that they should be heavily regulated. In fact, the argument continues, the more effectively a weapon kills, the more we should regulate it. Bombs, missiles, and chemicals also need to be regulated. Ball-point pens, which can kill, need not be controlled because they do so clumsily and inefficiently.

This is a quantitative response. It is utilitarian because it is an argument about minimizing harm to people. If this is our standard, if harm is the deciding factor, then the gun-control position wins. Now, someone might respond that people can better defend themselves with guns but this is a different argument; we’re only concerned with the claim that since knives can kill, gun control is unjustified. Furthermore, the point that people can better defend themselves with guns only further supports the gun-control position. Guns are more effective at killing which is why they are better defense.

There is a non-quantitative argument against this position as well: the analogy between knives and guns is false. Guns are single-use object, knives are not. Guns are for killing people and animals. Knives are used for killing, but also slicing food, whittling, cleaning fish, and a thousand other tasks. It is true that someone who collects guns is not necessarily interested in using them, but again, this is a different argument since it’s not about knives being used as weapons. In short, if we were to regulate guns we would only be regulating people’s ability to kill effectively (people and animals). If we were to regulate knives, we would be interfering with almost every aspect of people’s lives, an unacceptable violation of liberty.

One might say that guns need not kill; guns can be aimed at limbs to stop someone short of deadly force. If this were the case, guns would become more like knives; the analogy would be more acceptable. But this would require two things. First, that the shooter be an unfailingly excellent shot, a criteria most gun-owners would not meet. Second, it creates the requirement that one is allowed to own a gun but forbidden from killing with it; a provision unacceptable no many. If this could be enforced in some way, if guns could be prevented from killing others with a reasonable level of certainty, then the whole argument would change, but this in itself would be a form of gun control.

So, it seems to me that the argument that knives (or any object) kills too is not a good enough argument against gun control. What “control” actually is – whether we are banning guns outright, limiting the types one can own, requiring safety equipment – remains to be seen. It also might be the case that we need some sort of knife control; as of right now, for example, we cannot carry them onto airplanes. But the basic claim that we not have gun control because knives kill too, is simply not persuasive.

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  1. If the standard is harm reduction, then it makes sense to find the objects implicated in the most harm. Without meaning to be flip about it, the evidence would point us towards backyard swimming pools, which annually kill more kids than guns. There are lots of ways to kill people, all of which are prohibited except in narrow circumstances (self defense, defense of others, in wars). That prohibition is both moral and legal, but is frequently violated.

    The question is whether armed self defense is a right, and whether that right (whether it is with guns, knives, or body odor) outweighs societies interest in preventing mass murder. If you don't accept the language of rights applied to guns, then the conversation over "gun control" is an exchange between people operating from fundamentally different moral presumptions. I agree that the fact that lethality of other objects/devices alone is not a compelling argument against gun control.

    Thank you for your civility an realizing that there are no "pro-massacre" people in this debate.

    1. Bill, thanks for this. Two points. First, I want to keep the discussion precisely to the point of knives vs guns. The rights argument will come down the line. Second, I happily admit that swimming pools are a good example since, in many states, there are very strict rules about fences limiting access and, for public pools, lifeguard requirements. I guess one could then say, there is pool control, there should also be gun control.

      And I would never suggest that gun owners are pro-massacre. The only ones who are pro-massacre are the ones who commit them.

  2. "... the language of rights applied to [arms]" was invented well over 200 years ago. "Without being flip[pant] about it," one could also discuss locking babies in cars parked at a Wal-Mart in 100 degree heat. But 200 years ago, they didn 't have cars. Nor did they have many swimming pools. Nor was there an option of using seat belts in any moving coach. Nor is this a moment to be "flip[pant]." The question is not "whether armed self-defense is a right." This has nothing to do with "rights." "The language of rights applied to guns" was composed generations ago. It had to do with blunderbusses, knives, and bows and arrows, not modern day rifles. "[T]he objects implicated in the most harm" are not guns. The most dangerous "objects" are not objects at all. They have much more to do with an abstract reality, just as abstract as the electrons moving through wires, and the pulses of waves moving through space that make it possible for me to communicate with you at this moment. They have to do with people clinging to words and ideas juxtaposed ages ago, intended for a population unable to fathom a time like ours. When words wear out so they fail to address reality, and when freedom to do harm ranges as far as it does now, we need to rethink those words.

    1. '"The language of rights applied to guns" was composed generations ago. It had to do with blunderbusses, knives, and bows and arrows, not modern day rifles.' well actually it applied to state of the art military hardware, including cannons, "kentucky long rifles," the new research in breach loading rifles, mortars and yes, bluderbusses (which lest you forget were fielded by one of the greatest European armies, the Hessians). They were sophisticated and knowledgeable beyond current standards, with a greater understanding of the realities of the world around them and the state of technology.

    2. Gene, I'll say to you what I just said to Bill. The rights-based discussion is going to come down the line. Because this is such a complicated and deeply felt issue, I want to deal with things one point at a time. The rights stuff will likely be the hardest (certainly the most abstract). I suspect I will do it last.