Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Debunking Extremist Gun Arguments

Note: A shorter version of this piece appeared as my monthly column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Reactions to mass shootings in the United States have followed a depressing pattern in recent years. People become outraged when a member of Congress is shot in the head, or when twenty-nine people are killed in a Colorado movie theater. But gun advocates always manage to silence the discussion. "It would disrespect the victims to politicize this tragedy," they say with mock sincerity, failing to note that not discussing gun-safety reforms politicizes the tragedy to their advantage.

Within weeks, outrage morphs into fascination with celebrity drug relapses or the next "storm of the century." Then gun-related tragedy strikes again, and the pattern recycles.

But the December Newtown school children shooting has been different. Outrage hasn't given way to short attention spans. A National Rifle Association spokesperson callously said gun-rights advocates should wait for the "Connecticut effect" to dissolve. But it hasn't. Our outrage has turned us around to the obvious fact that our laws aren't helping to prevent these tragedies. Americans are now strongly in favor of common-sense gun-safety reforms.

Unfortunately, a small minority of gun fetishists has a disproportionately loud voice in the current debate. These are well-paid lobbyists for the gun-manufacturing industry (Wayne LaPierre), media figures whose radicalism attracts far more attention than their talent (Ted Nugent, Alex Jones), or everyday folks who have become convinced by fear-mongering lobbyists and media extremists that imaginary roving bands of criminals are at their doorstep (the sad souls on Facebook posting "Obama can take my gun muzzle first!"). 

Many of these everyday folks mean well. They don't want to see government micromanaging private citizens, and they certainly don't want to see people killed in mass shootings. Unfortunately, they accept and repeat seriously wrong-headed views on gun-related issues.

Ignoring extremists should be our first choice, but, unfortunately, much of the media gun-safety discussion gets filtered through these radical views. Responsible people have to meet these distractions and distortions with clear, reality-based rebuttals.

So here goes--basic facts to answer extremist gun claims.

"Obama is coming for our guns. If Obama can't pass laws to take away our guns, then he's going to use executive actions, just like a dictator would."

During Obama's first term, he actually expanded gun rights. The actual executive orders he issued recently are mostly advisory or focused on enforcing already established law, far from a dictatorial gun grab. 

"Obama is just like Hitler. Hitler's first act was to take citizen's guns. If German Jews had access to guns, the Holocaust never would have happened."

Comparing Obama to Hitler is a favorite tactic of the extreme right-wing, and it's just as inaccurate and silly when it comes to gun reform as it is in every other instance. Hitler actually deregulated gun laws overall while restricting gun ownership by Jews, just one of his many discriminatory actions against Jews. Even Jews who were armed, such as in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, fell victim to genocide.

"Obama started the strictest gun control in the country when he ran Chicago, and that city has the worst crime anywhere."

Obama was a state senator who represented one part of Chicago, but he was never involved in city government, let alone in charge. Blaming gun control laws for violence in an urban area such as Chicago ignores commonsense and critical thinking. City gun control laws didn't prevent the flow of guns into Chicago from many surrounding areas with lax gun laws. The strictest of Chicago's gun laws, a handgun ban, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2010, and gun violence has increased since then. Even so, Chicago ranks as only the 79th most violent place to live in the United States.

"We need guns for self-protection."

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment grants citizens the right to own guns for protection. No one disputes this right, and no one has proposed banning guns for self-protection. But it's important to note that havinga gun at home greatly increases the odds of people living in that home becomingvictims of gun violence

Too many people act as if the world is about to come to a violent end, and they either need guns to prevent that end or to protect themselves when that inevitable end happens. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently ranted about "armed gangs roaming around neighborhoods" in the event of a natural disaster as a reason for owning an AR-15 rifle. Disaster paranoia has existed throughout human history, yet we've somehow always managed to go on despite the fantasy fear-mongering. In the real world, the zombie apocalypse is just an entertaining fiction, not a preview of coming events.


"The Second Amendment says guns can't be regulated."

"The Second Amendment was established so that citizens could have guns to protect themselves from a tyrannical government."

No clear or informed reading of the Second Amendment in the context of the entire Constitution suggests an anti-tyranny conclusion. This theory is mainly advanced by gun advocates as a way to vent their frustrations with not getting their way in elections or the legislative process. Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger (a Republican-appointed conservative) accurately called this anti-tyranny viewpoint a "fraud." In addition, the government has nuclear weapons, so owning a few shotguns isn't going to offer much protection to any gun advocates who launch an insurrection against the American government.

"The term 'assault weapon' is just a scary name for a regular rifle used for hunting or protection that happens to be painted black and have some military features."

Legal analysis finds that Supreme Court rulings show that military-style rifles are "dangerous and unusual" weapons and are subject to stricter regulation than basic hunting or self-protection firearms. The emphasis on the name of the gun is irrelevant. Military-style automatic and semiautomatic "assault" weapons are absolutely not the same as basic rifles.

"The previous assault weapons ban clearly didn't work."

Responsible, nonpartisan fact-checkers have concluded that the previous assault weapons ban showed, at worst, mixed results. Although the law had far too many loopholes and wasn't in place long enough to have full impact, there's plenty of evidence that it helped hold down the number of mass shootings while not depriving responsible gun owners of weapons for hunting or self-protection. In basic numbers, there were 1.5 mass shooting per year during the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban. Since then, there have been 3.5 per year.

"Killers will find a way to kill people even if we ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines."

Bans on the kinds of weapons most commonly used in mass shooting (semi-automatics, assault weapons, and high-capacity magazines) won't stop all mass shootings. But bans on underage drinking don't stop all underage drinking. The point of such bans is the same as any other ban on dangerous items or activities: to make them more difficult, less devastating, and less frequent.

"Hardly anyone is killed with assault weapons, so there's no reason to have special laws to ban them."

True, rifles account for only a small percentage of gun deaths, but rifles are far from the only kinds of guns used to kill people. And, as noted above, mass shootings frequently use "assault weapons." These are the worst crimes our society experiences, and the psychological damage they do to the victims' families and our nation as a whole far outweighs the actual number of deaths. Would any reasonable person advise us not to worry because "only" 20 children were killed in Newtown?

"Criminals have assault weapons like AR-15 rifles, so law-abiding citizens need similar weapons to protect themselves."

Weapons experts agree that handguns or shotguns, not assault rifles, are the best firearms for home protection.

"We just need to enforce current gun laws, not make new ones."

Current laws have many loopholes, largely thanks to NRA lobbying, that they are ineffective in many ways--stopping mass shootings, for example, where a majority of mass-murderers got their guns legally.

"Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

This is one of the most common gun-related myths. Why anyone would embrace such an obviously flawed statement is a mystery. On its face, it's absurd. A person without a gun pointing a finger and saying "bang" isn't going to kill anyone. Having a gun makes a big difference in that equation.

Gun advocates have told me that the "guns don't kill people" statement signifies the fact that guns are merely tools, and how people use these tolls is what really matters. Okay, let's explore that line of thought. Substitute any other tool into the equation too see if the overall idea makes sense.

"Umbrellas don't block the rain. People block the rain."

"Bread Knives don't cut bread. People cut bread."

"Hammers don't pound nails. People pound nails."

Do any of these statements make any kind of sense? You could use your hands to block the rain, but that wouldn't keep you very dry. You could cut bread with your hands, but you'd make more crumbs than neat slices. You could pound nails with your hands, but you'd probably end up with a hospital visit and very little carpentry work done.

Just as umbrellas, bread knives, and hammers do their intended tasks far better than our bare hands, so too do guns fulfill their purposes better than bare hands. The reason groups or people have never been strangled in large numbers or efficiently is that guns are the tool of choice for such a horrible task.

In the United States, 30,000 people a year are killed with guns. More than 60% of all homicides in the United States are committed with guns. Umbrellas block the rain. Bread knives slice bread. Hammers pound nails. Guns kill people. This is not a difficult concept to understand--even for people who desperately want to blame gun deaths on everything except guns.

Guns make it more likely that conflicts will result in violence, and that more people will be killed as a result of those conflicts. States with more gun ownership and laxer gun laws have a higher gun death rate than areas with lower gun ownership and tougher gun laws. States with more gun safety regulations have fewer gun deaths. The overall evidence shows that more guns leads to more crime. In short, guns are dangerous weapons that help people kill people, which is why they need to be strictly regulated.

"Cars kill more people than guns, and we don't ban cars, so banning guns would be crazy."

No one is talking about banning guns--just regulating them because guns, like cars are undeniably dangerous. Cars are heavily regulated because they're dangerous, but when used as designed, cars deliver people to desired locations. Guns, when used as designed, deliver lethal force to a target. Anyone who doesn't know the difference between guns and cars has no business operating either one. (By the way, gun deaths are predicted to surpass auto deaths in the United States by 2015.)

"Criminals won't obey gun laws anyway."

This defeatist slogan is a very common comment whenever someone says that we need to have better gun-safety laws. But it clearly makes no sense. No law concerning any kind of criminal activity prevents all crime--yet we still have laws because we live in a civilization where laws identify our values. No one would say we shouldn't have strong laws against child molestation because molesters won't obey those laws anyway. Strong gun-safety laws can make it harder for criminals to get gun, which can save lives.

All criminals, by definition, don't obey laws. But that's no reason to abandon the rule of law. Laws can reduce crime, and a civilized society still has laws even when they don't prevent all crime. And it's interesting that many folks who say gun laws won't stop people from getting guns also insist we need tougher abortion laws to stop people from getting abortions.

"Background checks are just a slippery-slope that leads to gun registration, which is a slippery-slope to gun confiscation."

The "slippery-slope" argument is an example of a classic logical fallacy that relies on sloppy thinking rather than a basis in fact. When gun advocates actually use the term "slippery slope," they're showing deep ignorance of the issues as well as poor critical thinking skills. Just because some unlikely event could possibly happen, that doesn't mean that we should expect it to happen. The United States has universal car registration, for example, and that hasn't led to auto confiscations.

"Violent video games and movies are the real problem, not guns."

Many countries play violent video games and watch violent movies and still manage to have far less gun violence that the United States because those countries have stricter gun laws than we do.

"Mental health is the real problem, not guns."

Access to mental health care is an important issue in the United States. But the same politicians who oppose common-sense gun regulations have also opposed funding for increased access to mental health care. For example, Republicans in Congress have voted more than thirty times to repeal Obamacare, which includes many provisions for improving mental health access. And Ronald Reagan, the guiding light of the contemporary Republican Party, set in place the budget policies and social priorities that led to the current lack of comprehensive mental health care.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

"The Newtown shooting was staged by the government to drum up support for gun control. A video on the internet proves it."

This desperate and shameful claim echoes a similar one that surfaced after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and it's just as full of crap. The video in question is filled with inaccuracies, innuendo, and easily debunked misinformation. Even conspiracy-theorist Glenn Beck's The Blaze website debunks the Newtown-staged theory. When crap-master Glenn Beck thinks you're full of crap, that's a pretty damning indictment. Of all the crazy theories advanced by these people, this one is the worst. Anyone wondering where the term "gun nut" comes from doesn't need to look further than claims about government staging shootings. They should try making this claim to the parents who lost children in the Newtown shooting or to those who lost loved ones in Aurora. More than anything else, this terrible claim shows that they need to get over their irrational fear, grow out of this insecure and paranoid phase, and join the real world.

Of course, gun fetishists will dispute these points and dig up questionable sources friendly to their cause as "evidence." But common sense and the vast majority of reliable data contradict their extremist talking points and supports gun-safety reform. Extremists will never see reason as they try to block progress and wait out the "Connecticut effect." But, as responsible citizens, we need to debunk the extremists and focus on reality-based discussions to make our country safer.


Who can resist a little Pope humor?