Here we go again. Another tragic, horrific and completely unnecessary mass shooting of innocent young people in a school. In response to the shooting, Obama made an impassioned and eloquent plea for our government bodies to work together towards some kind of “common sense” gun legislation to prevent these kinds of all-too-common occurrences.
His speech was compelling, and although most republicans will wring their hands and roll their eyes, his message that there should be some policy change that would help prevent this in the future (as happens in every other part of public life where lives are endangered) is not only common sense, but it probably reflects the views of most Americans.
That being said, and in spite of my own severely left-leaning biases, I don’t think gun control is the big solution to these problems. Even if it reduces violence as Obama predicts it will (and the reports from both sides are so biased it is hard to get a clear picture on this,) there is just something very uninspiring about creating a future where the only thing that will prevent someone from going on a murderous killing spree is the difficulty of obtaining a legal firearm.
Furthermore, Obama’s argument about tighter gun control laws contains a few logical fallacies:
- Correlation does not indicate causation. Obama claims that other countries have less violence because they have stricter gun policies. But do those countries really have less violence because of their gun policies? Or are they able to pass tighter gun control laws because their citizenry does not have as much fear, anger, or hatred in their hearts as some Americans do? Or perhaps other countries just don’t have the same historical connection to guns that caused our forefathers to include the second amendment in the constitution? I’m not so sure. Most likely, it is all of the above plus a million other things, suggesting that gun control might help, but shouldn’t be the only solution being considered.
- Appeal to the stone (argumentum ad lapidem.) Obama dismisses the Republican idea that more guns could make us safer as absurd, but he does not provide actual data to support this. The fact that many of these shootings happen in “gun free” zones such as schools, is a compelling argument from the conservative camp that suggests the opposite.
But the typical conservative response to Obama’s speech is more misguided than this. Most of the responses seem to fall into two categories:
- The straw man fallacy: The straw man fallacy is “when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.” Obama asks for common sense gun restrictions and Republicans start shouting about Obama taking all their weapons and eliminating the second amendment. My favorite version of this is the so-extreme-as-to-be-cartoonish straw man of “first they’ll take our guns, then they’ll take our bibles.” It’s one of the great ironies of modern American culture that the people who love their bibles are so attached to their guns.
- The second fallacy could be classified under many names: moral high ground, red herring, or appeal to emotion. In this case, rather than respond to Obama’s comments about gun control, the conservatives say something like, “how dare Obama politicize this killing ‘to further his own political agenda.’” Of course we should want our politicians to create policy to fix things that go wrong in our society (we just don’t like it when the policy they propose does not align with our beliefs.) To me, this seems to be a lame conservative distraction tactic to avoid responding to the actual issues.
I point these fallacies out on both sides because it seems like there is no constructive dialogue happening around these issues. Only two sides hurling the same, flawed, black-and-white arguments at each other. Nobody recognizes the flaws in their own argument and nobody listens to what the other side has to say.
Regardless of where you personally stand on gun control, there are three points that Obama made that I think we can all agree on in the face of another tragic loss of American youth:
- America has the worst gun violence of any industrialized nation (someone will want to debate this point, but you have to admit, it’s not good.) And,
- If we do nothing about it, that isn’t going to change. And,
- We can (and should) do something about it.
The question is what to do.
On this, almost everyone, on both sides of this issue, commit one other logical fallacy: the false dichotomy. They assume that the solution to gun violence is either new gun legislation, or better care for mental illness, and they put all their chips on one or the other. By trying to make a complex problem simple enough to fit into our binary debates, we miss out on opportunities to ask better questions:
How do we raise our children to be more resilient and perseverant in the face of life’s challenges?
How do we infuse our media communications with less divisiveness, less fear-mongering and less glorification of violence?
How do we create a future where peace thrives, and violence is a last resort?
Perhaps the most important question of all is, “what can I do today to create more peace in my community and the world?” The answer to this question can’t be found through debate. It can only be found by letting go of arguments and looking for real solutions that bring Americans together for a common cause.
by Jeremy McCarthy