What’s Wrong with the Gun Control Argument

A lot of my subscribers at The End of History, like me, came of age in the era of random mass violence. Columbine sticks out in my mind as the first big one that shocked us all. There might have been others before it but that is the mental icon I have for the first one that shocked us as a nation. Then there was Paducah, Jonesboro and the list goes on bringing us into the present with Virginia Tech, the guy at the Batman movie in Colorado, the nut job who shot Congress woman Giffords, and of course Newtown. Newtown sticks out to me simply because of the ages of the children and the incredible randomness of the killer’s actions. It does no good to compare any of these or the many that I did not list as worse than the other. As a parent I either can’t or won’t imagine what it would be like to lose a child to such meaningless and unnecessary violence.

In accordance with so many issues of our time however, these random shootings and attacks are not left alone as horrible acts of murder unto themselves. Instead they are strung together into a sequence of historical events and interpreted through a political filter to identify an explanation for them all. This has taken place so effectively that today when we hear of the most recent shooting somewhere in America we immediately think “gun control” and run to whichever side of the argument we are on. It was not always that way. When Columbine happened Americans did not immediately think gun control. I remember Marilyn Manson music (is he still around?) being suspect for having affected the behavior of the shooters, also video games and violent movies. (Remember the black trench coats that the Columbine shooters wore were supposed to be mimicked from the first Matrix movie?).

On the surface this mental leap from tragedy to political explanations makes sense. If the killers had not accessed the guns the killings would not have happened. Clearly then, this is an issue of controlling access to the guns for crazy people. The more senseless and violent the act (Newtown for example) then the faster our policy makers should move to control the access. Failure to move quickly is not only inviting the inevitable but a sign of our gridlocked state of political affairs and the hypocrisy of our political leadership.

There’s a flaw with this though. Our inability to quickly and intuitively recognize it is a sign of how effectively we have been programmed to understand these horrible acts of violence through the filter of public policy laid out above.

Here is the problem in a nutshell. Guns have been around for a really long time in America – school shootings and the scale of random gun powered violence we are seeing today, have not. Gun ownership has been around basically since it was enshrined in the US Constitution, technically before that but for the sake of a beginning number let’s say since that time. Mass shootings were not something that marked the close of the 18th Century, or any part of the 19th Century. In fact, we don’t really see them occur in any regular pattern of events until the end of the 20th Century in the US. Certainly there were some before this time but they were anomalies or belonged to some other issue like gang violence during the prohibition era whereas in our own day and age they have become a continuous but random occurrence in the news.

A revealing graph from that bastion of conservative thinking, Mother Jones
A revealing graph from that bastion of conservative thinking, Mother Jones

Why then, are gun and gun ownership so quickly linked as the cause of the surge in mass shooting in recent decades? To add a little more awkwardness to the question allow me to add this troublesome statistic noted in a recent study cited by The Atlantic. In recent years as mass shootings have become more regular in their occurrence, the percentage of Americans who own guns has (contrary to popular perception) been decreasing – not increasing. Americans still love their guns, far more than the rest of the world, but the number of families who own guns has decreased in recent years while mass shootings have increased.

In the study of reasoning there is a term called a “logical fallacy.” It refers to the development of a misconception resulting from incorrect reasoning. Logical fallacies take many different forms but in this instance it is simply confusing association with causation. In other words, just because there are a lot of guns and gun owners does not automatically mean that this is what has led to the spread of mass shootings in our society. In fact, the statistical fact that prior to the 1980’s these shootings did not exist with any degree of regularity completely separates gun and gun ownership from the causation of mass shootings. They might be associated but one is not the cause of the other. To mistake association for cause is a logical fallacy. It might be easy to counter that I am trying to debunk the obvious. If there were no guns then there would be no mass shootings. That is fine but the fact that for a couple hundred years there were guns and no mass shootings should also stand for something. To leap immediately to the solution that limiting access to guns will prevent mass shootings is leaping over a lot of consideration which should be included in examining why mass shootings and violence have become so rampant in our society. To assume that all of a sudden in the 1980’s something changed in the mindset of American gun owners that they began to cause mass shootings at an ever increasing pace is a logical fallacy that assumes association (gun ownership or gun existence) is the same as causation. Not convinced?

For hundreds of years Americans could walk into any general store and purchase a gun and ammo. The rise of gun control legislation has paralleled the rise of mass shootings and violence. Guns can be used for danger and violence but in American society, for a couple hundred years, they were not – at least not like what we are seeing today. The real question we should be asking ourselves and urging our policy makers to consider is – what changed? What gave rise to the use of guns for mass shootings and violence?

There were a few more things that changed in our society and culture correlating to the same timeline as the rise of mass violence, school shootings and the like. More Americans went on prescription medication than ever before as Rx became a lifestyle and not simply a remedy. More Americans grew up in broken homes thanks to rising rates of divorce and separation in marriages. More preservatives and artificial ingredients are included in our diets. The list could go on and on. Am I stating that these are the things that should be blamed as the cause for the rise in rates of mass violence? Not at all! They should be investigated though, as well as a number of other items that better correlate to the onset of mass violence in American society than do gun ownership.

There is another thing I have noticed in the arguments about gun control that so quickly  follows these tragedies. While Washington turns to new gun laws as a solution to the horror, the percentage of Americans in favor of greater restrictions on guns actually decreases on the norm. Why? Because gun laws tend to affect those people who have been obeying the law and not participated in random acts of mass violence for over two hundred years. Proposed legislation not to mention the media’s portrayal most often frames the argument at the expense of these gun owners. They are backward, old fashioned, out of touch, and unreasonable. Not so fast. These are the responsible people who, I say it again, have been obeying the laws already in existence for a couple hundred years or so. Why are they being targeted? As unfair as this is though I am more concerned that we are allowing these horrible acts of violence to continue and by all appearance increase in their frequency and scope by asking the wrong questions.

Guns and gun owners did not change in the early 1980’s when these incidents began occurring. It was people and our society that began changing. That is where our questions should be focused. What changed in our society? What changed among the young people who more often than not commit these murders? What led these individuals to point where they were consciously plotting random murder of innocents? Something definitely changed because our history is not witness to these types of tragedies at this rate of repetition until the last few decades. That question might take a little while longer to answer but it will get us to a true cause much quicker and until that is identified we will only be fighting shadows in our efforts to stop these tragedies from continuing.

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