America as a Free Fire Zone
A Critical Examination of Gun Culture Rationalizations
February 23, 2011
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.
United States Constitution
On January 12, thirty thousand people attended a memorial service for the
seven victims of the Tucson massacre.
Thirty thousand: that’s about the same number of Americans who died in 2006
from gunshot wounds.
Almost one hundred every day.
That is a statistic that stands alone among the civilized nations of the
The Guardian (2012) reports that the annual gun homicides in Finland were
24, in Australia 30, in England and Wales 41, in Spain 90, in Germany 158,
in Canada 173, and in the United States 9146. This means that homicides
amounted to almost one third of gun deaths in the United States.
These are hard, authenticated facts.
Whatever position one takes on the gun control issue, statistics such as
these must be acknowledged and dealt with if one is to be taken seriously in
So what is to account for those 30,000 gun deaths in the United States?
There are many hypotheses, by no means mutually exclusive: A “gun culture”
based upon a long historical tradition, the depiction of gun violence in the
popular mass media (movies and TV, computer video games), the large number
of privately owned firearms (though less, per capita, than in Canada), and
finally, the almost total absence of laws restricting gun ownership.
The unrestricted access to and ownership of guns in the United States is
largely a result of the lobbying of the gun industry through its surrogate,
the National Rifle Association, which wields virtual veto power over the
Congress. This despite the fact that a majority of the American public,
including the rank and file members of the NRA, approve of restrictions on
Following each assassination or massacre in the United States, there is a
public outcry for gun control: the Kennedy and King assassinations in the
sixties, the Columbine High School Shootings in April,1999, the Virginia
Tech massacre in April, 2007. The Tucson shootings last month, however, were
ominously different. This time the members of Congress, the President, and
the media, while deploring the incident, had little if anything to say about
legal control and registration of firearms. Such is the control today of the
gun industry and the NRA over public discussion and legislation.
As I contemplated writing this piece about the gun menace in the United
States, I revisited an internet essay I posted it in May, 1999, a month
after the Columbine incident. To my profound sorrow, I discovered that very
little had changed in the intervening twelve years, and that much of what I
wrote then applies equally today. The propaganda and rationalizations of the
gun apologists are virtually identical today to those that were presented
twelve years ago. And so, much of the remainder of this essay will draw upon
that earlier work.
Then, as now, I asked myself, what more can I say about the gun menace in
the United States, that has not been repeated, time and again, ad nauseam?
What could I possibly add to the debate?”
Perhaps my contribution might be drawn from insights gained from my four
decades of toil as a professor of philosophy and a frequent teacher of
critical thinking. The horrible incidents in Littleton, Colorado,
Blacksburg, Virginia, Tucson, Arizona, and other places too numerous to
mention, routinely provoke in the public media a flow of logical fallacies,
originating from or encouraged by the gun lobby, sufficient to launch a
thousand books devoted thereto. Even a brief treatment of the identifiable
fallacies appearing in the public debate over the "causes" of gun violence
would easily fill a book. And I have other books to write. So I will examine
only five fallacies.
There is, I submit, no moral justification for tolerating the conditions in
our society that lead to the untimely deaths of 30,000 of our fellow
citizens each year. Moreover, the arguments of the gun lobby and gun
enthusiasts in favor of allowing these conditions to continue can not
withstand logical scrutiny. Or so I will argue in the remainder of this
Common to most of these fallacies is scapegoating and
rationalization - the "not us, it's them" response. The first two on our
list, "the slippery slope" and "the fallacy of the sacred text" are so
commonplace among the NRA and other Second Amendment absolutists that they
demand our attention. The other three all rest upon weird theories of
causation and proof - theories so outlandish that a simple explication
thereof, separated from the political rhetoric, should suffice as
The Slippery Slope - (alternatively called "the domino effect"
and "the camel's nose"). We've all heard the argument: "once they (meaning ,
of course, the government) take away our assault weapons, what's to keep
them from confiscating all handguns, and then our sporting and target
rifles? Where do you draw the line?" An interesting but often overlooked
feature of "slippery slope arguments" is that the slope slips in both
directions. Hence, the arguments of the gun-control advocates: "once you
allow citizens to own assault weapons, why not artillery, or even atomic
weapons? Where do you draw the line?"
"Where do we draw the line?" Quite simply, we "draw the line" where,
in our collective and considered wisdom, we choose to "draw the line."
Simple as that. The drawing of legal "lines" is both commonplace and
generally uncontroversial. There is no remarkable difference between the
political judgment of a seventeen and an eighteen year old. But clearly six
year-olds should not vote, and thirty year-olds should not be denied the
franchise. So we "draw the line" at eighteen, simply because we have to
"draw" it at some age. We have collectively agreed that eighteen "seems
about right." Likewise in the cases of the legal ages of consent to marry,
to purchase and drink alcoholic beverages, to operate a motor vehicle, and
Both nature and artifice are chock-full of continua - gradations from "too
little" to "too much," with no identifiable "line" between the extremes. The
list is endless: vehicle speeds, truck load limits, blood alcohol content,
ambient noise, water and air pollution levels, and so on.
Civil comity and personal safety both require some "drawing of lines" across
such continua. The "line" along the continuum in the right to bear arms
should reasonably be drawn beyond registered ownership by non-felons, and
before the ownership of assault or nuclear weapons by felons. The NRA
complaint against "line-drawing" is specious.
The Fallacy of the Sacred Text. To the NRA and other
gun-advocates, the Second Amendment simply means what it says. More
precisely, they hold that the second clause regarding "the right to keep and
bear arms" means what it says. They conveniently overlook the first clause
which justifies the second through the "free state's" need of a
"well-regulated militia." And the less said about that word "regulated" the
better. Like scripture, say the absolutists, the Constitution is exempt from
the ordinary weaknesses of human language such as ambiguity, vagueness and
historical contexts. The founding fathers speak, say the absolutists, like
the voice of God, unequivocally, clearly, and with ultimate authority.
Accordingly, the Second Amendment "means what it says - 'shall not be
But why should this "right to keep and bear arms" be absolute, when none of
the other constitutional rights are absolute? As Justice Holmes famously
remarked, the right to free speech does not allow one to shout "Fire!" in a
crowded theater. Nor does the freedom of religion allow human sacrifice or
even permit parents to deny on religious grounds, appropriate medical
attention for their children. . The right of the free press is limited by
the laws of libel, and the right of free assembly does not sanction
lynch-mobs or the obstruction of traffic. None of these "constitutional
rights" are absolute. Why then should the "right to bear arms" be an
Religious conservatives, in their defense of "absolute morality," commonly
condemn "situation ethics." And yet, whenever one is obedient to two or more
moral rules, "situation ethics" becomes unavoidable. (The religious
conservative claims obedience to at least ten). As the late philosopher
Charles Frankel once observed, exclusive obedience to a single moral rule is
not "morality," it is fanaticism. The ten commandments forbid "bearing false
witness," murder, and stealing. But what if one must lie or steal to save an
innocent life? Two or more moral rules raises the logical possibility of,
and often actual encounter with, moral conflicts - the plain impossibility
of avoiding the violation of one rule through obedience to another. Enter
"situation ethics." (See my
of Moral Relativism).
If "the right to bear arms" is to be absolute, what other social, political
and moral desiderata are to be sacrificed to this one absolute? Let's start
with "the right to safety in one's home, property and person." To their
profound grief, Gabrielle Giffords and her Tucson constituents faced the
implications of this sacrifice on January 8, 2011. Must we all?
There is an alternative to Second Amendment absolutism which has been
adopted by all civilized societies (including our own, though to a minimal
degree): admit that "the right to bear arms" must, along with all other
rights, submit to limits, defined by the values we accord to our other
The Fallacy of the Single Cause. “It wasn’t the availability
of guns and high-capacity magazines that caused the mayhem in Tucson. The
shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was a nut case.” “Guns don’t kill people,
people kill people.” Similarly with the Columbine tragedy: “It
wasn't the availability of guns, it was video games." "No it wasn't, it was
the mass media." "No it wasn't, it was poor parenting." Back again to "no it
wasn't, it was the availability of guns." And so on, ad infinitum, ad
Common to all this buck-passing is the assumption that "if someone else is
to blame, then we are not - if some other enterprise is the cause, then ours
is not." And so the search continues for the cause of the tragedies.
"The cause?" Why just one cause? What is logically wrong with
suggesting that "the gun culture," and video games, and the mass media, and
alienation, and absentee parents all may have, to some degree, contributed
to these atrocities? Why must there be only one cause, the discovery of
which fully exculpates all other suspect causes?
Answer: there is nothing whatever wrong with searching for, and addressing,
multiple causes. If we are well-educated and logically savvy, we don't ask,
"what is the cause of cancer?" Or "What was the cause of the
Russian Revolution?" Or "what was the cause of Barack Obama’s
election?" Why then should we tolerate, without rebuttal, the attempts of
the gun lobby, the video game entrepreneurs, Hollywood film makers, or
whoever else, to evade responsibility by locating "the cause" gun
violence "somewhere else"?
But the "multiple causes" approach can itself be an oversimplification, for
it evokes a mind-picture of separate legs holding up a table. This view
suggests that each of the "multiple causes" is independent and discrete. But
surely that is not the case. These several "causes" (in the social science
jargon, "contributing factors") constitute a web of intricately interacting
"causes," aptly described as "the culture of violence." Thus media depiction
of violence fosters a fascination with and a collection of firearms, and
thence an absorption with violent video games, etc. (or vice versa - these
"causes" are, after all, reciprocating). Attempts to solve "the gun violence
problem" by attacking just one "cause" (such as gun ownership) is as useless
as an attempt to kill a tree by cutting off one branch.
All-or-Nothing Causation. This fallacy is heard in the remark,
"millions of kids play video games and watch violent TV and movies, but they
don't all go on shooting rampages." In this we hear echoes from the tobacco
industry: "millions of people smoke, but most of them don't get lung cancer.
Ergo, smoking does not cause lung cancer." But smoking was never
claimed to be the sole and certain cause of lung cancer. Instead, it is
claimed (now with conclusive scientific evidence) to be a contributing and
aggravating factor in carcinogenesis. Statistics tell the story, as we
compare mortality figures for smokers and non-smokers. Similarly, while the
vast majority of young people who play computer games or watch "slasher
movies" admittedly do not commit homicides, this fact in no way discounts
the possibility that some murders may be "triggered" by immersion in violent
media. At the very least, that possibility deserves careful study, and I am
told that such studies are very disquieting.
Proof-Positive or None. This sophistical device has been also
been prominent in the apologetics of the tobacco industry. About the time of
the first Surgeon General's report on Smoking and Health (in 1963), we read
such dismissals as "nobody has ever shown anything conclusive about
cigarettes and health - lung cancer and all that. It just hasn't been
proved." And "there is no proof - no established proof - of cigarettes being
harmful." (Thomas Whiteside's "A Cloud of Smoke" in The New Yorker,
November 30, 1960). Closer examination shows that such dismissals rest upon
an alleged failure to discover a "definitive causal connection between
tobacco smoke and cancer." However, as David Hume argued in the eighteenth
century, and as philosophers of science have since then generally concurred,
"definitive causal connections" are not "observed" as such, they are
inferred from the "constant conjunction" of events. Scientific "proof" is
not only probabilistic (i.e., "a matter of degree"), in addition valid
scientific hypotheses must be "falsifiable in principle" - i.e., the
proponent of the hypothesis must be prepared to describe "what it would be
like" (contrary to fact) for the hypothesis to be false. It is unlikely that
"hired gun" debunkers in either the tobacco or the firearms industries are
prepared to tell us what sort of "proof" might convince them that their
products are, in fact, public menaces. (See my
Sophistry and David Hume.”)
A lack of "established," "conclusive" or "positive" proof does not amount to
no proof at all. In both scientific practice and in practical life, we are
best guided by probabilities. We buckle our seat belts, exercise regularly,
avoid drug abuse, in the reasonable but less-than-certain belief that such
precautions are warranted. And if the purveyors of the instruments and
depictions of violence correctly point out that there is no certain evidence
that their products promote mayhem, strong, albeit less than perfect
evidence should suffice to justify a curtailing of their activities.
Fallacy and the Subversion of Public Debate. As the above
(very partial) list of sophistries indicates, the rhetorical armament of
commercial apologists is vast, subtle, and often ingenious. There are few
public issues that can not be argued with apparently plausible arguments on
both sides. Even with seemingly scientific issues such as global warming,
biodiversity, pesticide use, and now the "causes" of gun violence, the
targeted industries are routinely capable of producing "expert scientific"
rebuttal witnesses. Thus the public comes to believe, as one wit put it,
that in the arena of public debate, "for every PhD there is an equal and
opposite PhD." It doesn't take much logical acumen to understand that if all
sides to an issue can be equally well supported, then no side can be
supported. The coin of "expertise" and "evidence" is thus debased. Public
debate becomes, as G. W. F. Hegel put it, "a night in which all cows are
Eventually, much of the public comes to believe that there are no facts,
only "beliefs;" no evidence or proof, only "persuasion." Rational political
debate is replaced by "public relations." According to some trendy scholars,
expertise is to be regarded as “oppression,” and science itself demoted to
merely another (white-western-male) "social construct."
Enter the "post-modernists."
Appropriate responses to global emergencies such as climate change and mass
extinction are thus postponed indefinitely, until long after it is too late.
If there is to be no place in the "post-modern" world for critical
scholarship and science, and thence for effective public policy derived
therefrom, then in that world there will be many more Tucson tragedies,
catastrophic weather events, ecological disasters, economic chaos, and much
more, as shared community concerns fade into insignificance in the arena of
competing private and commercial interests. Not a happy prospect.
Unless, Unless -- we come to our communal senses and appreciate that
not all arguments are created equal;
there are objectively better (cogent) and worse (fallacious) modes of
argumentation, and that a recognition of these modes of thinking can be
taught to all ages. In particular, science teaching should include an
understanding, not only of the content but also of
the methodology and
logic of science, so that a student, and eventually a public, can
understand why there are good reasons to believe in astronomy, and no
justification for believing in astrology, and why the warnings of government
atmospheric scientists should carry more weight than the reassurances of the
hired guns of the energy conglomerates. "Current events" discussions in high
school and undergraduate college classes should cease to be mere sequences
of "I believe thats," each regarded as
"equally precious" and
"true-for" the student. Instead, student utterances of "belief"
should be followed immediately by the challenge, "why should we believe you?
What is your evidence and your argument?" Class discussions should become
disciplined exercises in critical expression, defense and rebuttal, all with
an aim, not to persuade, but to discover confirmable truths.
Alas, there are precious few teachers trained to lead such discussions, and
fewer still being taught such skills in the Schools of Education. The
results have been alarming, to say the least.
Sara Rimer of The Hechinger Report (Teachers College, Columbia
An unprecedented study that followed
several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that
large numbers didn't learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and
written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core
of a college education.
Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from
opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting
reports of a situation or event, according to New York University
sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study....
Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their
critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two
years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent
showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking
A reversal of this dismal situation will
require a renewed commitment to public intelligence and reasonableness
whereby we may learn and appreciate once again that there are discoverable
causes of and effective remedies for our social problems.
We hear a great deal these days about "teaching morality in the public
schools." Perhaps we should. But even before that, perhaps we should
start with a investment in the teaching of "critical thinking."
What is to be done? Those of us who were alive and alert
during the sixties, who lived through the Kennedy and King assassinations
and the urban riots of that decade, have repeatedly experienced the same
dreary sequence which follows each prominent assassination or mass murder:
public outrage and grief, demand for action, apologetics from the media and
the NRA, "outrage fatigue," and finally a return to status quo ante -
until the next atrocity. There is little indication that the aftermath of
the Tucson incident will be at all different.
However, as some wise person once commented, hopeless causes are by far the
most interesting: such "hopeless causes" as the non-violent overthrow of the
British Raj in India, of Apartheid in South Africa, of legal segregation in
the American south, and of Soviet communism. As the great Russian dissident,
There is a need to create ideals even
when you can’t see any route by which to achieve them, because if there
are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would be completely
in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley.
We begin by acknowledging the brutal
facts. As the Sixties civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael remarked,
"violence is as American as apple pie." He was right. The culture of
violence is woven into the fabric of our society, continually nourished by
the profit motive, and defended by the virtuoso skills of corporate public
relations. And as we noted above, the "usual suspects" trotted out after
each new horror – the NRA, the arms industry, computers (games and
internet), the media (cinema and television), absentee parents – are not
independent "causes" of youthful violence, they are dynamically interacting
and reinforcing factors in that "culture of violence."
And as the statistics cited above clearly indicate, the consequences of that
"culture of violence" are palpable.
The official response to the Tucson shootings has been profoundly
discouraging. Comments such as "this is a terrible tragedy" are utterly
uninstructive: we already know that, and need not be told again. Any
proposals, from the President on down, that follow "let us all resolve to
...." are likely to be useless and unproductive hand-waving. We hunger for
the bread of decisive and practical leadership, and are given stones of
The culture of violence will have to be attacked on many fronts, and at the
roots. Firearms registration and control is not the answer - but it is an
essential ingredient of the answer. Neither are restrictions and regulations
of the internet, computer games or the media, enacted separately, the answer
-- by themselves. But they are ingredients of the answer. On the other hand,
voluntary restraints by the commercial media are unlikely to count for much,
as recent history has amply proven. We've heard it all before: "If we don't
portray violence, someone else will, and if that's what the public wants,
our reward for moral restraint will only lead to our bankruptcy." As William
Vanderbilt said, "The public be damned, I work for my stockholders!" "The
invisible hand" of the free market, it seems, is without conscience. Proof?
Again, look to recent history.
History also indicates solutions. Let the law (i.e. government) enforce upon
all, what the conscientious businessman would enact for his firm "if it
weren't for what my competitors would do to me." Garrett Hardin calls this
"mutual coercion mutually agreed upon." "Government interference?" Of
course! But such "interference" took opium out of our drugs and pollutants
out of our air, lakes and rivers. "Government interference" also requires
that no medicines be prescribed unless proven safe and effective, protects
us from tainted food, and protects our life savings from bank failures. Not
very long ago, only the radical right and a few hard-shelled libertarians
would suggest that we abolish the Food and Drug Administration, the
Environmental Protection Agency, or the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation. Now, to our great sorrow and peril, we find that those radicals
are apparently in control of the Republican Party and the House of
Representatives. So we must argue anew
in defense of regulations
designed to protect the minds and morals our youth and the very lives of our
Talk is cheap. It remains to be seen if we are sufficiently outraged by "the
culture of violence" to be actually willing to pay for long-term remedies.
As I have argued above, "the culture of violence" does not have a single
cause, and thus does not have a single remedy. But if asked to identify, in
descending order of significance, the root causes, I would begin with this:
depersonalization. We live in a society that reduces persons to
"personnel" in corporate structures, to "consumers" and "utility maximizers"
in our economy, and to targets in our media. . To the Columbine killers,
Harris and Klebold, their fellow students were no more "persons" than the
video images in "Doom" or the cinema images in "The Basketball Diaries." It
all comes down to this: a deranged individual is capable of shooting at
human-flesh-as-object. However, except in such desperate circumstances as
warfare or self-defense, or in cases of extreme stress, few individuals can
shoot to kill someone recognized as a fellow personal human being.
The core of morality in the great world religions, and in
"contractarian" ethics that I espouse and defend is empathy and
compassion: the recognition in the other of the humanity and
personhood that one cherishes in oneself. This is the essential
message of the golden rule. Conversely, as the psychologist in the movie
“Nuremberg” concluded, after interviewing the Nazi criminals, “lack of
empathy [is] the one characteristic that connects all the defendants: a
genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man.
Evil, I think,
is the absence of empathy.” The quotation accurately conveys the
conclusions of the historical investigator, Dr. Gustav Gilbert). Thus it is
that in modern society, thoughtless economic "happenstance" ("the invisible
hand") erodes the humanity of others until one finds oneself surrounded by
humanoid "objects." Accordingly, “banksters” and billionaires, with the
purchased support and assistance of their political and media patrons
enablers, loot our governments and deprive millions of our citizens of their
homes, their livelihoods and their health. These plutocrats do all this
heedless of the misery that they are causing in their seemingly limitless
demand for more, still more, personal wealth.
This evil, issuing from the privation of empathy, must be thoughtfully
resisted and reversed - in our personal lives ("let us resolve to...") but
also through rigorous research, through public investment, through
education, and through a collective demonstration of public outrage such as
we are seeing today in Madison.
Copyright 2011 by Ernest Partridge