Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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America as a Free Fire Zone

A Critical Examination of Gun Culture Rationalizations

Ernest Partridge

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.

Second Amendment
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 world. 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 the debate.

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 gun ownership.

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 essay.

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 refutation.

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 so on.

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 infringed.'" Period!

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 exception?

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
A Defense 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 rights.

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 nauseam.

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 “Cigarettes, 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 black."

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; that 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 University) writes:

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 skills.

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, Andrei Sakharov, reflected:

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 empty rhetoric.

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 citizens.

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 the secular "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

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .