I’m always fascinated by the sheer diversity of arguments against gun control that always roll out after one of our periodic mass shootings. Some of them are strong, and some of them have become so sophisticated that we can only expect researchers and various law enforcement authorities to have an informed perspective on them. Some, on the other hand, are just catastrophically stupid, and it seems clear that they wouldn’t survive public scrutiny for very long if opponents of gun control were willing to reign in some of their more dishonest and extremist allies.
As an example of a good argument against gun control, consider the inalienability doctrine: that gun use and ownership are rights that cannot be abridged because of their moral or religious sanctity. As conservative writer Awr Hawkins puts it, “We don’t have the right to keep and bear arms because the Bill of Rights says so; rather, the Bill of Rights says so because the right to keep and bear arms is intrinsic to our very being: it is a right with which we were endowed by our Creator.”
This isn’t a position that I happen to agree with, and if Hawkins wants to insist that it’s endorsed by the Bible he has a steep hill to climb. But if all he means is that he has a moral code in which gun use is by definition good, and gun control by definition bad — how can you argue with this? It’s a foundational moral claim, and you either agree or disagree.
Gun control can work sometimes
Notably, most gun control opponents don’t actually seem to agree — or at least, they don’t think the inalienability doctrine can stand on its own, particularly in the face of mounting casualties. That’s why, in addition to claims about inalienability, they also claim that gun control laws are ineffective, and that relaxed gun laws contribute to public safety. This is where the stupid arguments typically come in.
Take for example today’s article on this site by Bryan Renbaum, who argues that “the Shooting in Charleston would not have been prevented with extra gun control measures.”
On the merits, this is a pretty extraordinary claim! Suppose for example that we licensed gun possession and rescinded licenses for people with pending felony convictions. This might have made it more difficult for him to find someone willing to sell him a gun or give one to him, and he might have found the effort so onerous that he simply gave up.
Renbaum counters this by supposing that “the determined 21 year-old racist would have found some way to obtain a firearm” — but why should we assume this? People give up on things all the time. It’s entirely possible that Roof’s determination, however formidable, was not actually indomitable. We’ll probably be able to confirm this in the coming months. If the government is able to keep Roof imprisoned in the coming months, this would seem to suggest that his willpower may have limits. In that case, we’ll have to return to the actual debate: do the pros of licensure, which may occasionally be effective, ultimately outweigh the cons?
Concealed carry might not save the day
Or consider the argument that NRA Board member Charles Cotton made about the Rev. Clementa Pickney, pastor of the Charleston church:
…he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members … might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead.
This is both true and hilariously trivial. Obviously, concealed carry might have saved the victims — that is, if we get to first stipulate that some hero 1) owned a gun, 2) wanted to carry it to church that night, 3) was okay with using it in self-defense and 4) was a competent shooter in a gunfight. But we can’t just assume any of this, and certainly not all of it! Concealed carry advocates have to make their case in a world where, sometimes, 1, 2, 3, and 4 don’t all hold.
That’s why Cotton’s argument is both monstrous and monstrously stupid. He misunderstands the debate, and at an extremely remedial level; he thinks that the case for relaxing gun laws is made simply by speculating that it “might” on occasion prove useful, while ignoring any potential adverse consequences. When we notice how flimsy this is, the question presents itself: is Cotton really so profoundly dumb, or his he just looking for an excuse to attack a man who was just horrifically murdered? I’d like to give Charles the benefit of a doubt here, but can’t figure out which conclusion is the generous one.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg — the arguments can even get more embarrassing, particularly when would-be militants start fantasizing about taking on the federal government. Personally, I’m pretty agnostic about the practical efficacy of gun control; the policy questions invariably turn on points of empirical fact that few people have informed opinions on. The waters are muddy, and the asinine, bad-faith and malicious rhetoric that gun control opponents routinely throw into the mix isn’t helping.
Photo courtesy Elvert Barnes / Flickr
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.