Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Issues With the Issue

In a single week in 2015, nine people were killed and 26 more wounded in mass shootings in America. It wasn't a bad week. It was an average week.

According to Mass Shooting Tracker, such shootings occurred more days than not in 2015. Which means a mass shooting in the U.S. is no longer a newsworthy event.

I would think any reasonable citizen would sincerely desire to see the number of mass shootings in America decrease, and drastically. But many disagree as to how to go about making that happen.

I am a gun owner. Technically. I own a single rifle my father built with his own hands. It is a muzzle-loading flintlock, currently in storage in another state. I plan to display it in my home soon. It is both sentimental and a work of art.

If we are going to engage in public discussion about gun violence in America, it is important to have some ground rules.

1. We should agree that our discussion will not change anything. As already stated, some sort of change is required. But we should not see reforming healthcare, decreasing poverty or enacting legislation as the goal of our discussion. While any or all of these may ultimately be required, we should first get a general consensus on what sort of action should be taken.

2. We should agree that we will not change anyone's mind, either. If anyone's opinion does change, it should be because that person has examined the evidence and concluded he or she must change. Our duty should not be to convert, but to inform.

3. Everyone should be heard. Each participant should be allowed to present his or her views and provide support for those views. The discussion is about how to reduce gun violence in America, not about who can yell the loudest.

4. On the other hand, no one should be required to speak. (Or post. You get the idea.) Participants are welcome to simply absorb the information presented. A person's silence should not be confused with either support of or exception to your views.

5. We should not think of "winning" and "losing." It is not a football game. When gun violence in America decreases, we all win.

Now that we have that out of the way, I would like to present some problems I have seen with the "discussion" which has taken place so far. I am talking about logical fallacies.

According to yourlogicalfallacyis.com, a fallacy is a flaw in reasoning. Such flaws weaken an argument, although the use of such fallacies sometimes make an argument seem stronger than it really is. Avoiding these fallacies will make your argument stronger, while being aware of them will help you discover when someone else has a view that may not stand up under scrutiny.

The Black-or-White Fallacy
Whenever I mention I favor gun control, someone is bound to offer up some variation of, "You can't take away our guns!" One problem with that response is that it does not accurately represent what I said, but the Black-or-White part of it is that it assumes there are only two options. Either guns in America have minimal restrictions, or they are banned outright.

While there are those who say guns should have no restrictions at all and others who say we must ban all firearms, there are a whole range of possibilities in between. There are no "sides," but there are many different viewpoints.

No True Scotsman (or, in our case, American)
I have actually been told that the Second Amendment and the way it is currently interpreted is embraced by all TRUE Americans. The fallacy here is that it is entirely possible to be an American and believe the law should be changed, or even abolished altogether. But there is a darker side....

Such statements imply one party loves our nation and the other does not. If we are going to have this discussion, we need to recognize that the various views all stem from a love of country, and of humanity itself. It is simply a matter of us not agreeing on what is best for the nation. One of the goals of discussion should be to sort that out, not to determine who is the bigger patriot.

The Strawman Fallacy
This is a case of misrepresenting someone else's argument in order to make it easier to attack. It is, in fact, the other problem with the response listed under The Black-or-White Fallacy above. Here is a popular meme that was recently circulating on the internet:

This looks nothing like what I am proposing. In fact, gun-free zones will only work if we ban firearms nationwide. I am often reminded that Chicago (or, more recently, California) has some of the strictest gun laws in the country and also one of the highest gun fatality rates. But I've driven into Chicago from both the north and the south. It is not a walled city, and there are no checkpoints on the interstate. Where I live in Wisconsin, guns to not even have to be registered. So it would be a piece of cake to bring a gun into Chicago.

Some have pointed out that if we ban guns throughout the U.S., criminals will just get them from other countries. That is true, but they would then have to sneak them through customs. Impossible? No. But it is much more difficult than simply tossing a gun in the back seat and driving into town.

Another problem I have with such memes -- and this is a personal gripe, not necessarily a logical fallacy -- is that it is a cartoon. It implies this issue is something to laugh about.

Yes, in my opinion images like this one don't help the debate, either.

The Slippery Slope Fallacy
If we have stricter gun control, the bad guys will be armed to the teeth and there will be no one to stop them! We'll all be killed, our nation will be taken over, and any survivors will be slaves to the [insert group of people here].

In a valid argument, A implies B, B implies C, and so forth. It is unreasonable to jump from A to Z without considering what comes in between. While you're at it, don't make the mistake of assuming that just because A implies B, B must automatically imply A!

The False Cause Fallacy
"These people died because they didn't have guns of their own!" This does not establish cause-and-effect. If they had had guns of their own, they might have survived. Remove the gunman and it is a certainty they would have.

This is also a form of victim-blaming. It is like saying a seductively-clad woman was asking to be raped. It is much easier to blame the victim than it is to seek out genuine solutions, but such blaming does weaken your argument.

The Ad Hominem Fallacy
Not to be confused with homonym. Ad hominem is Latin for "to the man." It works with women, too. It is simply a case of attacking a person instead of the argument. Referring to another as a "gun nut," a "liberal," or any kind of name-calling are all examples of the Ad Hominem Fallacy. This also includes referring to somebody's mother or a person's appearance, among other things. If you want to convince someone your views are valid, stick to the debate at hand.

The Appeal to Authority
This uses the authority of a person or institution instead of an actual argument. Making claims like, "Many scientific studies show...." without being able to cite them specifically is an example. Another is using "the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment" as your argument, in effect deifying them. Much better to demonstrate why they were right (or wrong) than to point out the fact of their authorship and think that proves your point.

Anecdotal Evidence
This is a case of using an isolated incident instead of a valid argument. It is often used in an attempt to dismiss statistics. I am sometimes sent a link to an article relating the story of an armed civilian who thwarted a violent criminal. Occasionally, someone will send an article entitled something like, "10 Times Armed Civilians Have Thwarted Violent Criminals." These people probably think they have done something clever. But as someone once pointed out to me, "The plural of anecdote is not data." Months or years of data cannot be dismissed with a mere ten examples to the contrary.

Tu Quoque
More Latin, this time meaning, "You, too." While it is fine to point out when someone has resorted to a fallacy, be careful not to fall into this one. Don't use the fact that an opponent has committed a fallacy in place of a valid argument. It is a close relative to...

The Fallacy Fallacy
Don't assume that because someone offers a poor argument that it must necessarily be wrong. Consider the following:

The moon is real. Everyone knows this because everyone can see it in the sky.

This is a poor argument for the reality of the moon. No sources were cited. in fact, the claim, "everyone can see it in the sky" can be proven false. Blind people cannot see the moon. But it would be The Fallacy Fallacy to conclude the moon is a myth based on this argument.

The Personal Incredulity Fallacy
Just because you cannot believe something doesn't mean it is isn't true. In the fifteenth century, it was difficult to believe objects all fall at the same rate, regardless of their weight. It made sense that heavier objects fall faster than light ones. Then along came Galileo, who demonstrated all objects fall at a constant -- and accelerating! -- rate, regardless of weight or mass. Then in 1971, astronaut David Scott again demonstrated that all objects fall at the same rate by dropping a hammer and a feather on the moon (where air resistance was not a factor).

Today, many find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that more guns in the hands of more citizens might actually increase gun violence. But just because such a conclusion is difficult to believe, that is not evidence that the claim is not true.

And, Finally...
This one isn't a fallacy in the formal sense, but it doesn't help the discussion when someone offers up a overly-simple platitude. "If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns." By definition, that is true. If we outlaw widgets, only outlaws will have widgets. If we outlaw spelunking, only outlaws will spelunk. If you are going to participate in the discussion, please have enough respect for your audience to offer something of substance.

That was a lot to cover just to set up some ground rules for reasonable open debate. I'll go into more depth about my particular views on the gun issue in a future post.

In the meantime, some of you may want to participate in the discussion, either in the comments or elsewhere. I would ask that you keep it civil, but I wouldn't want our discussion of Second Amendment rights to impose on your First Amendment rights. So, I'll simply say consider what I've posted above. Remember that things like name-calling and antagonistic memes weaken your argument. If you choose to use such tactics, do so carefully.



  1. Awesome reminder to those that treasure communication

    1. Thank you. Please feel free to share this post.

  2. This was ALL great. I agree with every bit of it It was very long. You need a nap ;-)

    1. Thank you for that. Please feel free to share this post.
      It wasn't so bad. I am a writer, after all. It's what I do.

  3. Nice post. I hope people will engage in discussions following your guidelines.