This is the second of two posts in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting. You can also read the first post on teaching children about tragedy.
In the wake of tragic events, it’s important to first speak to children’s feelings. Eventually, though it is good for them to become more civically minded and discuss those hotly-debated topics. I vacillated over whether or not to write this as I don’t want this to become a politically themed blog as I believe the education children need not be partisan. I have fired guns and hunted, and I understand the allure. As a teacher and father though, I also understand the risks. In as unbiased a way as I am capable, I teach my students it is important to start with logic, facts, and history. Here is an effort to address those.
Fallacies of Argument
I teach my students to not automatically take web sources at face value and to look for faulty arguments which are where I want to start when examining the discussions that so often erupt after a national tragedy like the one that just happened in Las Vegas. I actually led a student debate team for several years, and we even got second in the District 75 citywide competition. Pro-Con and Debate.org are sites that are great for students to view and debate both sides of an argument. Here I’ll examine some of the fallacious arguments that often appear in this national discussion.
DON’T TALK ABOUT IT – Some of the rhetoric says to wait a moment to discuss the issues. There is some point to that at least in the moment as the story unfolds because we don’t know enough information. In the wake of the Boston bombing and Las Vegas, there were false accusations that put some in danger. Alternately though we can’t say don’t talk about guns and mass murder right after an event because there have been 521 mass shootings in 477 days. At that rate, we’d never say a thing (though that might be what some want). Also, we don’t seem to slow the political discussion when terrorists are the focus.
CRIMINALS DON’T OBEY LAWS – Here’s an argument I loathe. By this logic, we shouldn’t have any laws at all because good people will do what’s right and the bad won’t, so let it happen and figure out the punishments later. This argument that “you can’t legislate morality” is so ridiculous and incredibly defeatist. It’s akin to “sorry your family burned without detectors or sprinklers, but bad landlords are just gonna ignore the laws, so why pass anything” or “sorry your family died in that crash, but we need freedom from onerous regulations like licenses and seatbelts that wouldn’t really help anyway.” You see how silly that sounds.
Laws aren’t just about punishment or moral imperatives. We pass laws like building codes and vehicular safety regulations not because we expect everyone to obey them but to put barriers in place to make it harder not to. We create and empower agencies to protect our land, air, homes, and bodies before the harm comes. It isn’t always perfect which is why we make new laws not just hold our hands up and say ‘oh well’.
WE CAN”T SOLVE ALL OF THIS – If you can’t run the New York Marathon tomorrow you shouldn’t even bother walking. That’s the thought that comes when people say this one effort, law, or initiative won’t solve the mass-murder problem. Or maybe they say it wouldn’t stop this attack. Well, nothing can, because it’s in the past. Let’s look to the future. Just because we can’t renovate our kitchen doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mow our lawn. Small steps can lead to bigger steps which can lead to real change. No, we can’t solve all of this tomorrow or perhaps ever, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to fix some of it.
IT’S ABOUT DEFENSE – Perhaps emotionally it is about defense for those owners of a few guns. The guy with 30 guns with no military background may say it’s about “defending his body and his rights.” If a tyrannical president though calls on a couple of drones, your “righteous stand” won’t last very long even with all of your rifles. So the defense plea is based on emotional appeal more than evidence. That doesn’t make it less valid, but the odds that you will use the gun you own in self-defense is tiny compared to the likelihood that it might be stolen by a criminal. That’s far less than the odds that it will be used by someone in your home to kill them self or a family member either accidentally or purposefully.
YOU WANT TO TAKE ALL THE GUNS – This is another fear tactic that goes hand in hand with all the others meant to boost gun sales. I have rarely heard anyone advocating removing all guns from the U.S. and never have I heard it from someone in authority. Even if removing all guns were possible (probably not), no one of consequence is saying it. Even Democratic politicians usually go out of their way to say, “I love guns, but…” So this idea that someone is coming for guns in the midst of little to no action on gun reform is ludicrous. In fact, we can’t accomplish basics like research and registration which you can see in the statistics section. You think a government that struggles setting up websites can get it together enough to go get all the guns. Really?
WE DON’T NEED NEW LAWS – New technologies are developing regularly even in the firearms industry, so obviously, new regulations need to be in place. Should people be able to 3D print guns that evade metal detectors? Should Identilocks be required on all new guns? Is everything as good as it can be? If not, new laws can help. That doesn’t mean ‘bye, bye guns’. It may just mean some extra paperwork. Oh no. As of now, there are basic regulations that most people can agree on and others that might not make sense (free ice cream with every gun), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine to see what may improve the situation. I give examples in the Second Amendment section.
WE DON’T NEED ANY REGULATIONS – The Second Amendment guarantees me whatever weapon I want…except that it doesn’t (more on that later). Should a mentally fragile former violent felon be able to own a bazooka? Obviously not. So that’s a regulation. That is a line. Check out the continuum of regulation below. You see it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Where do you think we should fall? I simply think the current line which, in some states, would not allow that hypothetical former felon to vote but would allow them a gun is not in the right place.
BANNING GUNS WILL FIX ALL OF THIS – Even if we outlawed all new guns tomorrow, what would we do with the guns here today. Guns, like tobacco and alcohol, are an inherent part of America’s origins. Interestingly lasers and marijuana aren’t so we have no problem regulating or outlawing those in places. We did attempt to ban alcohol, but that didn’t go so well. We have regulated alcohol and its sale and, even more so, tobacco. Banning guns would probably go less well than the prohibition thing since led poisoning from angry resistors seems a greater danger than alcohol poisoning from bad vodka, so that seems unrealistic. Some greater regulation though seems reasonable according to most Americans, including gun owners.
Important Gun Facts
Here are some facts about firearms in America. Are these statistics useful? Do they tell us what actions to take? Is it correlation or causation? I try not to give my students answers and allow them to struggle to a conclusion themselves, so I’m going to do the same for you. It is difficult to have some details because of the first and second facts. At the very least, whatever you believe, it is obvious we are unique.
- The CDC is banned from researching gun violence.
- The ATF is forced to have “non-searchable” paper-based gun records rather than a better-computerized system.
- The firearm industry enjoys special protections from prosecution that other industries don’t. It isn’t absolute and there have been some lawsuits.
- There have been over 1,500 mass shootings since Sandy Hook.
- 5 were shot and 3 killed in Lawrence, KS the same day of the Las Vegas shooting.
- U.S. annual gun deaths usually top 30,000. This includes suicides and accidental deaths.
- Our worst year for terrorism was 2001 which led to under 3,000 deaths. Most years the terrorism death toll is under 10.
- We have 3 times as many firearm deaths per capita as the next closest country.
- Countries and states with more guns have more per capita gun deaths. They also have more suicides.
- States with tighter gun control have fewer per capita gun deaths.
- States with more guns have more police killed on duty.
- Over 85% of Americans support universal background checks.-Pew research Center
- 60% of U.S. murders are by guns compared to 31% in Canada and 10% in the UK.
- At least 12 things are deadlier than guns including heart disease, cancer, pneumonia, and some years even the flu.
- Guns are among the top 4 causes of death for 1-24 olds with accidents being number 1.
- Generally, gun homicides have declined over the last decade.
- Large cities and states have more gun deaths, but often fewer deaths per capita.
- Most gun deaths are suicides.
- People support gun ownership far more than in the past.
The History of the 2nd Amendment
I’m not an attorney or a legal scholar, but I do study and teach history and civics. This is not a comprehensive method to explain the history of guns in this country. It’s just some insights I’ve gained that can begin a more thorough discussion. If you’re looking for a more thorough background about the constitution and the men behind it I recommend Richard Newman’s Plain Honest Men or Stephen Halbrook’s The Founders’ Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms.
History of Mass Murder
So let’s first look at the history of mass murder. The news has called Las Vegas the deadliest attack in U.S. history which ignores past tragedies like Wounded Knee, the East St. Louis Massacre, or the Tulsa race riots. They may say modern history as a caveat, but it still ignores vast sections of our nation’s history. I think it’s always important for teachers and students to look back to the origins of something for a fuller understanding.
The Second Amendment
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.
As for the Second Amendment, what does it really say? How should it be interpreted? The version above is one of a few different versions. Mostly the differences are capitalization and punctuation, but the ratified version and the one passed by Congress are slightly different. So who decides? Well, the short answer is the Supreme Court, but that body is far from infallible as the Dredd Scott and Korematsu decisions illustrate.
So what did the original authors intend? Does it mean freedom for all guns? Apparently, we’ve agreed the freedom doesn’t apply to fully-automatic weapons and explosive ordinance. So where should that line that I mentioned before be?
Most historians agree that the actual purpose was to prevent us having a standing U.S. army (which, according to government spending, we already have). Some would say the National Guard is an example of the militia mentioned and the target of this statute rather than an individual citizen, but it says the right of the people surrounded by those baffling commas. Yes, the founders wanted to prevent the federal government from getting a standing army that could lead to tyranny. I wonder what they would think of our military-industrial complex today. It’s clear what Eisenhower thought much later. As for the state’s rights and militia arguments, they seem to be moot after 1865.
The reinterpretation of guns as a right for all is fairly new one which isn’t inherently positive or negative. It’s just an indicator of a shift in public thought. Maybe it will shift again. But in modern history, even the revered and controversial conservative Justice Scalia cited sources in his 2008 pro-individual-gun-rights majority (5-4) opinion on DC vs. Heller that the amendment covers only arms that have some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia. That means it doesn’t include the weapons of a formal army like a cannon or an M-16. Does that also mean semi-autos should be subjected to greater scrutiny? It is clear that new technological advances bring new questions. Should special mods and extended clips only be at ranges or used by extensively trained personnel?
There have been major changes to the Constitution before through the addition and repeal of amendments. Should this change? Maybe the answer is no, but, if asking the question angers you, it might be time for self-reflection. We should never fear a challenge to even our most strongly held beliefs. It’s how we refine them.
So now let’s look at the NRA, the most prominent (though definitely not the only) gun rights organization. Did you know the NRA was originally founded in 1871 as one of America’s foremost gun-control organizations? They wanted people to be trained to improve safety and, in 1934, they assisted Roosevelt, in creating the National Firearms Act and, in 1938, helped build the Gun Control Act. These are essentially America’s first real gun-control laws. The NRA helped make gun protection laws. So what happened? The NRA shifted in the 70s after an ATF raid that injured an NRA member accused of stockpiling weapons. After that, the NRA shifted from an organization of gun owners to more of a lobby for gun manufacturers. Thus the goals and perspective shifted. Was it a worthwhile shift?
So with all of this information what should we do? Would it matter even if I knew the right answer or would I just be one small inconsequential (read: non-congressional) voice among some others that already deny the reality of the event. So I wrote this as a small something. A something that is obviously of far less import than those of politicians, news media, and the voices of victims’ families. It may do little if any, good, and I may be rebuked by family and strangers for it. The point of this whole endeavor though is to be brave in the attempt. Hopefully this was in some small way.