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Guns don’t kill arguments; people kill arguments.

by | 1 July, 2018 | Article

Written by Brodie Fennell, Edited by James Penfold

In my first entry into the PPE magazine I thought I would engage in one of my favourite pastimes. Specifically, using informal logic to examine and make sense of the current world of politics. In doing so, I thought I would start on a topic that, for Australians, seems staggeringly difficult to fathom; gun control.

As Australians we have our fair share of gun-related deaths, primarily as a means of suicide (accounting for about 80% of total firearm fatalities), but also a few relating to accidents, assault & law enforcement. However, our death toll, while still indescribably tragic, is dwarfed by that of the United States, which is currently grappling with its highest frequency of mass shootings in modern times. Indeed, the per capita rate of gun-related death in the US is twelve times higher than in Australia (as of 2016), and in that same year approximately 38,000 people died, which is more than total US casualties in the Korean War.
To some, the solution to this crisis is simple; more gun regulation so that individuals cannot access such firepower. To others, the solution is equally simple; less regulation so that individuals can access more firepower as a means of self-protection. As a consequence, the debate splits the populace down fairly predictable lines, with those on the Left calling for more regulation, and those on the Right calling for less.

Before continuing, I’d like to defend my discussion of this issue. This may seem needless, but there exists in some, a notion that the political aspects of gun deaths shouldn’t be considered in their aftermath, and that doing so is opportunistic and disrespectful. Firstly, and saying nothing of the motive obvious in some of the public figures making this argument, such gun-related tragedies have become so common that if debate about gun regulation in their wake were suppressed, the issue would never be resolved. Secondly, I would like to assure my readers that I’m not going to directly support or oppose gun regulation, here or in the US. Rather, this article will deal mostly with the philosophical structure of this debate. In this instance, I leave the policy recommendations to you.

Now that the air is clear, let’s discuss the focus of this article, a phrase I have heard frequently in the past months; ‘Guns don’t kill people; people kill people’. The first thing to note about this phrase, is that it is not a complete argument; it has one premise (or perhaps two, with a charitable mind), but no conclusion to follow. As the argument is supported by Republican and National Rifle Association (NRA) circles, it seems that the intent is to advocate for less gun regulation, which you could use to infer that that the conclusion should entail something about less gun regulation.

However, this isn’t an argument; it’s simply a counter-argument, denying (supposedly) a core premise for the supporters of gun regulation. The pro-regulation argument would be something similar to ‘Guns kill people, and the state should prevent people being killed, therefore the state should get rid of guns’. In this instance, the ‘Guns don’t kill people; people kill people’ statement is meant to neutralise the first premise, and derail the whole regulatory argument.

It’s worth noting here, that because this isn’t a complete argument, just a counter to a suppressed premise, it can be hard to immediately judge its validity. There is something ambiguous about this statement, and it has a lot to do with causation, and specifically the differences between proximate, intermediate and ultimate causation.

Consider you are sitting in your armchair, with your philosophy hat on, watching the Ashes on television. You just witnessed Steve Smith carve a splendid cover-drive for a four and you sit there pondering the question what ‘caused’ Steve Smith to carve that splendid cover-drive, right in front of your eyes? You may come to the conclusion, that Steve Smith did; however, that is not the entire story. The entire story is long and tedious; it includes Steve Smith getting out of bed in the morning, Steve Smith warming up and training before the match, Steve Smith going through his batting routine so on and so forth. For Steve Smith there is a long ‘causal chain’ that begins with his intention to hit that ball that resulted in his splendid cover-drive – to the discharge of light that is emitted from your television. Hence, the causal chain starts with Steve Smith; he is the ultimate cause. Additional links in the ‘causal chain’, Steve Smith’s batting routine, Shane Warns response in the commentary box, your verbal reaction, are all examples of ‘intermediate causation’. Finally, the light being emitted from your television is the ‘proximate cause’ – the thing most responsible for you seeing it.

The same principle applied to the case of Steve Smiths cover-drive, can be applied to gun related murders, where people are fundamentally the ultimate cause of the murder, and the gun, merely the proximate cause. So, on some level, our aforementioned statement is true, but more complex than we first considered. It also makes it’s relation to the pro-regulation argument more complicated; now, there needs to be further premises about the usefulness of pursuing proximate causes versus ultimate ones.

Without descending down that particular rabbit-hole too far, it’s worth noting that humans are the ultimate cause of all criminal acts, but few would argue that there are no proximate causes that should be regulated (thinking here of gelignite, narcotics, human trafficking, etc.) One could make the extreme argument that ‘weapons of mass destruction don’t kill people; people kill people’. Although, it is abundantly obvious that weapons of mass destruction are indeed proximate causes, I can’t imagine that anyone would think it sensible for them to be deregulated, and placed in the hands of ordinary citizens.

A counter example that comes to mind is road vehicles (given recent terrorist attacks, especially in Europe). Consider the argument ‘road vehicles don’t kill people; people kill people.’ It would be ludicrous to suggest making road vehicles illegal, despite the fact that they are extremely dangerous, in the wrong (or just in inattentive) hands. It is worth noting the vehicles are regulated extensively, for roadworthiness, driver licensing, etc, but no one would suggest their proximate causation to death would make their ownership morally hazardous in the same way weapons of mass destruction do (despite vehicles killing 1.25 million people worldwide in 2010, according to the World Health Organisation).

From these two examples, it can be clearly seen that ‘X doesn’t kill people, people kill people’ is insufficient reasoning to completely outlaw, or completely deregulate X. Instead there are more nuanced factors at play, including the utility of X (high for cars, low for WMDs), the ease of its regulation, and no doubt many more. Economics has a role to play here, not only in calculating the utility of X, but also in considering the choices people make with X. For instance, would the people of the United States commit fewer murders with fewer firearms, or would they just use those remaining more efficiently? Would they become more law-abiding, or commit murders via a different method? As grisly as this is, these are questions that need answering before any objective conclusion can be reached.

Ultimately, the US has difficult choices ahead, as they weigh the pros and cons of firearm regulation, and try to evaluate the philosophical, political and economic aspects of this issue. There is no regulatory silver bullet, but sensible solutions are achievable. However, platitudes like ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ do nothing but obscure an argument that desperately needs resolving.


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