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Friday, January 30, 2015

The Professor's Reply to "Gun Rights Versus Anecdotes"

Below is the response to my article "Gun Rights Versus Anecdotes" from the retired professor whose mail prompted me to write said article. I'm publishing it unedited, in its entirety at his request.

The International Libertarian

In the January 5, 2015 number of the International Libertarian, Darren Wolfe published what was essentially a response to me. I had mailed him a package of 49 pieces, mostly news articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer or The New York Times.

Having given a talk in a library about the brutality of tackle football about a year ago, I was in the audience when Darren followed me with a talk championing unrestricted, unregulated gun rights. I was the first member of the audience to offer objections to his position. I remember taking prompts from my notes of about 6 criticisms I wanted to offer. He was patient enough to hear half of them before he interrupted me and asked for other questions. I oppose his position and last winter decided to collect material for and against it, especially newspaper clippings. I had vague plans to write a paper, a paper suitable to be read at a conference of social philosophers, using that newspaper material and other scholarly sources. Before I retired from teaching philosophy in 2011, I had taught a philosophy of criminal justice course many times, and have or have easy access to all the scholarly material on gun rights that l might need to write my own piece about it.

My resolve to write that paper faded. On October 21st, 2014, I had open heart surgery, a triple bypass. By November I was recuperating slowly at home, and in the beginning of my recuperation, I had very little energy. It was in this state of physical weakness that I decided to use my news clippings in a way other than to write a philosophical paper. As I looked each over, I decided to use them to try to shake Darren’s confidence in his position. I chose articles in which some private citizen with a gun did something seriously harmful to an innocent victim. The sort of story I mailed Darren was like these: one small child shooting and killing another; someone shooting a neighbor’s dog as the neighbor watched; the 9 year old girl losing control of the Uzi she was firing and killing her instructor; the 2 year old killing his mother in a Walmart after finding the pistol in mom’s pocketbook; people shot to death simply because they lived in dangerous neighborhoods; suicides that only occurred because a gun was at hand, a gun that often was not the victim’s. I tried to choose the frequently occurring cases in which guns in the hands or houses of those who are not law enforcers do the harm, and cases in which the victims would not have avoided death by having their own guns at hand. Law enforcers often do good by using guns to stop occurring crimes of cruelty or oppression but, I well know that law enforcers, too, can become cruel oppressors with guns.

I mailed these clippings to Darren to challenge his claims that good results come from the freedom of all to have and carry guns. In the cases that I had sent him, I believe that there was not any gun-generated good, only pitiable or despicable harm. I sent them to him as one citizen to another and my only comment to him, in a handwritten note accompanying the articles, was that I, having had recent surgery, was sending him these articles to challenge him. I could have used them and other writings to do philosophy myself in creating my own argument from this material, and writing it out and sending it to him. But I did not. I was not contacting him as a philosophy teacher doing philosophy for students, colleagues, or the public, but as a citizen engaging another citizen on a personal level. He made it on a public level after asking my permission to do so.

I am offended that Darren, in “Gun Rights Versus Anecdotes,” judges me as a philosopher, and as a poor philosopher. He seems to believe that a better philosopher would have sent him “articles from [a] scholarly source.” Looking at my packet of materials, he remarks “One would expect better from [a] university professor.” But I am only a retired professor, and one who was without much energy after heart surgery, and one who then decided not to act like a philosopher, but only as a citizen. Had I been acting as a professional philosopher, I would have drawn my own conclusions from the materials, and stated them in writing for Darren. I would have supported my conclusions with references to court decisions, significant works of literature, scholarly books, and professional journals in which ethicists, social scientists, and political philosophers publish. But I was not acting as a philosopher and he should have realized this and treated me more fairly or kindly in responding in public to my personal and non-professional outreach to him.

Had I been acting in a professional and not a personal way, not only would I have written out the conclusions that I wanted him to reach from the materials, but I would have made copies of everything that I was mailing him. I was trusting him to treat me fairly, so I made no copies. Now, and in the future, I will copy and keep everything that I send him. Also, I have material that I could have copied and sent him, but that was work that I, as a convalescent, was trying to avoid.

Darren Wolfe’s piece argues that “more guns don’t mean more murder.” But my news clippings were often about shootings by guns that were killings but were not murders—accidents, suicides, guns fired from the hands of children, immature adults firing them.

In refuting the position that I would have argued for had I been writing like a philosopher or professor, Darren succeeds in not writing like one either. He claims that it is a “fact that guns in private hands prevent 2.5 million crimes each year.” This is certainly not a fact like “N number of crimes were committed last year according to FBI records.” Darren’s “fact” is a conclusion of a syllogism, and conclusions need premises and proof of the premises. But Darren does not tell us what the premises are from which this conclusion is alleged to follow. Nor does he tell the reader what the proofs are for each of these premises. My suspicion is that one of his premises is a highly speculative statement about how one knows that a crime has been prevented.

I would suggest that Darren’s non-aggression principle needs restatement. He says it is this: “It is immoral to initiate the use of force or the threat of force against peaceful people.” Force and aggression are not the same thing. A dentist uses force to pull a bad tooth in an innocent patient. The police officer’s pistol represents the threat of force to the demonstrators as she or he watches the angry demonstrators march by, and the threat of force represented by that pistol is often that which keeps the demonstrators innocent and “peaceful people.” And the implied threat of force against the demonstrators who are innocent people is, paradoxically, used by police protecting the demonstrators rights to petition for redress of their grievances.

Darren seems to use force as almost a dirty word. When he says “Freedom from force, liberty, is the only reasonable way forward” I take him to be defining liberty as freedom from force. But Darren quotes Frederick Bastiat in praise of U.S. law: “There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property.” But laws must be enforced (en-force-d) to protect liberty and property. Courts enforce the enjoyment of rights, including gun rights, when they are wrongfully challenged, by ordering the police to use force. Unenforced law, unless it is backed by strong and usually ancient custom, is ineffective. Freedom needs force. A better definition of freedom or liberty is the ability to act without external impediment.

My news clippings were chosen to cause in Darren, in his words, “emotional reactions to horrible events.” I hoped that they would arouse a compassion in him so that he would see that far fewer guns in citizens’ hands in American society would mean far fewer horrible, newsworthy events. But Darren resists my push towards compassion by saying that “we, gun rights advocates, realize that reason is what must guide us not compassion.” The title of his response to me, “Gun Rights Versus Anecdotes” and his subtitle, “Which side wins depends on whether one can reason or simply react emotionally.” For Darren, “Unthinking, emotional reactions to horrible events will only make things worse.”

He here celebrates reason as good, and compassion and emotion as bad, and claims to be the champion of reason in this matter. However, my gift to him of the 40-some compassion-eliciting news clippings was precisely intended to invite him to reason about them. I was hoping that he would see that if he reasoned by induction, he would agree with me. Induction occurs when one reasons from particular to general upon examining many particulars. If in this particular case the presence of a gun in the hand of a private citizen or her relative led to this compassion-causing, horrible event, and also in a second case, and then also in a third, and a fourth, and a fifth and so on to a fortieth case, then a generalization follows. That generalization is that guns in the possession of private citizens are very dangerous to the innocent because they so often lead to the horrible events of injury and death. Since all decent men and women want to effectively prevent the injury and death of the innocent, one likely way is to pass and enforce laws keeping guns from the possession of private citizens.

Darren did not see that the emotion of compassion raised by the 40-some cases I sent him led through this reasoning to this conclusion. This seems to be why he belittled my abilities as a philosophy teacher in sending him only these articles: “One would expect better from [a] university professor” were his words. This remark seems to me to be an example of the logical fallacy of the abusive type of Argumentum ad Hominem. This fallacy ordinarily consists in attacking the abilities of one’s opponent rather than the opponent’s argument. In Darren’s way of committing this fallacy, he belittled my abilities to argue like a professor even though I made no arguments, but did challenge him to reason by induction. Still he believes that I should have done “better” than challenging him to see what generalization followed by induction from the anecdotes I asked him to examine. Since I left constructing the argument to him, and as a convalescent did not construct it myself, I was not obliged to do better. He was.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Using Gun Rights Haters Own Research Against Them

Easy to do with Robert Muggah, among many things the coauthor of “We Need Better Data for a Serious Gun Control Debate”, an article in which he advocates gun control despite the fact that he claims there isn't enough good data on the subject to even have a debate about it. A tad bias, wouldn't you agree? Could that be why gun rights advocates don't want such people doing research on crime and violence? But I digress, on October 8, 2014 he gave a talk at TEDGlobal 2014: South! in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil titled “How To Protect Fast-Growing Cities From Failing”:

In his talk he says a number of things that make clear that guns aren't the drivers of a high murder rate. Most importantly, he directly contradicts that major gun rights haters' argument when Dr. Muggah says that, “...when it comes to cities, the conversation is dominated by the North, that is, North America, Western Europe, Australia and Japan, where violence is actually at historic lows.”. He then drives home the point with:

What's more, we're seeing a dramatic reduction in homicide. Manuel Eisner and others have shown that for centuries, we've seen this incredible drop in murder, especially in the West. Most Northern cities today are 100 times safer than they were just 100 years ago.

These two facts -- the decline in armed conflict and the decline in murder -- are amongst the most extraordinary, if unheralded, accomplishments of human history, and we should be really excited, right?
That drop in murder rates includes the United States with all its guns. The slide from his presentation below clearly shows the US to be in the same low murder rate category as western Europe. So much for the lie that the US is a very dangerous place!

Dr. Muggah goes on to talk about social and demographic factors that that drive violence, all the while making the gun rights advocates' case for us. Not once does he say that the availability of guns is the cause of the violence. He ends his talk with this:

There is nothing inevitable about lethal violence, and we can make our cities safer. Folks, we have the opportunity of a lifetime to drop homicidal violence in half within our lifetime. So I have just one question: What are we waiting for?
Yes, gun rights haters, what are you waiting for to stop worshiping the false god of gun control and start facing the real causes of the violence problem?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Gun Rights Versus Anecdotes

Which side wins depends on whether one can reason or simply react emotionally.

Letters and an ad from gun rights hating groups

For a while back in the Winter, a retired philosophy professor (who wants to remain anonymous) and I exchanged a few emails and, from him, snail mail, discussing gun rights. After not hearing from him for several months he very unexpectedly mailed me a large envelope containing forty-nine newspaper clippings with many reports of shootings and a few anti-gun rights op-eds (and, strangely, a pro-gun op-ed by John Lott). He also included a fund raising letter from the Brady Campaign, another one from the Children's Defense Fund Action Counsel, a magazine ad from the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, and a hand written note. Especially surprising for their absence were any articles from scholarly source. Are there no scholarly articles in favor of gun control? He sent almost all anecdotes from mass media sources leaning heavily towards the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. One would expect better from university professor.

Some of the anecdotes are easily debunked as challenging gun rights. For example the New York Times' article, “In Youth’s Death, Some See a Montana Law Gone Wrong”. A tragic and unnecessary death for which the shooter has been convicted of murder, but what does it say about guns in Montana? Not much. The article states that “...Montana...has one of the country’s highest rates of gun ownership...”. Yet its murder rate is only 2.2 per 100,000, less than half of the national average. If anything Montana proves gun rights haters wrong, more guns don't mean more murder.

Another easily debunked article is the Wall Street Journal's “Mass Shootings on the Rise, FBI Says”. The idea that mass shootings are on the rise was debunked previous to the publication of the FBI report here. The FBI's report is directly debunked in John Lott's “The FBI’s bogus report on mass shootings”.

The professor also sent an editorial from the New York Times titled “The Court: Ignoring the Reality of Guns”. This editorial attempts to justify banning hand guns but fails. First, it gets wrong the practical matter of thinking that the availability of guns is the problem. Second, it fails to present constitutional grounds justifying a ban on hand guns. In the end it is really advocating ignoring the Constitution. So much for the rule of law. 

I could go on debunking but I feel I've made my point. The gun rights haters' case is all smoke and mirrors. It also ignores the fact that guns in private hands prevent 2.5 million crimes each year.

Part of the hand written note mentioned above reads as follows:

I have selected newspaper articles to send you. I think almost all of them challenge your position.

I take your position to be that the more guns there are in the hands of private citizens , and the less government regulates or restricts them, the better off we all are.
These articles are full of horror stories stories about the harms guns do in the hands of private citizens.
True that “... the less government regulates or restricts them [guns], the better off we all are.” As to what the right number of guns in society is I'll leave that to the market. I'm surprised that the professor sees my view as so shallow since he saw my presentation “There Is No Case for Gun Control”. I've written much on my blog on the subject of gun rights, let me quote from it in rebuttal: with any issue, we have to start with basic principles and moral implications. That means talking about the one moral imperative that guides us in all human relationships, the non-aggression principle [NAP]...It is immoral to initiate the use of force or the threat of force against peaceful people. In other words, a person has to be actually engaging in aggression or credibly threatening to do so before it is morally justifiable to use force in retaliation. What does that have to do with guns? The mere possession of an inanimate object such a gun aggresses against no one. There is no moral justification for taking guns away from people who adhere to the non-aggression principle since this involves initiating the use of force to separate them from their weapons.
From “Progressivism’s Violent World
It is violation of the NAP that leads to society becoming more unstable and unsafe. The more society is ruled by force the worse the results. As Frederick Bastiat, wrote in his book “The Law” in 1850:
Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy society itself? If such proof is needed, look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person's liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation.
This is the source of the problem, violation of the NAP and the social dynamics that unleashes, not the availability of guns. This is reinforced by modern research such as that of Randolph Roth, a professor at Ohio State University and the author of “American Homicide”. In a presentation at the National Institute for Justice titled “Why Is The United States The Most Homicidal Nation In The Affluent World?” Prof. Roth sums up the drivers of the murder rate on slide 4: 

Again showing that it's not the availability of guns that drives the murder rate. Deal with the social dynamics that are the real problem and, when it comes to crime, guns become irrelevant. That begs the question, why do so many advocate gun control as a solution when guns obviously aren't the cause of the problem? Because it's their beloved big government that has caused the problem. To again quote from “Progressivism’s Violent World”:

Progressivism has failed to achieve its lofty ideals. Instead it has created our present situation of crime and murder, war and empire. It is this failure that the advocates of gun control want to cover up. Instead of facing reality they want to blame guns for the problems the implementation of their ideas has created. Before anyone gets too smug, let me emphasize that both political parties have adopted the progressive ideology. Today’s so-called liberals and conservatives advocate different degrees and different aspects of it, but advocate it they do...It’s past time for both sides to realize that the killing will only end, society will only heal by turning it away from being ruled by force and toward voluntary interaction between its members. Liberty is the answer. Implementing it means change at the institutional level, disarming the government and keeping the people not only armed but also organized to defend themselves.
Compassion is what motivates us to feel outrage about senseless murders. Gun rights advocates share that feeling with gun rights haters. The difference is that we, gun rights advocates, realize that reason is what must guide us not compassion. Unthinking, emotional reactions to horrible events will only make things worse. Let's stop trying to add the force of more gun control to the force that's already damaging our society. Freedom from force, liberty, is the only reasonable way forward.
                    Some suggested reading to gain insight into why we need guns in civilian hands. Not pictured but also recommended is "Guns and Violence: The English Experience".