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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.


  1. Stay tuned for my reply. In the mean time readers are invited to leave polite comments.

  2. gun control debate is becoming useless, this all depends on mentality. this world is towards self destruction, even if gun laws are there, who will check illegal gun supply.

  3. Anecdotes of the use of guns to protect individuals and to deter crime exist in the thousands, compared to the 40 the retired professor mentions. This is not a made-up number. The NRA (which I do not support) and several other pro-gun organizations have magazines in which they publish news reports from around the country in which armed citizens foil crime and protect themselves with legally possessed firearms.

    If we cannot stem the flow of illegal drugs into our country, how do liberals believe they will be able to stem the flow of guns into the country as well? Criminals from Mexico have already learned they can buy thousands (yes, another accurate number based on the Fast and Furious debacle where the BATFE directed gun store owners near our southern border to sell weapons - including .50 caliber (BMG) rifles - to cartel members, or to people making purchases for cartel members.