One of the most divisive issues in modern American politics is that of the right to bear arms. It should be made plain at the outset that the contentiousness of the issue surrounds firearms specifically, since there are even disagreements about words and language when this issue is debated. Indeed, it is widely recognized that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution is the least concise of the ten amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights. Generally, conservative and rural viewpoints support very few restrictions on individual gun ownership, while liberal and urban sentiments lean towards more aggressive regulation of guns. This is an oversimplification, of course, and does not hold true in every case. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is considered to espouse extremely liberal views, is portrayed as weak on the issue of gun control because of his past unwillingness to support some gun control legislation. Even though his home state of Vermont is very liberal, it is also predominantly rural, and the latter characteristic apparently holds sway over voters. The subject of gun rights inflames strong passions, and it is unlikely that there will be a satisfactory resolution between advocates and opponents anytime soon. Still, it is useful to consider the arguments made by all sides of the debate, and consider whether these arguments have merit when interpreted through the lens of critical thinking.
The most prevalent reference when debating the issue of the right to bear arms is the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads:
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.
This particular version, punctuated with only one comma and without capitalization, is the version as adopted by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (Richard Peters 97). Whatever the viewpoint being promoted, simply relying on the wording in the Constitution is an appeal to tradition, and arguing about the intent of the Framers is an appeal to authority (Vaughn 125, 175). The same Constitution that describes the right to bear arms also defined African-American slaves as three-fifths of a human being, a concept that has since been rejected. This injustice was also supported by many of the Framers. Militias were also called “slave patrols” in the South, and African-American slaves as a class were prohibited from owning firearms (Hartmann). It is possible that the Second Amendment can be interpreted as being an artifact of a bygone era, worthy of reconsideration. Even so, this argument itself presents a potential composition fallacy (Vaughn 170). Just because some parts of the Constitution are no longer considered appropriate, it does not necessarily follow that other parts are no longer appropriate. The Second Amendment affirms the rights of people, whereas slavery deprived people of rights, and so it can be argued that one segment of law has more merit than the other. To equate the two provisions could be seen as asserting a faulty analogy (Vaughn 193). Taken to the extreme, the entire Constitution could be considered to be invalid, but it cannot be ignored that there is value in the Constitution as the bedrock of law and defining document of our society. It is worthwhile to point out that the Constitution was designed to be altered over time to adapt to changing attitudes, and the Bill of Rights itself is a series of amendments, and so criticizing one part of the Constitution is valid. The rights of people are themselves understood to be a pre-existing condition, and the Constitution is understood to limit the power of government over the people as a way to prevent tyranny. So, in fact, the nature of the debate is more correctly described as being about what powers are granted to the government to limit the natural, pre-existing rights of people to bear arms for their defense.
Gun control opponents tend to concentrate on the strong language in the second part of the Second Amendment that prohibits the government from infringing on the rights of the people to keep and bear arms, while gun control advocates stress the qualifying language proclaiming the necessity of a free state to have a well-regulated militia. It would seem that gun control advocates have a stronger argument than opponents in this regard, since advocates are not necessarily seeking general disarmament of citizens, but instead want to regulate those who choose to possess guns. If the authority of the Constitution is accepted at the outset, then the limitations described in the first part of the amendment cannot be ignored, and to do so is to cherry-pick evidence and give in to a confirmation bias (Vaughn 144). Discussions about the Second Amendment often cite historical context to provide background information, as well as some consideration of the Framers’ intent (Vaughn 122). At the time when the Constitution was written, it was mandatory for citizens to be organized in a state-controlled militia with certain exemptions (Dougherty). Concurrently, the sentiment of the time was that people should be able to possess arms for their own personal self-defense. Proposed language ratified by the State of Pennsylvania and supported by a minority of others stated the following: “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and their own State or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed disarming the people or any of them unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals” (Vandercoy 20). This example demonstrates that particular exemptions to the personal right to bear arms were considered by contemporaries. Few people today consider the prohibition of guns from convicted felons to be particularly controversial, and so it seems that some restrictions to gun ownership by a class of individuals are widely accepted by both sides. It is worth noting that this class of individuals is disproportionately African-American, since the disenfranchisement of classes of people was considered as something to be avoided by the Framers. The two distinct clauses of the Second Amendment support the idea that society requires a mix of individual responsibility and collective responsibility.
Aside from questions of law, many arguments about gun control center on questions of personal responsibility. A common sentiment from gun control opponents is that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” This argument is best described as a red herring (Vaughn 181). It is irrelevant to a discussion about whether there should be certain gun regulations to point out that a weapon requires a human operator. The insinuation in this argument is that a person desiring to use violence will choose from all available means to commit violent acts, and so it is meaningless to limit access to any particular weapon. This insinuated argument presents a faulty analogy, since a gun and a hammer, by means of example, have significantly different violent potential. Just as we treat people with proven violent potential differently from others, it is reasonable to treat more dangerous tools differently from others. Another version of this argument is, “If guns kill people, then spoons make you fat.” Other similar assertions include “pencils misspell words” and “cars drive drunk.” These arguments use ridicule to disparage the idea of gun control (Vaughn 196). In the case of the last analogy, the humor and the logic both fall flat. Unlike with firearms, every person is required to obtain a license in order to operate a motor vehicle, he or she is required to maintain an insurance policy in case of damage or injury, and vehicles themselves are subject to numerous safety regulations. Vehicles deemed to be more dangerous such as tractor trailers or motorcycles require an extra barrage of testing and regulation to operate and require the use of special safety equipment. People who put others at risk through negligent actions while irresponsibly operating a vehicle are subject to strict punishments and are no longer allowed to operate vehicles. Whether the tool is a gun or a car, causing the death of a person with either is grounds for charges of homicide. It seems that this particular analogy, when drawn out, more strongly favors the position of gun control advocates.
Another popular argument of gun control opponents is that since prohibition did not work for alcohol, it will not work for guns. Again, this is a faulty analogy (Vaughn 193). Alcohol and firearms are two different things, and although both can be dangerous, they each serve different social needs. Also, there still are prohibitions against minors possessing and consuming alcohol, just as there are prohibitions against drinking and driving. It is not legal to consume alcohol in many public places, and to be simply under the influence of alcohol in a public place can lead to an arrest. When people talk about Prohibition and the 18th Amendment, they are talking about a period where alcohol was almost completely banned, but still allowed for certain religious and medical uses. This argument may have some validity in opposing an outright ban of firearms, but most gun control advocates fall far short of that suggestion. This leads to another argument, where it is asserted that once the prohibition of one type of firearm is allowed, the ultimate result would be the prohibition of all firearms. This is an example of the “slippery slope” argument (Vaughn 190). Banning one type of firearm does not necessarily lead to the banning of all firearms. It is possible that there is an appropriate level of public armament that is ideal, between full armament of all citizens and complete disarmament. It is also possible to view this argument as a decision-point fallacy (Vaughn 189). Perhaps there is a dynamic range of gun control regulation, and perhaps this range could vary from state to state or person to person.
The main argument of gun control advocates is that if there are fewer guns, there will be fewer gun deaths. This argument suggests a cause and effect, basically that easier access to guns leads directly to using them more frequently (Vaughn 303). This is a strong inductive argument, in that it has few components. If someone does not have a gun, it cannot be used. One frequent rebuttal to this argument is that criminals will not obey laws requiring them to not have guns. This is a red herring, since it is irrelevant to the premise of there being fewer guns overall. If there are fewer guns available, it follows that there are fewer available for criminals as well. The strongest rebuttal to this gun control argument is that since people have a right to possess guns for their own protection, to demand that people give up this right is untenable. The proliferation of guns is directly proportional to the perceived value people hold in exercising their right to keep and bear arms. Most gun control advocates are not seeking to eliminate all forms of private gun ownership, but seek to restrict the types of weapons available and the persons allowed to possess them. One argument that gun control opponents offer to rebut this is that since individual gun ownership is meant to protect people from the potential tyranny of the federal government, all of the weapons available to the federal government should be available to individuals. It is difficult to accept this argument as reasonable, since the arsenal of weapons under control of the federal government is several orders of magnitude larger than any conceivable cache of weapons that could be kept by any individual.
Ultimately, public policy in the form of gun control legislation can only do so much to alter the attitudes and culture of people. In fact, policy itself follows public attitudes more than it leads them. If people demand access to weapons, even if a strong association can be shown between the proliferation of guns and higher homicide rates, they will accept that as a reasonable cost of liberty. That link, however, is by no means clear. There are other factors in American society that could be contributing to the willingness of people to shoot one another more than in other societies. Perhaps one such contributor is the alarming fact that the individual right to self-defense spelled out in the Second Amendment has been affirmed while the communal responsibility to be organized and trained in service of the state has waned. When it comes to solving the problems of gun violence in America, there is no silver bullet.
Dougherty, Chuck. The History of the Militia in the United States. 2002. Web. 7 November 2015. <http://academic.udayton.edu/health/syllabi/Bioterrorism/8Military/milita01.htm>.
Hartmann, Thom. The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery. 15 January 2013. Web. 7 November 2015. <http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/13890-the-second-amendment-was-ratified-to-preserve-slavery>.
Richard Peters, Esq., ed. Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America. Boston: Charles C. Little & James Brown, 1845. Print.
Vandercoy, David E. “The History of the Second Amendment.” Valaparaiso University Law review (1994). Web. 7 November 2015. <http://www.constitution.org/2ll/2ndschol/89vand.pdf>.
Vaughn, Lewis. The Power of Critical Thinking. Vol. Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.