Gun Control and the Lost Art of Argument
If you’ve seen the news lately you no doubt know about last week’s ruling on the Washington DC gun ban (D.C. vs. Heller.) I don’t think there was anything too surprising about the main points of the decision. Even some gun control advocacy groups correctly predicted the outcome was going to be against the ban.
I have read the majority and minority opinion. In general I found the majority opinion to be quite well argued and well structured. The main conclusions of the majority reading are straightforward.
1. The second amendment expresses an individual right which is associated with but not restricted to the ability to serve in a militia, therefore an individual’s possession and use of arms for lawful purposes is protected by the constitution.
2. This right is not unlimited and can be restricted, such as the banning felons or the mentally ill from owning firearms, the prohibition of carrying of firearms in certain manners in certain places as prescribed by law, and various regulations on the sale and transfer of weapons.
3. The prohibition of an entire class of arms in common use for lawful purposes and laws rendering such arms unavailable for lawful use conflict with the second amendment and are therefore unconstitutional.
There are many questions about gun control that the ruling leaves unanswered; however this is the first case which truly focuses on the meanings and implications of the second amendment. I’m sure more cases will follow as other laws are challenged.
Interestingly enough, the majority decision has probably written the playbook for future gun control efforts. Anti-gun politicians and gun control advocacy groups will no doubt be focusing on the potential weak points that were discussed by Justice Scalia. The main strategies will probably involve declaring weapons as unusually dangerous, widening the definition of ‘sensitive areas,’ increasing difficulty or expense in licensing or selling firearms, restricting the legal uses of firearms, and making the legal transportation of firearms difficult.
This was only the first of many legal battles that will be fought on this subject. Other cities, like Chicago, will be forced to defend their gun control laws. I’m quite confident when I say that Chicago will politicians will fight tooth and nail against legal challenges, which brings me to the second focal point of this post.
Mayor Daley responded to the Supreme Court decision very soon after it was released, and while I find his response interesting, it’s not because of the subject matter. It’s because of the way in which he is trying to argue against the ruling.
The Chicago Tribune’s CLTV station presented a 4 minute unedited speech by Chicago’s Mayor Daley on their website. It was introduced as Daley’s response to the D.C. vs. Heller ruling. I’ll try to forget for a moment that this is about gun control because I think what’s really important here is the structure of what’s being said. It’s not a sound argument against the Supreme Court’s ruling; in fact I would consider this more of a random tirade about firearms, firearm owners, and the federal government. Still, this contains many argument techniques that seem to pass for legitimate debate all too often.
Here is a dubbed version of the speech.
Let’s take a careful look at this speech.
For a breakdown of the specific statements (and my responses)
1. Mayor Daley begins by implying that the justices (of the Supreme Court) do not live in the real world. He is attempting to cast doubt upon the Supreme Court’s ability to make a decision that is realistic and appropriate without providing any specific reason. One could reverse this argument and claim that Mayor Daley’s origins in a politically powerful family, his nearly 4 decades in public office, and his security detail have detached him from the real world as well.
2. He indicates that guns are doing bad things to America and says we should not love guns. This implies that guns themselves or the presence of firearms causes bad things to happen (in spite of the fact that firearms have no free will, nor the ability to act on their own) and attempts to reinforce this statement with a personal opinion.
3. At this point he attempts to placate some gun owners by saying that he has no problem with gun collectors and hunters. This is a dubious claim for a man who will twice more repeat that America loves guns and indicate that this is a bad, frightening, or incorrect thing. He also continues by casting doubt on the ability to (legally or safely) transport firearms or the need of people to have multiple firearms. That doesn’t seem to be supportive of hunters or collectors.
4. He asks how do you get a gun into your house, and offers facetious comments about possible modes of firearms transport. He seems to be implying that the transportation of a firearm is dangerous or illegal. The answer is easily found in the Illinois laws regarding the legal transportation and possession of firearms. Of course, listeners who are not familiar with these laws might be inclined to think that this is an unresolved issue or loophole created by the Supreme Court’s decision.
5. He presents a theoretical case saying that having a gun in your home will cause your child to shoot himself or someone else. This is a purely theoretical case meant to prey upon the fears of parents that allowing firearms in their homes will result in their children being killed. There are a tragic few children killed in this manner, however this argument seems to absolve the parent and the child of all responsibility. Organizations like the NRA have firearm safety courses for children which attempt to educate children as to why they shouldn’t play with or point firearms at people, and parents have a responsibility to remove access to firearms until their children are sufficiently mature to make this unnecessary. I and millions of other people in the US grew up in households with firearms and yet we did not kill ourselves or others just because of the presence of guns.
6. He asks if people can have one gun, 20 guns, or 30 guns. The answer to this one is yes, but that’s not the point. At first I didn’t understand the purpose of this question, but my background makes it seem perfectly normal for a person to have a closet or safe which contains a dozen or more firearms. Firearm ownership in Chicago is severely restricted, so the only time most people see firearms is when they are used by the criminals or the police. In this environment, people with multiple firearms are mentally connected with shootouts and dangerous situations, so this question is actually an attempt to awaken fears of firearms. This also plants the seeds for future gun control efforts involving limits on the number of legally possessed firearms.
7. He asks "can drug dealers have guns who are not arrested?" To this I ask, if they are known drug dealers, why have they not been arrested? Does the presence of a firearm make a person more or less guilty of drug trafficking? No! If they have broken the law they should be prosecuted for these transgressions whether or not a firearm is involved. If they have broken a firearm related law, they should be prosecuted for it.
There are very clear laws in place that deal with felons and firearms. Basically, if you are a felon it is ALREADY illegal to have a firearm and the recent Supreme Court decision specifically states that it does not invalidate or change laws of this sort. (Not that any law actually stops felons from acquiring arms through illegal means.)
8. Daley asks, can gangbangers have guns? See item 7 above.
9. He says, it seems like America loves guns...so we send all our guns to Mexico. This is followed by the implication that sending guns to Mexico causes gun violence. Can you cite a source to justify this? I find it highly unlikely because my guns are safely locked away here in the USA! This statement doesn’t even make sense.
10. He continues to say that Canada is upset because we're exporting all our guns to Canada and they never had that [gun] violence [before.] Wait, this is after we sent all of our guns to Mexico? I don’t think so! This seems like an attempt to blame violence in Canada on the US and guns. There’s no logical connection, and I’m quite certain there has been violence Canada that had nothing to do with US citizens or guns exported from the US.
11. Mayor Daley asks why our streets should be open to someone carrying a gun, when we are banned from carrying a gun in various government buildings. This is misdirection. The ruling has no direct connection to carrying a firearm in public. What Daley is really doing is demonizing the federal government and Supreme Court.
12. He asks, what does this do to police officers? This affirms that police officers have the right to keep arms in their homes just like any other citizen. As for how it impacts their jobs, whenever a gun ban is lifted they will have to be re-trained in order to recognize the difference between legal and illegal ownership, and it might also be a good idea to brush up on laws regarding the justifiable use of force. Police forces all around the nation have been doing their jobs in legally armed communities for longer than any of us have been around, and most of those communities have lower crime rates than Chicago!
13. He asks, do we have [or rather, require] ID tags on everyone who can carry a gun in their home.
Oh, I know! We’ll make gun owners wear special patches. We’ll shape them like stars so we can tell the gun toting rednecks that they’re being deputized. (Those knuckle dragging idiots will eat that up!) Then if people without a star are disturbed by the gun owners we can just round up the gun owners and put them in their own separate community where they won’t bother anyone else.
Please pardon the sarcastic analogy.
If you actually did try to require ID tags like Mayor Daley suggests, you would have to put ID tags on virtually every sane, law abiding person because sane law abiding people have the right to have firearms in their homes! What’s more, if you did publicly identify people who did have guns and people who shouldn’t, criminals would adapt. Homes with firearms would be burglary targets when people were not home, and any guns acquired during these burglaries would be used against people and homes which clearly were not allowed to have guns.
14. Do they have a right to carry a gun to and from their car or on the CTA? This type of thing is already covered by Illinois state laws, and these laws would be essentially unaffected by the recent ruling.
15. Daley says that it seems like Washington DC (presumably referring to the federal government) protects itself from guns and asks why it is so difficult to carry a gun in and around the capitol building. This is another attempt to erode the position of the federal government by trying to create anger against it. This issue was covered by the second main focal point in the majority opinion (the non-absolute right discussion)
16. We have more police officers at the capitol building than for the people of DC. I’d like to see someone confirm this but I’ll assume that it’s true for the sake of argument. This was apparently intended to support statement 15, but it actually answers (perhaps unintentionally) the question posed in item number 11. The capitol building and other government buildings have large numbers of peace officers present to preserve order and protect the innocent from unwarranted violence. Therefore the need for weaponry to be used in self defense is much less than the need for weaponry in the rest of DC where the density of police and other keepers of the peace is much lower.
17. Mayor Daley implies that the Supreme Court says you have a right to carry a gun on the street. In reality the Supreme Court did not closely examine this question, though it was noted that certain restrictions on the carrying of firearms had been upheld in lower courts. This essentially renders Mayor Daley’s implication false.
18. He says, “It is frightening that America loves guns.” This would seem to be in conflict with the portion of item 3 that refers to gun collectors.
19. He indicates that what the decision says (presumably meaning implies) is that those who are rich and powerful always feel safe and those who do not have power do not feel safe. He continues to say that they (the Supreme Court) are setting themselves aside from the rest of America. The ruling says nothing of this sort. Again he is attempting to discredit the Supreme Court as he did beginning in statement 1.
20. Mayor Daley then implies that the Supreme Court is saying that the answer to the issues (possibly referring to gun violence) is that everyone should carry a gun and says that he doesn't understand how they came to this thinking. This is clearly a distortion of the ruling by substituting a requirement for a right.
21. He says he is very disappointed by the number of victims killed and wounded, presumably by handguns. He then rambles on about people being injured, suffering, and consuming tax revenue without actually connecting it to the Supreme Court case or explicitly connecting this with gun control of any kind. This is being used to evoke sympathy and sadness while implying some vague connection with handguns. It’s a blatant substitution of emotion for logical argument.
22. Mayor Daley says that insurance should be required for people have guns in their homes and implies this is because you might shoot a police officer who enters your home without identifying himself and indicating he has a search warrant and that you might accidentally shoot your neighbor as a result of this same situation.
Let me be clear about this, if a police officer does not identify himself and present you with a warrant when entering your home, he is not doing his job correctly and is in violation of your 4th amendment rights!
Furthermore, Illinois law clearly states that you are justified in the use of deadly force if you reasonably believe that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death or great bodily harm to you or another individual, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. There are similar (and more specific) statements made regarding the use of deadly force in the defense of a dwelling. (Read it yourself!) So if a police officer who has not identified himself as a police officer enters your home in such a way that gives you reason to believe he is putting you or another in grave danger, your use of deadly force may be defensible under Illinois law.
Attempting to require insurance for gun owners is likely an attempt to eliminate (or greatly reduce) gun ownership by making it too complicated or too expensive for citizens who do not have the time or money to meet all of the regulations. Moreover, requiring someone to purchase insurance for an action specifically protected by state law is preposterous. Requiring a person to purchase insurance for a deliberately committed illegal act which has not yet been committed is tantamount to punishing a person for an as of yet uncommitted crime without any trial.
23. Daley asks if this (ruling) will lead to everyone having a gun in our society. This is a tactic to scare those who are afraid of firearms similar to item number 6.
24. He then implies that the Supreme Court believes that universal gun ownership 'is the answer' though he does not specify to what. He denounces this decision. This is a clearly another distortion in which Daley seems to replace “individual right” with “individual requirement.” Having thoroughly butchered the content of the ruling, he then declares that the ruling is wrong.
Click here to close
For the overview of the argument techniques, keep reading.
Approach 1: Imply something by using a question (and then don’t answer the question.) There are 10 questions in this speech which are used to distract people from the subject, scare people and imply things which are untrue. No effort is spent trying to directly answer any of these questions, even though many of them are clearly answered by either the ruling or the pre-existing laws. This is a highly effective distraction tactic because people who do not know the answers to these questions think you are raising valid and thoughtful points which challenge an opponent’s statements. Plus, when you are asking a question (not making a statement) it is difficult for others to effectively claim that you are lying. As an example, the 5th question in the speech asks why our streets should be open to someone carrying a gun when we are banned from carrying a gun in various government buildings. Many people may interpret this as meaning that the recent ruling will allow people to carry firearms in public even though this has nothing to do with ruling.
Approach 2: Demonize your opponent. There are 7 statements in the speech implying that the Supreme Court or the federal government in general uses double standards or that they try to oppress common or underprivileged people. If people are angry or afraid they will not usually take the time to listen to a logical argument, so if you can make someone the target of irrational fear or rage they can no longer use logic against you and must resort to emotional appeals.
Approach 3: Use Hyperbole or exaggeration to support your argument or distort your opponent’s argument. I counted at least 5 statements in this speech that were either exaggerations or outright distortions. If you were to take the speech as the absolute truth you would count America (presumably the US) responsible for causing all of Canada’s gun violence because we’ve apparently been exporting all of our guns there. (That’s right after we exported all of our guns to Mexico.) This is a pretty wild yet surprisingly common technique. As long as nobody openly challenges the exaggerated statement the speaker can make uninformed people believe that he has just supported his argument. What’s more, if the exaggerations are repeated by others they are given more perceived credibility from the repetition, until they are believed to be facts. This is probably most effective if done in bulk as people can get bogged down fighting the incorrect facts rather than the conclusions drawn from them.
Approach 4: Present an extreme theoretical case to scare or outrage people and then blame the opponent or his cause. I identified two cases of this approach in the speech. Both imply that a theoretical situation with tragic consequences is caused by the presence of firearms and is manufactured to evoke an emotional response. Aside from blinding the observer to logic, this can have an effect on our memories (adrenaline typically enhances memory) so that the next time the subject is brought up, people remember the emotional response and possibly the theoretical example for use as a point of argument. Again, if it is repeated it becomes a fact in the minds of people who have heard it enough times.
Approach 5: Change the argument. Most of the speech actually seems to do this. There is no discussion of the content of the Supreme Court’s ruling, but rather a series of statements and questions that are vaguely related. This is used to cast doubt upon an opponent or his cause without actually confronting the subject. Daley indicates at the end of the speech that this ruling may lead to everyone in our society having a gun. He has substituted the Supreme Court’s protection of an individual right with certain limits with the creation of a national requirement to bear arms. It has nothing to with the actual court ruling, and yet Daley is presenting this as the court’s argument. And after this he jumps directly too…
Approach 6: Declare victory! Now that the opponent’s argument has been changed to something unsupportable, or your argument has been altered to look more reasonable, declare the debate over and bask in the glory. This counts on people remembering the last thing that is said in a speech and not remembering (or understanding) exactly how they arrived at the last statements. Of course once the debate is over its much harder to directly challenge the false statements or logic, and people will leave without a clear understanding of what was being debated.
Of course these techniques don’t actually prove anything but when you are appealing to people who are easily swayed by emotion or someone with a short attention span, these approaches are actually effective ways of convincing people that you are correct (even if they’re not quite clear what you’re correct about)
What’s worse is that these techniques are often used to support a tactic which is applied in all sorts of arguments; bombardment.
It took 4 minutes for Mayor Daley to give the speech above and yet it took me a good 60 minutes or more to formulate and type proper responses, and that was after I broke apart all of the responses into manageable units. Logic simply takes longer than emotion, implication, and unsupported arguments.
The only practical defenses against the bombardment techniques like these are not to argue at all (in which you essentially forfeit in the debate) or to fight dirty by using the same tactics of misdirection and emotional appeals. This could leave you forever locked into a vicious and illogical struggle.
Trying to fight back with logic and reason is like trying to win a grenade tossing contest. You might be able to toss back or defuse the first few arguments that are thrown your way, but sooner or later you’ll get caught by one you can’t defuse fast enough or else you will be overwhelmed by rate of the bombardment.
It’s a shame that emotion can be conveyed so quickly and reason so slowly, because it obscures the truth with vague half-truths and even lies supported by stirring imagery and confusion. Once enough people have been convinced that something is right or wrong, the herd mentality takes over. It’s partly because some people are just willing to be followers or to belong to a group. It’s also possible to reach a sort of ‘critical mass’ situation where people hear mostly the same (potentially incorrect) arguments over and over until they believe that they are normal and correct. Once someone fits into a group of like minded people they are insulated from other ideas and possibly even less comfortable around people who challenge their views.
The more I watch politicians and TV, the more I see irrational argument. If only more people read and analyzed what our founding fathers said and wrote, perhaps they would see what real debate and argument is.