Many of the articles, social media updates, and blogs posted in the wake of another horrifying mass shooting will predictably be arguing from a full pendulum swing position. By that, I mean most opinion pieces work from a presupposition of either all-in support for gun control legislation or all-in denial that guns are a problem. It is rare to find a helpful opinion where the pendulum is in the middle.
Thus, I was thankful to find a link to a level-headed article written by former North American Mission Board missionary Scott Barkley, who helpfully offered this incredibly wise piece of advice: “…a solution is going to require something that hasn’t happened yet. Each side – no matter where you stand on gun rights or funding for mental health or the importance of prayer – is going to have to consider what part of the equation they’re missing. Each is going to have to approach the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the other guy holds at least part of the solution.” (Emphasis mine)
For me personally, I like to think my own position is fair and, I suppose, just common sense. I support the right of Americans to own certain types of firearms for sport and protection if a thorough, effective system of checks is in place. I also support the call for a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
However, my interest in this article is not to argue for my position so much as it is to point out forms of ineffective argumentation used by some who are against additional legislation for gun control. I’m not suggesting in this article that such a position is wrong, only that the following specific arguments against gun control do not work.
What I have primarily seen in response to gun control in the aftermath of recent mass shootings is most clearly typified in a tweet by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin a few months ago in the aftermath of the Las Vegas tragedy. (For what it’s worth, I have great respect for Matt Bevin and I’m thankful he is my Governor). Here is Governor Bevin’s tweet:
“To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs…You can’t regulate evil…”
Bevin highlights the two most prominent rebuttal arguments in one tweet: those who support gun control are “political opportunists” and the idea of restricting gun purchases is pointless since you “can’t regulate evil.”
The governor is correct to say that evil will never be dispelled through laws. We know this from experience, but more importantly, we know this through the biblical witness of sin and death. But even though the premise is true, the argument absolutely fails (Ignoratio elenchi) for several reasons.
First, this is what is known as a “straw man” fallacy. A straw man is an argument that paints an incorrect picture of the opponent’s position and then attempts to push back against that erroneous position. I have never seen a gun control advocate argue that gun laws will regulate evil actions or will purge evil intentions from the hearts of men. So, any rebuttal attempting to demonstrate how gun laws will fail to keep people from doing evil things is responding to an argument that doesn’t exist. Gun control advocates are not so ideological as to think that laws will regulate or remove evil. Their hope is to reduce these specific kinds of evil actions.
Second, what is the logical conclusion to Bevin’s argument? If laws and restrictions and regulations will not keep evil people from doing evil things, then why have them at all? Bevin’s argument against additional gun restrictions could equally be applied to the forging of any new law or the strengthening of any existing law regardless of the issue. Such a position is, of course, absurd. Laws are not written or modified with the expectation of comprehensively purging evil from society, but they are nevertheless important for the good of society. This too is a pervasive biblical theme and is a significant reason why God has issued laws for his people and why the law is an act of grace. (This is Luther’s “first use of the law”).
Third, the “political opportunists” phrase is an “ad hominem” fallacy and weakens the rebuttal. Is it possible that those who are in favor of gun control are legitimately broken and determined to see fewer men, women, and children dying from mass shootings? Yes, that is a very real possibility. Calling them “political opportunists” does not advance the argument, even if there are some seizing the opportunity to push an agenda. By the way, the same is absolutely true for the other side. Calling the GOP names on social media does not work or advance the argument.
Fourth, a type of “red herring” occurs when other ineffectual laws are brought into the argument. For example, drug regulations are often used to demonstrate the law’s inability to stop criminals from selling and using drugs. If laws do not keep people from selling and buying drugs, then why create additional gun laws? But again, what does this suggest? It only suggests that the Congress should make all drugs legal since laws do not stop criminals. Speed limits do not keep people from speeding. Should we forgo interstate driving regulations? And so forth. Additionally, this argument does not take into account the unknown. We do not know the impact of the drug culture on America if drug laws were not on the books.
There are plenty of ways for those who are opposed to gun control to argue their position. But the aforementioned arguments do not work. Don’t use them. Use these steps instead:
- Make certain you properly communicate your opponent’s position. Couch it in language where your opponent would say, “yes, that is what I believe.”
- Consider the logical conclusion of your argument. How does this play out in the long run?
- Avoid personal attacks. It makes your argument weaker, not stronger.
- Stay on topic. Avoid making illegitimate comparisons that are actually red herrings.