One of the most common, if not the most common, arguments used against those who want to ban guns for the purpose of saving human lives, is that it isn’t just guns that can be used to maim or kill people. You will often hear, when this argument is put forward, the slogan: Guns Don’t Kill; People Kill. This slogan seems to irritate many people , they think it’s smarmy, and it irritates me (and not just because it is smarmy but because it’s one of those philosophically difficult assertions that are false in one sense but true in another, always a mess…).
Common or not, it is in my view the strongest argument there is against gun-banning (or against simply very stringent gun-control). In my view, no other counter-argument is needed. There are hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of different kinds of inanimate objects in the world that can be used to maim or kill someone. We all know that. And if we were to ban guns on no other grounds than that they can be used to do that, we would have to ban all these other objects too or else be branded, and rightly, as those who ‘cook’, or ‘skew’, arguments. As those who keep the argument right where we want it, on some personal, pet peeve issue of ours, and refuse to allow the wider application of it. Simply because doing so would lead to trouble…for our own position.
(For those here who might want to remind me that this argument is one of the favorites of gun-toting, trigger-happy right-wingers, I will have something to say about that at the end of this article.)
We had a knife amnesty here in the UK about a year ago. Hundreds of teenagers, many belonging to gangs, hurled knives into a big pile in London and elsewhere, as a gesture of good will toward the gov’t that had asked if they would do so. I laughed and so did my husband and some friends of ours, when we all saw the news clips on TV of what we called The Great Knife Amnesty; for we thought that for every knife Georgie the GangMember hurled into the pile, he had five more under the seat of his car or in a box under his bed at home.
Knife crime here in the UK has not, that I am aware of, gone down statistically since this amnesty, and it won’t. The gov’t seems to think otherwise, and I am waiting, as the title of this piece suggests, for The Great Hammer Amnesty followed by The Great Brick Amnesty.
You either have to give the argument in favor of gun-banning, the toss, or keep it and try to climb out of the pickle jar you have climbed into by not being able to explain how banning guns but not hammers, knives, bricks, your grandmother’s big stone cookie jar and hatpins too, is going to save human lives. If fewer people are maimed or die because guns have been removed, only to be maimed or die from running into a guy in an alley wielding a chef’s knife, you have lost any and all grounds you had for banning guns, and will have to come up with other ones.
Sure, guns, certain kinds, can kill more people from a greater distance, than a hatpin or brick or knife, etc. And it is this, it is argued, that singles them out for banning , over objects like knives, stones, hammers, scissors, bricks, etc. But to that I say this: if a gun can kill more people , from a greater distance, than a hammer, so also can rat poison kill more people, from a greater distance, than a gun. How? Hypothetically, by some nutcase who works at Azda managing to poison 100 cartons of milk before they hit the shelf. (What the gov’t over here calls food terrorism…which is the intentional poisoning of staples in heavily-frequented supermarkets, this for the purpose of taking as many human lives as possible… has been a concern over here for a couple of years now, so this imaginary example I am using is not far-fetched.) The guy with the gun and shooting from a rooftop across the street from the post office where people are milling around, kills 28 people. The nutcase with the rat poison, who never gets any closer to his victims than a bus he jumps on outside Azda after stocking the shelf, kills 90 kids and ten adults.
What do you ban here ? Not the poison, he can get more. Milk cartons? Milk? Funny-looking men who apply to Azda for part-time work for the graveyard shift?
There is more. Any serious application of gun-banning for any length of time, is very likely to get you a parade of innovative assault crimes. Robbed of guns, people who are bent on killing and cannot be dissuaded, will turn to anything they can find. In the end, and hypothetically, more could die from a development like that, and in ways even more horrific than being shot, than if you had left the gun thing alone. The principle behind the argument for gun-banning is so wide-ranging, in its application, that you’d have to ban most of the objects lying about in the world that could even conceivably either harm or take a human life, were you to embrace it.
Banning is preventative or it is nothing at all. You want to prevent loss of life. The real trouble here is that there are far too many objects…again, thousands and even hundreds of thousands of them… that, under banning, will need to be confiscated. And that last is impossible. Across the entire country whole homes, yards, garages, etc., would have to be stripped of their contents all because the objects in them can do the job either as well as a gun or, in some cases, even better. (The chainsaw.)
Yes, gun-toting right-wingers love the argument against gun-banning , the very one I’ve been talking about here; and to that I have to say, “And …?” There are arguments, there are those who make them, and there are different motivations for making them. I can’t help if it right-wingers have dark and greedy motives in this matter, i.e. want to keep gun manufacturers happy and are using this argument to do so. Motivation, good or bad, does nothing to weaken the argument itself.
One last thing. My main thrust here is that of practical, not philosophical, application. It’s about the difficulty of applying to guns what could not be applied to the thousands of other inanimate objects, many of them natural objects, that are potentially just as deadly. It isn’t about logical inconsistencies; it is about saving lives, and that’s a practical issue.
*This article was edited and revised (seventh, eighth, and final paragraph) on 1-3 ’09; the original publication date was 1-2-09 . My thanks to what’sthatsound, KQuark , and Hopeington: it was some comments of theirs in the comment section below that prompted me to make the much-needed changes.