A Philosopher's Blog

Are Guns Analogous to Cars?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2013
Case O' Guns

Case O’ Guns (Photo credit: Gregory Wild-Smith)

One common strategy in the various gun debates is to compare guns and other dangerous things, such as cars. Interestingly, both those who favor and those who oppose increased limitations make use of this comparison.

Since this is an age of micro-communication, the comparison is often made rapidly and without adequate development. However, it does seem useful to expand a bit on the comparison and present some properly developed arguments.

An analogical argument is an argument in which one concludes that two things are alike in a certain respect because they are alike in other respects. Formally, an argument by analogy looks like this:

  • Premise 1: X and Y have properties P,Q,R.
  • Premise 2: X has property Z.
  • Conclusion: Y has property Z.

 

The first premise establishes the analogy by showing that the things (X and Y) in question are similar in certain respects (properties P, Q, R, etc.).  The second premise establishes that X has an additional quality, Z. The conclusion asserts that Y has property or feature Z as well. Since this is an inductive argument, the truth of the premises is supposed to make the conclusion likely to be true rather than certainly true.

A Škoda Superb II car. Français : Une automobi...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The strength (quality) of an analogical argument depends on three factors. First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the better the argument. Third, it must be determined whether X and Y have relevant dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. Now the basics of the argument by analogy have been presented, I can proceed to the main attraction—comparing guns and cars.

Those who favor increased limitations on guns can avail themselves of an analogy between guns and cars that involves the fact that driving is highly regulated. To be specific, the argument for more restrictions on guns could be framed as follows:

 

 

  • Premise 1: Cars and guns are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: The operation of a car is extensively regulated by law and requires that the operator be properly trained and licensed.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the operation of a gun should be extensively regulated by law and require that the operator be properly trained and licensed.

Since this is a very brief argument, the specific regulations, licensing and so on would need to be properly specified in a very extensive case for more extensively regulating guns. Despite its concise presentation, the argument does seem appealing. After all, if I cannot drive my truck around without having a license and insurance, it would seem to make sense that (for similar reasons) I should not be able to have a gun without being properly licensed and insured. At the core of the justification is, of course, the fact that both guns and cars are machines that can cause considerable damage either by accident or intent.

Despite the appeal of this comparison, there are differences between cars and guns that could break the analogy. The most obvious is, at least in the United States, that gun ownership is taken to be a legal and moral right, whereas driving is regarded as a privilege. Intuitively, restricting a right would require stronger justification than restricting a privilege.

Interestingly, the analogy can be accepted but it could be claimed that it does not justify more limitations on guns. After all, the regulation of cars covers the operation of the car in public—that is, on roads where there are other people. If I wish to drive my truck around only on my own land, then I do not require a license and the regulations governing this are rather limited.

In the case of guns, a person who wishes to bring a gun into public places generally needs a concealed weapon permit (which requires training and an extensive background check). Hunting, even on private land, also requires a license (which requires proof of training). A person can, however, travel to a legitimate shooting range with her gun without a license—but the gun must be properly stored (typically in a case). A person can also have a weapon in her dwelling (with some exceptions) and even fire it on her property, provided that the discharge of firearms is not restricted there (which is most often the case anywhere but out in the country).

Because of this, it could be concluded that the gun laws are already comparable to the laws governing cars and hence there is no need to increase the restrictions on guns. This could, of course be countered by arguing that guns are different from cars in ways that would warrant more extensive regulations. However, this would obviously involve abandoning the argument by analogy that compared cars and guns.

As noted above, it is also possible to draw a comparison between cars and guns aimed at showing that there should not be severe restrictions on gun ownership.

 

  • Premise 1: Guns and cars are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: Private ownership of guns should be severely restricted.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted.

 

Obviously enough, those taking a pro-gun position would take this analogy to lead to what they would hope most would regard as an absurdity or at least unacceptable, namely that the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted. Behind the argument is, of course, the principle that what justifies severely restricting ownership of a dangerous machine is its capacity to cause harm intentionally or accidentally. By this principle, if gun ownership should be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm, then car ownership should also be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm. Guns and cars both have causal roles in the harms caused intentionally or accidentally by people (and cars also contribute extensively to pollution and climate change making them potentially more damaging than guns).

Just as those who favor severe restrictions on guns tend to claim that the police can provide the protection citizens require, it could be claimed that public transport would provide the transportation that citizens require. Obviously enough, someone who favors severe restrictions on cars and is in favor of public transportation might regard this argument as reasonable rather than a reduction to absurdity.

This analogy can be countered by pointing out differences between guns and cars. One obvious difference is that guns are designed to cause harm while cars are designed to transport people. Cars are lethal weapons—but unintentionally so. However, it is not clear that this difference is relevant to the matter of regulation. After all, the fact that a car is not designed to kill people does not make those killed by cars any less dead. What seems to matter is the impact of the machine and not its intended function.

This can be countered by contending that guns do not have a legitimate use in civilian hands that would justify tolerating the harms involving guns. In contrast, the value of cars warrants tolerating the harms and deaths involving cars. This case can be made and would involve assessing the value of guns and cars relative to the harms done by allowing people to privately own them. That is, how many deaths it is acceptable to pay for private ownership of cars versus private ownership of guns. If cars are worth the cost and guns are not, then the analogy would break, thus allowing private ownership of guns to be severely restricted while allowing far less restriction on the private ownership of cars.

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When is it Time to Discuss Gun Violence?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2012
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the murders at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, a standard script was followed by the media and the pundits on various sides. Part of this script is that people who are against guns typically demand more gun control and some people who are pro-gun counter by claiming that the time after such a terrible incident is not the time to discuss changes in law.

My focus in this essay is to address the matter of when it is time to discuss gun violence and, in particular, changes in laws or policies regarding guns.

On the one hand, those who claim that the matter of gun laws should not be discussed right after a tragedy do have a reasonable point. After all, people reason even more poorly than usual when they are experiencing strong emotions. There is, of course, an abundance of fallacies that are “fueled” by the power of emotions to lead people astray from good reasoning. Examples include the classics such as appeal to anger, appeal to pity, and appeal to fear. In these fallacies, the general idea that something that creates an emotional effect (anger, pity or fear) is used as a substitute for an actual reason to accept a claim. As might be imagined, people are even more likely to commit such fallacies when they are in emotional states.

The reasonable concern is, of course, that people will make poor decisions regarding laws or policies while under the influence of their emotions and that these decisions can have negative consequences or, at the very least, lead to ineffective “solutions.” Presumably better decisions would be made after the emotions have cooled and, of course, we should endeavor to make laws and policies when our reasoning is at its best.

On the other hand, there are reasonable concerns that waiting to discuss such matters could be problematic. First, there is the worry that concern about gun violence will simply fade away as people are distracted by other things and forget about the murders at Sandy Hook. As such, a delay could result not in a more reasonable discussion of gun laws and policies but in no real discussion at all. This seems to be a common cycle: the media focuses on a terrible event involving guns for a few days and then the matter just fades away until the next incident. As such, it seems reasonable to push for serious discussion now when people are paying attention.

Second, there is the worry that the push to wait is not really a call to wait until we can have calm reflection on the matter but a considered tactic on the part of certain people to take advantage of the media’s and the public’s short attention span. That is, if the discussion can be held off long enough, people will forget about the matter (as noted above) and the status quo will continue.

While I certainly favor a rational discussion of the matter, I think that this can be done without waiting until people have mostly lost interest in the matter. As such, I think it is certainly time to discuss the matter seriously.

 

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The 1,000 Feet Law

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 12, 2011
Gun laws fail safety test: Greens
Image by publik16 via Flickr

Law making is often a reactive sort of thing: something bad happens and lawmakers rush to crank out a new law in response. While the bad situations sometimes do show a need for a new law (or a change in the old laws), it can be unwise to legislate when passions are still strong. Deciding on a new law, like other important decisions, is general best left to when cool and rational reflection is possible.

Just a few days after the shooting, laws are being seriously proposed. One is to ban the sale of high capacity magazines and the other is to make it illegal to knowingly carry a gun within “1,000 feet of the president, vice president, members of Congress or judges of the Federal Judiciary.”

In the case of the clip ban, it seems unlikely that this would have much of an effect beyond creating a buying surge on the part of gun owners. Even now gun stores are reporting a surge in sales because people are worried that a ban will be put into effect or that gun laws will be otherwise change.

The ban could, perhaps,  have some small impact. If someone decides to go on a rampage and has not stocked up on high capacity clips, then he might have some difficulty finding them and perhaps be forced to reload or switch guns somewhat more often when shooting, thus possibly reducing the overall damage done. However, a person would almost certainly not cancel a planned rampage based on a lack of high capacity clips.

The 1,00o feet law seems like it would also be rather infective. As people have been quick to point out that it is already illegal to shoot people. Making it illegal to carry a gun within 1,000 feet of these officials is certainly not going to serve as a deterrent if someone already intends to make an attempt at murder.

It could be replied that the law would allow someone to be subject to an extra charge if they tried to shoot an official. So, for example, on top of an attempted murder (or murder) charge, a person could be charged with breaking that law as well. While this has some appeal, it seems unlikely that this sort of extra charge would be needed in such cases.

Another reply is that this law could allow police to check people within 1,000 feet of an official for guns and to arrest people who have them. This would, it could be argued, protect the officials and the people around them. At least from someone who is unwilling to take a shot from 1,001 feet

While this does have some appeal, it does raise concerns about privacy. After all, the mere possibility that someone has a gun does not seem to warrant checking people who happen to be within 1,000 feet of an official. That would seem to be a violation of a Constitutional right. If people are not checked for guns, then the law would seem to be limited to charging people after they have gone for a gun with the intent to shoot (which would already seem to be a crime) or charging people who openly bring guns to within 1,000 feet of an official.  This might not be a bad idea in the eyes of some. After all, Tea Party folks were sometimes inclined to bring guns to political events involving officials and this law would seem to allow them to be arrested for doing so. This might, however, be seen as a violation of certain rights.

The proposed law also seems to have some other problems as well. When I first heard about the proposal, the story just reported that it would be illegal to have  a gun within 1,000 feet of an official. This, naturally enough, struck me as absurd. After all, 1,000 feet is a rather long distance (about 333 yards or 3.3 football fields) and it is easy enough to imagine someone innocently being within this distance while in possession of a gun. For example, someone might live next door to an official or drive by one while on the way to go hunting.  When I learned that the proposed law required that the person knows that they are within 1,000 feet of an official, it seemed somewhat less absurd. However, this law would seem to ban anyone who lives near an official from owning guns. It would also seem to ban people from going hunting or shooting with officials or even be in the area. Presumably this could be sorted out by more specific details in the law that make exceptions for such cases.

It might be pointed out that guns are also not allowed within 1,000 feet of schools (which somehow still fails to prevent people from bringing guns to school) and hence the law is reasonable.

Of course, there are some rather important differences between schools and officials: schools have fixed, known locations and are easy to identify as schools. Officials are mobile and not always easy to identify. Of course, this would enable people to appeal to the “knowingly” part of the proposed law if they happened to get within 1,000 feet of an official they did not recognize.

Of course, if the proposed law is rife with exceptions, it might merely amount to making it illegally to knowingly bring a gun within 1,000 feet of an official with the intent to shoot him/her. However, that already seems to fall under existing laws.

Given the apparent absurdity of the law, it might be suspected that it is being proposed so it can be tagged onto other laws and provide a reason for not passing those laws. After all, laws are often proposed with the express intent of being un-passable.

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