I, and other philosophers, were recently interviewed by Quartz about the ethics of voting. The article is short, but an interesting read. I am, of course biased.
Here is the link:
Like everyone else, how I look at the world is shaped by my psychological backstory. While, as a professional philosopher, I have an excellent logical toolkit, my use of these tools is shaped by how I feel about things. Since the matter of guns is a rather emotional issue, I need to sort out how my backstory influences how I assess arguments regarding guns.
Academics, especially philosophers, are often cast as latte sipping effeminate liberals who would get the vapors if they so much as caught sight of a piece of manly steel. The positive version of this stereotype is that an academic is far too civil to have any truck with something as barbarous as guns and far too intelligent to believe that guns have any value. A true intellectual, or so the stereotype goes, should dismiss all pro-gun prattle with the wave of a hand, a bemused smile and a remark about people clinging to God and guns. This slides nicely into a rather negative stereotype of gun owners.
Gun owners are all too often stereotyped as slack jawed ignoramuses, upper lips sweaty with thoughts of killing God’s creatures and who secretly stroke their shooting iron to fantasies of mass murder. The positive reverse of this negative stereotype is that gun owners are practical folks who believe in God, guns and country and want nothing to do with those ivory tower intellectuals and their bemused smiles.
Being a gun toting philosopher, I have been subject to these stereotypes. If an academic colleague or a fellow intellectual learns that I am a gun person (and especially that I have hunted), they tend to react with shock and dismay. Surely, they say, I am too smart and too decent to have anything to do with monstrous guns. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my gun history as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person.
Gun folks who find out I am an academic are often surprised by this—especially when they learn I am a philosopher. They often think of academics as elitist liberals who swoon at the sight of…well, you get the picture. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my being a philosopher as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person. As is true of everyone else, I am who I am today because of who I was. So, on to my gun related backstory.
Like many American boys of my time, my first gun was a BB gun. It was a Daisy BB gun, but not a Red Ryder. It would, however, put an eye out. As boys, we would shoot the hell out of each other with our guns, so it is a wonder that we all made it out of childhood with both eyes. This was the gun I used for my first kill.
While the mists of time have obscured many memories, I clearly recall taking aim at a songbird perched on a powerline by what we called “the frog pond.” Carelessly I shot, not thinking I would hit it. The bird fell, striking the ground as a corpse. Though I was a kid, I knew I had done something terrible—a needless, senseless killing. I had straight up murdered that bird. I was not protecting myself (obviously) and I did not need it for food. That callous and careless murder shaped my view of guns for the rest of my life—my young mind grasped that it is all too easy to silence a song forever.
Eventually I got my first real guns—a Marlin .22 and a single shot .410-gauge shotgun. My father made sure that I knew all the safety rules and he taught me two of the great truths about guns. The first is that a gun is always loaded. The second is that you never point a gun at anything or anyone unless you mean to kill them. The safety lessons stuck—I have never been injured by my own gun and I have never harmed another being without intending to do so.
Once I was old enough, I went hunting with my father. I had to get up at some ungodly hour of the day—I remember feeling very cold. We’d then drive down to the land we owned in Lamoine. On the way we’d get Dunkin Donuts—my favorite part. Sometimes we’d cook up bacon and eggs by the ocean. Sometimes we’d go down the night before—that meant Dinty Moore Beef Stew from the can. These are all positive memories—no one got hurt. Well, no one but the ducks.
While hunters are sometimes cast as bloodthirsty, callous or trophy lusting egomaniacs, nothing could be further from my experiences. My father taught me to respect the animals we hunted and also the natural world. He also taught me a lesson that has shaped my character ever since.
While a duck usually drops immediately when hit, sometimes they just catch enough pellets to badly wound them. These birds are sometimes able to fly some distance before being forced down. They are, no doubt, terrified and in great pain while they struggle to escape. While it might be thought that the right thing to do would be to let such a bird escape, the truth is that it will most likely suffer from an infection and die horribly and slowly. Once, when we were hunting, this happened—the bird made it a good distance, then plummeted into the water, wounded but not dead. My father got the boat into the water and went after the duck, shooting it and retrieving it. The reason was not to avoid losing the duck. The reason was a moral responsibility to that duck. To leave it to suffer and die would be wrong; the duck was his responsibility. This reinforced my belief in the responsibility that comes from using a gun and the moral necessity of being fully accountable for one’s actions.
Some might say that this tale is all well and good, but that the real lesson is that a person should not be out there shooting animals in the first place. As a philosopher, I do agree there are excellent moral arguments against harming animals (I have, of course, read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation-which is why I no longer eat veal). However, to hunt for the sake of food and to do so with respect for the animal is to accept that I am part of the natural world. That is, I am a hunter and the duck is prey. Someday, I too shall pass and my mortal shell will be consumed. As I see it, it is morally acceptable to kill the duck for food, provided that the kill is clean and that if it is not the matter is set right.
Those who embrace vegetarianism can raise very reasonable moral objections against killing even for food—why kill an animal that can suffer instead of eating a plant that (supposedly) cannot? I do find considerable merit in these arguments and accept that killing animals for food is morally worse than killing plants. However, I accept the moral weight of my actions and this makes me reluctant to kill. In fact, I would so only for defense or true hunger.
When I went to college and then to graduate school, I learned a great deal about ethics. It is, in fact, a subject I teach. Interestingly, what I learned about ethics did not radically change my views of guns (or hunting). Mainly it gave me a better theoretical framework in which to discuss the issues.
While I have not been hunting in many years, I still engage in target shooting with friends. We go to a gun range, follow all the safety protocols (and watch out for the fools who do not) and usually get lunch afterwards. We get, I think, the same enjoyment from this that people get from playing golf. While there is some risk of injury, that is true of many activities—so I have never regarded target shooting as immoral.
While assault rifles are the big news these days, the hottest field in guns is concealed carry. Some states allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon while others require a license. When I got my first permit in Maine, the process was very easy and was handled by the local police. When I got a permit in Florida, I had to take a safety course (which was a bit weird, since I had been shooting for almost 40 years) and pass a fairly thorough background check.
When I was in Maine, I had the permit mainly as a matter of convenience—so I could carry my .357 under my jacket while hunting (it was a backup in case my rifle malfunctioned and I had to finish off a wounded deer (a fellow I know once had to finish off a deer with a small knife, which was horrifying) and to go to target shoot. I got the permit in Florida mainly for convenience in taking a gun to the range and also to be legally safe in regards to carrying a knife (being from Maine, I always have a knife—pretty sure that is some sort of natural law).
Some people get permits because of fear of being attacked. While I am aware that this could happen, I am not particularly afraid that I will be attacked—I understand how statistics work. I also understand how being afraid actually creates more danger—a person whose mind is shaped by fear is far more likely to overreact violently. I practice a casual alertness: I know that some people I encounter will be friendly, the vast majority will be neutral and the odds of encountering an attacker are incredibly low. But, it is unwise to be unaware. I have been in a few situations that could have gone very badly, but my preferred resolution is talking—that has worked so far.
I do, however, believe that a person has a moral obligation to be capable of self-defense. To expect others to bear the burden of defense is moral selfishness, worse than expecting someone else to do one’s cooking and cleaning. After all, defending a person can result in death. Naturally, I do accept that the helpless and those who are less capable should be protected; but being willfully helpless is a moral failing. I am not, however, claiming that everyone should get a gun. A gun is a great responsibility and should, as a matter of ethics, only be entrusted with those of the right character who are willing to learn to use the weapon properly and responsibly. I think the same way about all dangerous machines, including automobiles. While there is the right to be armed, not everyone is up to exercising that right properly. This is, of course, distinct from the legality of the matter. To use an analogy, I think there are people who should not have children because they are awful parents. However, they have every legal right to do so—until they cross certain boundaries. The same applies to guns.
That, then, is my gun backstory that shapes the lens through which I see gun issues. Naturally, I expect people to have moral criticisms of my backstory as well as the position I take as the result of reasoning colored by this backstory. But, those who disagree with me should consider their own backstories and how they impact their views. As should those who agree with me.
After each eruption of gun violence, there is also a corresponding eruption in the debates over gun issues. As with all highly charged issues, people are primarily driven by their emotions rather than by reason. Being a philosopher, I like to delude myself with the thought that it is possible to approach an issue with pure reason. Like many other philosophers, I am irritated when people say things like “I feel that there should be more gun control” or “I feel that gun rights are important. Because of this, when I read student papers I strike through all “inappropriate” uses of “feel” and replace them with “think.” This is, of course, done with a subconscious sense of smug superiority. Or so it was before I started reflecting on emotions in the context of gun issues. In this essay I will endeavor a journey through the treacherous landscape of feeling and thinking in relation to gun issues. I’ll begin with arguments.
As any competent philosopher can tell you, an argument consists of a claim, the conclusion, that is supposed to be supported by the evidence or reasons, the premises, that are given. In the context of logic, as opposed to that of persuasion, there are two standards for assessing an argument. The first is an assessment of the quality of the logic: determining how well the premises support the conclusion. The second is an assessment of the plausibility of the premises: determining the quality of the evidence.
On the face of it, assessing the quality of the logic should be a matter of perfect objectivity. For deductive arguments (arguments whose premises are supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion), this is the case. Deductive arguments, as anyone who has had some basic logic knows, can be checked for validity using such things as Venn diagrams, truth tables and proofs. As long as a person knows what she is doing, she can confirm beyond all doubt whether a deductive argument is valid or not. A valid argument is, of course, an argument such that if its premises were true, then its conclusion must be true. While a person might stubbornly refuse to accept a valid argument as valid, this would be as foolish as stubbornly refusing to accept that 2+2= 4 or that triangles have three sides. As an example, consider the following valid argument:
Premise 1: If an assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence, then congress should pass an assault weapon ban.
Premise 2: An assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence.
Conclusion: Congress should pass an assault weapon ban.
This argument is valid; in fact, it is an example of the classic deductive argument known as modus ponens (also known as affirming the antecedent). As such, questioning the logic of the argument would just reveal one’s ignorance of logic. Before anyone gets outraged, it is important to note that an argument being valid does not entail that any of its content is actually true. While this endlessly confuses students, though a valid argument that has all true premises must have a true conclusion, a valid argument need not have true premises or a true conclusion. Because of this, while the validity of the above argument is beyond question, one could take issue with the premises. They could, along with the conclusion, be false—although the argument is unquestionably valid. For those who might be interested, an argument that is valid and has all true premises is a sound argument. An argument that does not meet these conditions is unsound.
Unfortunately, the assessment of premises does not (in general) admit of a perfectly objective test on par with the tests for validity. In general, premises are assessed in terms of how well they match observations, background information and credible claims from credible sources (which leads right to concerns about determining credibility). As should be expected, people tend to accept premises that are in accord with how they feel rather than based on a cold assessment of the facts. This is true for everyone, be that person the head of the NRA or a latte sipping liberal academic who shivers at the thought of even seeing a gun. Because of this, a person who wants to fairly and justly assess the premises of any argument has to be willing to understand her own feelings and work out how they influence her judgment. Since people, as John Locke noted in his classic essay on enthusiasm, tend to evaluate claims based on the strength of their feelings, doing this is exceptionally difficult. People think they are right because they feel strongly about something and are least likely to engage in critical assessment when they feel strongly.
While deductive logic allows for perfectly objective assessment, it is not the logic that is commonly used in debates over political issues or in general. The most commonly used logic is inductive logic.
Inductive arguments are arguments, so an inductive argument will have one or more premises that are supposed to support a conclusion. Unlike deductive arguments, inductive arguments do not offer certainty—they deal in likelihood. A logically good inductive argument is called a strong argument: one whose premises, if true, would probably make the conclusion true. A bad inductive argument is a weak one. Unlike the case of validity, the strength of an inductive argument is judged by applying the standards specific to that sort of inductive argument to the argument in question. Consider, as an example, the following argument:
Premise 1: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of automobiles.
Premise 2: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of guns.
Premise 3: The tens of thousands of deaths by automobiles are morally acceptable.
Conclusion: The tens of thousands of deaths by gun are also morally acceptable.
This is a simple argument by analogy in which it is argued that since cars and guns are alike, if we accept automobile fatalities then we should also accept gun fatalities. Being an inductive argument, there is no perfect, objective test to determine whether the argument is strong or not. Rather, the argument is assessed in terms of how well it meets the standards of an argument by analogy. The gist of these standards is that the more alike the two things (guns and cars) are alike, the stronger the argument. Likewise, the less alike they are, the weaker the argument.
While the standards are reasonably objective, their application admits of considerable subjectivity. In the case of guns and cars, people will differ greatly in terms of how they see them in regards to similarities and differences. As would be suspected, the lenses people see this matter will be deeply colored by their emotions and psychological backstory. As such, rationally assessing inductive arguments is especially challenging: a person must sort through the influence of emotions and psychology on her evaluation of both the premises and the reasoning. Since arguments about guns are generally inductive, it is no wonder it is a mess—even on the rare occasions when people are sincerely trying to be rational and objective.
The lesson here is that a person needs to think about how she feels before she can think about what she thinks. Since this also applies to me, my next essay will be about exploring my psychological backstory in regards to guns.
After each mass shooting in America, there is a push to do something about gun violence. After the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, some family members of the victims brought a lawsuit against Remington Arms. Remington manufactured the Bushmaster rifle used by the shooter. The lawsuit also includes Camfour (a firearm distributor) and Riverview Gun Sales (which sold the gun).
On the face of it, the case would seem to have no legal merit—the main reason being the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a 2005 federal law. This law serves as a protection for liability in regards to the legal sales of firearms. While what a law means amounts to the opinions of the adjudicators and enforcers, there would seem to be little grounds for a lawsuit in this case: a legal product, the Bushmaster, was manufactured, distributed and sold in accord with the laws. The only criminal activity was on the part of the shooter.
Interestingly, the case seems to be going forward. The attorney for the victims’ families, Joshua Koskoff, has contended that there is a legal foundation for the case. To be specific, he claims that the “negligent entrustment” exception of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act provide the opening needed.
One clear problem with using the negligent entrustment exception is that it seems to have been clearly intended for cases in which a gun is sold to a person who is threatening to do harm to others or visibly intoxicated. The situation in question does not meet this condition: the person who legally purchased the weapon was neither intoxicated nor threatening others.
Koskoff is taking an intriguing approach to the matter. He is not claiming that the person who bought the weapon was intoxicated or threatening; instead he is trying a rather different tactic.
His line of reasoning begins with the assertion that the semiautomatic AR-15 type rifles (the Bushmaster is one specific version) are essentially the same as the burst fire M-16 military rifle. His next step was to assert that, “It was Remington’s choice to entrust the most notorious military American killing machine to the public and to continue doing so in the face of mounting evidence of its association with mass murder of innocent civilians.”
One way to look at the argument is that Remington and the others were negligent because they were well aware that these weapons are dangerous and, more specifically, that they are linked to mass shootings. The obvious concern with this sort of reasoning is that it would seem to lay the foundation for a very broad principle of negligence. Under such a principle, anyone who manufactured or sold a product that has been used to create significant harm would be liable, to a degree, for that harm. Computer manufacturers could, for example, be held liable for hacking, phishing and other computer based crimes. As another example, alcohol manufacturers could be held accountable for crimes committed by drunks. As an extreme example, the manufacturers of the planes used on 9/11 could be taken as liable for the misuse of their products. This all seems absurd: manufacturers, distributors and sellers have little (or no) control over the use of their products and hence they cannot be held accountable. There are, of course exceptions—such as liability for selling drinks to someone already drunk. Obviously, the matter is quite different when people are harmed by defects or other problems with the products—the manufacturer is, for example, morally responsible for hazards presented by automobile ignitions that fail. This leads to a second possible interpretation of the argument.
Koskoff could also be taking as advancing the notion that the negligence arose not simply because the product has been misused by some to create significant harm, but that the product is so dangerous that allowing it to be sold at all constitutes negligence. While this might seem similar to the first interpretation, they are actually quite different. To illustrate this, consider the case of the computer. Under the first principle (that of potential misuse), making and selling computers could be seen as negligent because they are often used in various crimes. Under this principle (that of inherent danger), making and selling computers would not be seen as negligent because they are not inherently harmful (this could, of course, be argued). One way to view the danger is in terms of a defective product. However, the concern is not that the guns are defective—rather, the worry is that they work all too well. A more plausible approach would be that the harm arises not from any defect in the product, but from the product itself when it is working properly and used correctly. On this view, manufacturing, distributing and selling AR-15 style weapons would be analogous to making, distributing a lighting system that illuminated an area via dangerous radiation: it would be working as designed and defect free, yet would be a harmful product. The challenge would be, of course, to show that the weapons are inherently harmful to a degree that to manufacture, distribute and sell them would constitute negligence.
While I am not a lawyer, I Koskoff faces an “upmountain” battle. Even if his argument worked and showed that such guns are inherently dangerous to the public, the fact remains that the gun used in the shooting was manufactured, distributed and sold legally. As such, while this sort of argument would support the assertion that it should be made illegal to manufacture, distribute and sell such weapons, it does not support the claim of legal negligence on the part of the defendants: they fulfilled all their legal obligations. Naturally, the question of whether they were morally negligent or not is another issue.
The June, 2016 mass shooting in Orlando has thrown gasoline on the political fire of gun control. While people on the left and right both agree that mass shootings should be prevented, they disagree about what steps should be taken to reduce the chances that another one will occur.
As would be expected, people on the left (and broad center) favor efforts focused on guns. While this is normally called “gun control”, this is a phrase that should no longer be used. This is not as a matter of duplicity, to present proposals under a false guise. Rather, this is because “gun control” has become so emotionally charged that the use of the phrase interferes with a rational discussion of proposals. If a proposal is labeled as “gun control”, this will tend to trigger immediate opposition from people who might otherwise support a specific proposal, such as one aimed precisely at preventing criminals and potential terrorists from acquiring guns.
Coming up with a new phrase might be problematic. “Gun safety” is already taken and deals with the safe handling of weapons. “Gun regulation” is a possibility, but “regulation” has become an emotional trigger word as well. The phrase should certainly not be a euphemism or sugar coated—doing so would certainly open the usage up to a charge of duplicity. Since I do not have a good enough phrase, I will continue to use the loaded “gun control” and hope that the reader is not too influenced by the connotation of the phrase.
Positions on gun control are largely set by emotions rather than a logical analysis of the matter. In my case, I am emotionally pro-gun. This is because, as a boy in Maine, I grew up with guns. All my gun experiences are positive: hunting with my dad and target shooting with friends. I am well aware that guns are lethal, but I have no more fear of guns than I have of other lethal machines, such as automobiles and table saws. No close friend or relative has been a victim of gun violence. Fortunately, I have enough empathy that I can feel for people who loath guns because of some awful experience. But, as with all complicated problems, one cannot feel a way to a solution. This requires rational thought.
Being a professional philosopher, I have some skill at considering the matter of gun control in rational terms. While there are many possible approaches to gun control, there are currently to main proposals. As is always the case, these proposals are arising from the specifics of the latest incident rather than a broad consideration of the general problem of gun violence.
The first type of proposal involves banning people on the no fly list from purchasing guns. This has been proposed because of the belief that the Orlando shooter was on this list and if this proposal had been enacted, then the shooting would have not taken place. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: people who are evaluated as too much of a threat to fly would seem to also be too much of a threat to buy guns. There are, however, a few problems with this proposal. The first is that the no fly list has been a mess, with people ending up on the list who should not be there. This can be addressed by improving the quality of list management—though there will always be mistakes. The second problem is a matter of rights. While there is no constitutional right to fly, there is the Second Amendment and banning a person from buying guns because they have been put on such a list is certainly problematic. It could be countered that felons and mentally incompetent people are denied the right to buy guns, so it is no more problematic to ban potential terrorists. The problem is, however, that a person can end up on the no fly list without going through much in the way of due process. That is, a basic constitutional right can be denied far too easily. This can, of course, be addressed by making the process of being on the list more robust or developing an alternative list with stricter requirements and far better management. There would still be the legitimate concern about denying people a right on the basis of suspicion of what they might do rather than as a response to what they have actually done. There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun violence in the United States is committed by people who are not on that list. So, this proposal would have rather limited impact.
The second type of proposal is a return to the ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips (what a friend of mine calls “the ‘scary gun’ ban”). This proposal is based on the belief that if only the Orlando shooter had not been able to acquire a semiautomatic assault rifle and high capacity clips, then the casualties would have been far less.
For those not familiar with weapons, a semiautomatic fires one round with each pull of the trigger and will do so until the magazine is exhausted. Each shot “cocks” the gun again, allowing rapid fire. This is in contrast with, for example, a bolt, pump or lever action weapon. These weapons require the operator to manually move a round from the magazine to the chamber for each shot. These weapons fire considerably slower than semiautomatics, although a skilled user can still fire quite rapidly. There are also weapons that fire in bursts (firing a certain number of rounds with each trigger pull) and those that are fully automatic (firing for as long as the trigger is held and ammunition remains).
While many people believe otherwise, it is often perfectly legal to buy an automatic weapon—a person just has to go through a fairly complicated process including a thorough background check. I know people who own such weapons—legally and above board. The strict process of acquisition and high cost of such weapons generally keeps them out of hands of most people. As such, this could serve as a model for placing stronger limitations on other weapons.
While many people fear what are called “assault rifles” because they look scary to them (merely firing one gave timid journalist Gersh Kuntzman PTSD), the appearance of a gun does not determine its lethality. The typical assault rifle fires a 5.56mm round (though some fire the 7.62mm round) and they are less powerful than the typical hunting rifle. This is not surprising: assault rifles were developed to kill medium sized mammals (humans) and many hunting rifles were designed to kill larger mammals (such as moose and bears). While assault rifles are generally not “high powered”, they do suffice to kill people.
Assault rifles are more of a threat than other rifles for two reasons. The first is that the assault rifle is semi-automatic, which allows a far more rapid rate of fire relative to lever, bolt and pump action weapons. The slower a person fires, the slower they kill—thus allowing a greater chance they can be stopped. However, there are also plenty of semiautomatic non-assault rifles, which leads to the second factor, magazine size. Assault rifles of the sort sold to civilians typically have 20 or 30 round magazines, while typical hunting rifle (non-assault) holds far less. Maine, for example, sets a legal magazine limit of 5 rounds (plus one in the chamber) for hunting rifles.
A ban on semiautomatic rifles sales could have an impact on mass shootings, provided that the shooter had to purchase the rifle after the ban and did not already have access to a semiautomatic weapon. While some hunters do prefer semiautomatic weapons, it is possible to hunt as effectively with pump, lever and bolt action weapons. When I went duck hunting, I used a pump shotgun (which I actually prefer, having seen semiautomatic shotguns jam from time to time) and for deer hunting I used a bolt action rifle.
The main impact of such a ban would be that shooters who have to acquire new weapons for their shooting would have weapons with a lower rate of fire. They could still kill many people, but the kill rate would be slower—thus the death toll should be lower in such cases.
A ban on high capacity clips would also have an impact on the kill rate of shooters who have to buy new clips for their mass shooting. If magazines were limited to 10 rounds, a shooter would need to reload more often and reloading time would afford a chance to stop the shooter.
Combining the two bans would mean that shooters who had to acquire new weapons for their mass shooting would be limited to low capacity, slower firing weapons. This could significantly reduce the death toll of future shootings.
As has been noted, these sorts of bans would only affect a shooter who had to acquire a new weapon or clips. Shooters who already have their weapons would not be impacted by the ban. As such, what would be needed would be to remove existing semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips—something that seems politically impossible in the United States.
For most of us the idea that things just happen runs against our basic human intuitions. We try to impose order on chaos and find patterns in everything. In doing this we forge narratives to make sense of what might be utterly senseless. In the case of the slaughter in Orlando, people are struggling to explain and understand by weaving stories that match their understanding of the world. This is not, in general, to be condemned—it is part of how we endure the awful.
The narratives of explanation can quickly turn to narratives of exploitation; the weaving of a story to advance some ideological agenda. Sticking to the stereotypes, many liberals are weaving a narrative around guns—the ease with which they can be acquired, the special danger posed by semi-automatic weapons, the terrible threat of high capacity clips, and the scariness of “assault rifles.” On this narrative, one conclusion is that if there had only been more regulation, then the massacre might have either been much smaller or not occurred at all.
While the desire to do something through the law is understandable, the alleged shooter acquired his guns legally. While he is believed to have been a domestic abuser and was investigated by the FBI, he had no criminal record. Put simply, he passed all the reasonable tests for purchasing a gun and there was no evidence that he would commit a crime.
I have written extensively about the potential effectiveness of assault weapon bans and magazine restrictions, so I will not go into detail here. However, such bans do not address existing weapons and restricting clip size just means slightly more reloading or gun switching on the part of a shooter who lacks high capacity clips. That said, improved gun safety (one must not say “control” is something broadly accepted and can have a positive impact on reducing gun crime (or so it is claimed).
There is also a narrative about the blame: the general liberal view here is to reject collective guilt: the murderer is accountable but the fact that he claimed to be Muslim does not make Muslims complicit in his crimes. Many in the LGBT community have made this point very clear: they do not condemn or hate Islam because of what one Muslim did.
I have also written extensively about group guilt and here I agree with the LGBT community: Muslims are no more to blame for the shooting than Christians are to blame for the hate of God Hates Fags.
The general narratives on the right are rather different. Right after the bloodletting, there was the usual mobilization in defense of guns and the usual stock narratives went into reruns for the thousandth time. One of these was the story that if only people in Pulse were armed, then they would have been able to shoot down the attacker—this is the classic tale of the good guy with a gun. Some take this narrative as involving some victim blaming: if only they had been smart enough (or pro-gun enough) to be armed, then they would still be alive. Some focus on the laws that forbid guns from certain places—if only people could carry guns anywhere, there would have been armed citizens ready to blast the attacker.
Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed on studying gun violence (lobbied by the NRA and gun industry) means that the statistics needed to judge this matter rationally are not available. One would think that if the gun lobby folks truly believed the good guy with a gun theory, they would be funding research to prove their point. Their opposition should make one a bit suspicious about their faith in their own claim.
Some narratives endeavored to clarify the real victims of the killings: gun owners. As always happens after a mass shooting, there was a rush to tell a speculative tale about how this is the time that Obama is going to come for people’s guns. And, as always happens, gun sales start to spike upward. And, as always, Obama does not come for people’s guns.
The right has also generally stuck to the narrative of what they insist on calling “Islamic terrorism”—that Islam is the cause of such terrorists attacks. On the one hand, it is correct to consider religion as a motivating factor. On the other hand, the idea of collective guilt in regards to huge and diverse groups is rather problematic. While the folks in God Hates Fags claim to be acting from their faith, they do not therefore represent all Christians. If a Christian attacks an abortion clinic for religious reasons, that is not Christian Terrorism and his actions do not make all Christians accountable.
Ironically, the “Islamic Terrorism” narrative of the right is in accord with the narratives of groups like ISIS (or ISIL or whatever one wants to call these evil people). Their view is that they are Islam and that all of Islam should be at war with the West (including Western Muslims). The right’s narrative is that the West should be at war with all of Islam, so there is agreement between the right and ISIS on this matter. This should be taken as a good sign that those on the right who buy this narrative should rethink their position. Insisting that all of Islam is the enemy entails that many of our nominal allies would have to be reclassified as enemies as would many of our own citizens and citizens of allied states. This seems a foolish idea.
Trump, not surprisingly, has gone beyond even this narrative—after accepting congratulations (some Trump supporters see the Orlando attack as vindicating Trump) Trump pushed for his proposed Muslim ban once again. Trump claimed that the killer was born in Afghanistan and that his ban would have prevented the attack. As is so often the case with Trump’s stories, it is mostly fiction: the alleged killer is of Afghan descent, but he was born in America. As such, Trump’s ban would not have prevented the attack. While many are endeavoring to milk the massacre for political points, Trump deserves special mention for his handling of the matter—he really stands out in regards to his exploitation of the attack.
On June 12, 2016 fifty people died in an Orlando Nightclub. 49 of these were victims of the 50th, who has been identified as Omar Mateen. This is the latest and the largest mass shooting in the United States. As always happens in such cases, there are inquiries into motives and, most importantly, into how such a slaughter was able to take place.
Mr. Mateen, the alleged shooter, was a 29 year old American who worked for the G4S security company. It has been claimed that he committed domestic violence against his then wife (although no charges were apparently filed), that he spoke of his hatred of blacks, gays and Jews, and a coworker has alleged that he often spoke of wanting to kill people. He was investigated by the F.B.I. in 2013 and 2014 in regards to suspected connections to terrorism. These investigations failed to yield adequate evidence for action to be taken against him and he was able to legally purchase the weapons used in the attack.
This mass shooting, like others before it, give rise to an important epistemic question: how can we know when a person will become a mass shooter (or terrorist)? While it is certainly tempting to infer that expressions of hate and expressed desires to engage in violence are good indicators, they are not. A little reflection and a little time on the internet show that hate is abundant as are expressions of desires to engage in violence. The vast majority of these people never make the move from expression to mass shooting. As such, while this sort of behavior is an indicator, it is a very weak indicator. What would be needed would be clearer evidence that a person is preparing to go from thought to action.
It might be believed that signs of connection to terrorism (such as expressing support or having some personal ties to terrorists) are good indicators. While this is also tempting, there are many who express support of terror (be it for ISIS or for using terror against minorities, women, LGBT people, etc.) yet never escalate from expressing support to murdering. There are also people who have personal ties with terrorists who themselves never become terrorists—in fact, these people include some who condemn terrorism. As such, what would be needed is clearer evidence that there will be a transition from support or connections to violent action.
It could be claimed that there was adequate evidence Mateen was going to become a shooter and the F.B.I. failed in its investigation. This is, of course, a factual matter and one that would be addressed by investigating the investigation. While some might be inclined to believe that the F.B.I was sloppy or incompetent, it seems quite likely that there simply was not enough evidence to justify taking action against him. As it stands, this seems to be the case, despite Mateen allegedly calling 911 to express his loyalty to ISIS (and a mishmash of other groups that actually oppose each other). While ISIS has been happy to claim Mateen’s expression of fealty, this seems to be an affiliation of opportunity: there is currently no evidence that ISIS directed the attack nor evidence that Mateen had any substantial prior connection with ISIS. As such, the best hypothesis at this time is that Mateen was seeking to transform a hateful mass murder to a hateful mass murder for a cause and that ISIS was once again happy for the gift of blood.
It could be asserted that action should be taken against people who might engage in a mass shooting or who might become terrorists. In the case of Mateen, it could be claimed that the F.B.I. should have acted against him even without adequate evidence. This is where the discussion switches from epistemology (what can be known) to morality (what should be done).
The matter of determining the level of warranted suspicion that justifies taking action against a person is a rather important moral concern. On the side of public safety, the stock argument is that by acting on a relative low threshold of warranted suspicion, the public is kept safer. This is a stock utilitarian argument in which the morality of an action is a matter of weighing the harms against the benefits. In the case of Mateen and others, the claim would be that if action had only been taken on the basis of the available evidence, then the murders might have been averted. As a specific example, if expressing hatred of the sort linked to mass shootings resulted in a person being legally banned from owning guns, then there would be less likelihood of a mass shooting occurring. As another example, if the state could detain people on the basis of limited evidence of connections to terrorists, then terrorist attacks would be less likely to occur because more possible terrorists would be locked away (perhaps without trial).
On the side of liberty, the stock argument is that acting on a relatively low threshold would violate rights and create more harm than safety. This is also a utilitarian argument; the difference being in the assessment of harms and benefits. For example, supporters of the Second Amendment such as the NRA would be quick to claim there would be terrible harms and dangers of being able to deny people their gun rights based on the mere expression of hatred or a mere suspicion a person is going to engage in a mass shooting. In fact, the usual claims are being presented that the shooting could have been prevented or mitigated if only more people had guns.
As another example, those who support the idea of having to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt would oppose such a low threshold of detention for suspicion that a person might engage in a mass shooting. These would tend to be people who respect the idea of the rule of law (though law can be made awful).
It can even be argued that such a low threshold policy would make the public less safe: the violation of rights and low-threshold detentions would create anger and resentment that would lead to more and not less harm. My own position is in opposition to a low threshold—the cost is not worth the gain (if any) of such an approach. In regards to the gun regulation debate that the murders have ignited (once again), I really have nothing new to say about guns—nor, does it seem, does anyone else.
It has become something of a truism that everyone is a little bit racist. If this is true, then a meaningful accusation of racism requires showing that a person has crossed a threshold in regards to her racism. As might be suspected, there is no precise line—to require one to exist would be to fall into the line drawing fallacy. It suffices that clear cases of racism can be recognized and that less-clear cases can be rationally debated.
While Trump has not donned a white hood or burned crosses, it has been claimed that he has a track record of racism. During his run to be the Republican nominee, he routinely said things that certainly appear racist and that would have been career ending for almost any other American politician. In June, 2016 Trump accused Judge Gonzalo Curiel of being biased against him because of Curiel’s Mexican ancestry. While this sort of attack is a standard Trump maneuver, the Republican establishment believes they need the Hispanic vote and they are aware that attacking Hispanics for being Hispanic is not a winning strategy. As such, it is not surprising that Paul Ryan criticized Trump, saying that his remark was “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Other Republican leaders also condemned the remark. Such overt racism is certainly not approved by the Republican establishment.
While Ryan and others have condemned Trump’s remark, they have also endorsed him for President. Other Republicans have refused to do so and some have even embraced a “never Trump” view. While the opposition to Trump seems quite rational, those who condemn him while still endorsing him present a more interesting situation that is worth some consideration.
On the face of it, two sensible explanations for the simultaneous condemnation and endorsement would be pragmatic politics and party loyalty. Trump is the anointed Republican Presidential candidate and backing him would seem to both the practical choice and the choice of a party loyalist. Condemning him would be a way of maintaining some moral distance; thus this would be a case of wanting to praise the cake and condemn it, too. This can be a risky strategy: if Trump wins, he will certainly remember the condemnations. If Trump loses in a spectacular sinking of his political ship, the endorsements could serve as tethers dragging others down along with the wreck.
Those more cynical than I might venture that those who endorse Trump while disavowing his racist remarks are condemning not his racism, but his overt and clumsy racism. This is a rejection of style and not content. But, suppose that the condemnation is actually of the racism. This would seem to raise a moral concern for those that are endorsing Trump.
If Paul Ryan and others have disavowed Trump because they regard racism as wrong, they face the challenge of morally justifying endorsing someone who engages in immoral behavior. One way this could be done is by arguing that Trump’s relentless racist remarks are a minor flaw relative to his other virtues, thus he can be endorsed in good conscience. Given the revelations about Trump University (which have resulted in an upcoming trial with Curiel as the judge) and other facts about Trump, this seems like a problematic answer.
Another way this could be done is to argue that although Trump is to be morally condemned, he is still morally superior to Hillary. That is, Trump is the lesser of two evils and endorsing him increases the odds that the lesser evil will win. I am not sure how Trump would feel about being cast as a lesser evil—presumably he would want to be the greatest evil. This view would require establishing that Hillary Clinton is morally worse than Trump—something that could certainly be argued.
A third way is to argue that the terrible consequences of electing Hillary (whether she is morally better or worse than Trump) justify backing Trump. That is, backing him would result in a lesser evil in regards to consequences. This is different from voting for someone who is lesser in evil, although the two can obviously be connected. The greater a person’s evil, the greater evil they are likely to try to bring about. But, a person who is less evil might bring about worse consequences than someone who is a worse person.
A final way is to contend that the moral obligation of party loyalty requires a Republican leader to endorse the nominee, even if the nominee engages in behavior that must be condemned on moral grounds. To use the obvious analogy, this is similar to how the obligations of family can require standing up for a morally problematic relative.
Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.
One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.
Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”
While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.
From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”
If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.
One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”
Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?
It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.