A Philosopher's Blog

When is it Time to Talk About Gun Violence?

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 2, 2017

On October 1st, 2017 over fifty people were shot to death in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock. Hundreds more were wounded. While such slaughter can cause despair, the heroism of those who risked or sacrificed their lives to save others should give us hope. For each person who would strike down the innocent, there are many who would courageously stand in their way. So, do not weigh the evil greater than the good or the villains more than the heroes. But, it would be better if there were no need of such heroes—better that there was less slaughter.

There have, of course, been efforts to pass laws aimed at reducing deaths from gun violence. While many laws have passed, there is an entrenched and well-funded resistance to such efforts. As such, such mass shootings are followed by an eminently predictable pattern. Part of this pattern is an immediate admonishment from many conservatives that there should be no talk of solving gun violence before the blood of the victims is completely dried. For example, White House press secretary Sanders gave the standard line that there is “a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.” She also added that “it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all the facts or what took place last night,” and the administration wants to avoid “laws that won’t stop these types of things from happening.” Sanders did, rightly, praise the courage of the brave and express sympathy for the dead and wounded. However, the question remains as to when it is time to talk about gun violence. I’ll begin by considering the stock position that such discussions should not take place too soon after the incident.

As Sanders and so many before her have contended, the immediate focus should be on dealing with the aftermath of the event. This view does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, the time to debate fire safety is not while cleaning up after a fire and tending to the burned. That time should be used for cleaning up and tending the injured. The easy and obvious reply here is that while those actively involved in responding to event should not set aside their tasks to debate,  there are millions of people who have no such tasks and can engage in the debate. So, while the surgeons should not stop their surgeries to engage in the debate, the lawmakers certainly have the free time to do so.

Sanders, like her predecessors, also called for uniting as a country now rather than engaging in the debate about gun laws. This also has considerable appeal: the debate over gun laws will call attention to political divisions and serve to push people apart when they should be pulling together. After such a terrible event, people have a psychological need to feel united—this is key to restoring the feeling of safety (or complacency, if one wants to be cynical). I certainly agree that there should be a pause in partisan rancor and battles after such terrible events (and that these pauses should grow)—if only in the form of a brief silence to honor the dead. But, to return to the analogy of the fire, to refuse to discuss fire safety after a serious fire would be to invite yet another fire.

Sander’s assertion that it would be premature to discuss policy without knowing the facts does seem sensible on the face of it. After all, to simply propose policies aimed at preventing such shootings without knowing what problems in the system allowed it to occur would be like trying to decide how to repair a car without knowing why it will not start. That said, there is an obvious reply to this claim: there have been so many mass shootings that the facts about such things are already well known. It seems rather unlikely that the facts of this latest case will involve a shocking revelation that will revolutionize gun safety. It would be wonderful, of course, if the Trump administration looked at the facts and was able to truly say, “eureka, we see the problem and the fix is obvious!” This, however, seems unlikely. To go back to the car analogy, if the car that won’t start is acting exactly like a car with a bad battery, then there is not really a need to wait for an in-depth investigation before considering the battery is probably the problem.

There is, however, a very good argument for not legislating in the heat of the moment: making decisions when emotions are at their peak often results in poor decisions, so this is a bad idea. As has been argued by Radley Balko, “laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea.” While Balko was not directly discussing gun laws, he does make the reasonable case that laws forged in anger or hysteria tend to be poorly conceived and can have serious unintended consequences. The torrent of laws slammed through after 9/11 also show the bad decision making that arises from jumping to legislate without due and calm consideration. It also shows how emotions can be exploited by lawmakers, which is also a matter of concern. We would not, after all, want gun control laws slammed through congress like the multitude of bad laws that have been pushed through congress by the power of emotions.

As such, it does make sense not to rush legislation about guns through without due consideration and calm reflection. However, this does not preclude starting the discussion now. There is also the obvious fact that we have had plenty of time since the last shooting to reflect on this matter. And the shooting before that. And so on. The point is, we have had a long time to reflect on many mass shootings.

While it might be countered that considerable time is needed to calm down after such events, the obvious problem is that they happen with such frequency that we might never have long enough to cool down.  There is also the reasonable consideration that if people do cool down, they can grow cold and fall back into complacency—until the next mass slaughter. To use an analogy, while talking about diet and exercise with a sedentary person whose parent just died of a lifestyle inflicted heart attack would be insensitive if done while the corpse was still warm, the person’s motivation will certainly fade quickly. As such, soon after the death is, harshly, the time the person will be the most motivated to change their habits and fend off their own impending heart attack. Likewise, the time to get people to support taking action against gun violence is when they clearly remember the horror of slaughter.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 2, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

    What about Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya? Syria? Ukraine? Yemen?

    Isn’t our own nation still using massive doses of gun violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wants?

    Isn’t the so-called ‘American Sniper’ a hero to most Americans? Yet he was nothing but a cowardly killer using gun violence to solve our nation’s problems?

    What message is our own government sending us? Gun violence works. That’s the message.

    Solve that problem first, then worry about the civilian use of gun violence.

  2. ronster12012 said, on October 2, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    I would be interested to know of the presence(or lack) of mind altering pharmaceutical drugs, ie. anti depressants in these shooters. It is recognized that a possible side effect of these medications is so-called ‘paradoxical rage’, ie. suicide or homicide. Given the large number of people on these drugs, even a 0.1% rate of this reaction means quite large numbers.

  3. CofeeTime said, on October 3, 2017 at 9:02 am

    From such US news as I follow, some people are ALWAYS talking about gun violence and gun control, some from both oversimplified sides, and others with appropriate nuance. It has been talked about for decades, that I’m aware of; likely more. So there is no need to start talking about the subject, since it is constantly being talked about.

    However, it has also been my experience that when somebody says “We need to talk about X”, they most commonly mean “You need to agree with me that we need to do Y about X”.

    And so the whole “we need to talk/not now” dialogue simply covers up attempts at political moves, supplying plausible-sounding rhetoric for pressure to change or not.

    Unfortunately, when sides polarise, the question “what are the RIGHT changes to make” gets lost. It’s much easier to attack, defend and counter-attack an entire agenda than to communicate all the intricacies of what specific changes might create what effects.

    • WTP said, on October 3, 2017 at 9:51 am

      However, it has also been my experience that when somebody says “We need to talk about X”, they most commonly mean “You need to agree with me that we need to do Y about X”.

      Bingo. They’ll do it every time. The ruse is so thin, so transparent, sometimes it amuses me to think that they think they are fooling anybody. And yet they do. So joke’s on me, I suppose.

  4. TJB said, on October 3, 2017 at 11:03 am

    I am still waiting to hear a proposed law that would have stopped even one of these tragedies.

    If the proposed law would not have changed anything, then what is the point?

  5. DH said, on October 4, 2017 at 8:58 am

    Last week I posted a couple of responses in the debate about the hurricane, making the point that there is not an increase in the intensity or frequency of storms in this world, as so many seem to want to believe. Rather, it is a perceived increase based on many factors, including better monitoring, adjusting for errors over the last 100 years, increases in incessant reportage, from a 24-hour cable news cycle to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs like this one, and the migration of people to storm-prone areas. The latter has no effect on the weather, but rather on the perception of “disaster”, as opposed to “natural phenomenon”.

    There are those who would like us to believe that the increase is real, that it is deadly, and that it is a major threat to our existence, and that it is caused by Global Warming. It is the exploitation of a mis-perception and a misdirection in support of a political claim from which many stand to profit.

    The same is true with gun violence. Gun violence is actually on the decline, and has been for the last 25 years. Of course, 25 years ago, cable news was in its infancy, very few people owned personal computers, and there was no such thing as a smartphone or any of the social media apps that came with it. We saw the news in the morning before work, and in the evening when we got home.

    Stories of gun violence are in our face every day, giving the appearance of an epidemic that simply does not exist.

    As in the hurricane example, there are those who stand to gain handsomely from the perception that guns are the problem.

    Your headline poses an interesting and deadly bias –

    “When is it time to talk about gun violence?”

    My answer is another question:

    “When is it time to stop talking about gun violence?”.

    We do not have a gun problem in this country – we have a problem with stress, with depression, with alienation, with anger, with hatred, with religious intolerance, with political intolerance, with race, with drugs, with alcohol, and with the perception among some that violence will solve our problems, or the belief that there is no other option. Most of all, though, we have a problem with critical thinking.

    As long as we frame the question with the inherent bias that the problem is guns, we do not talk about the other, more relevant issues at hand. I sincerely believe that the question is framed in this way on purpose by politicians who see advantage to this agenda, who know full well that every act of violence in this country is motivated by other, more serious problems, but there is no political gain to be made by complicating the issue with facts.

    Although the tragedy in Las Vegas saw the largest such death toll in recent history, the number of deaths by the kind of weapon used (broadly defined as “rifle” or “other firearm”, as reported by the US DOJ and the FBI) is lower than those caused by knives, swords or other cutting implements, and on a par with those involving “personal weapons” (fists, feet, etc) and blunt objects. Yet the ones with guns hit the news and stay there – because of the political narrative they carry with them.

    Handguns are a different issue – handguns are at the top of the list of gun violence, but even those incidents have been on a steady decline in the last 25 years. Again – the problem with handguns is not the guns themselves, but all of the factors above.

    Racism has been stirred up to a fever pitch in this country; there is a perception that police across our fruited plain are on a concentrated manhunt for black people; “Black Lives Matter” publicly advocates the killing of police. This despite many studies that show that the opposite is actually true – that whites and Hispanics are far more likely to be shot by a cop than an African American (one scholarly example, conducted at Harvard University, here: http://www.nber.org/papers/w22399).

    “White American Men ara bigger domestic terrorist threat than Muslim Foreigners” was a headline on Vox.com on Monday, with the subheading, “Since Trump took office, more Americans have been killed by white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners.”

    The vice-president and one of the top lawyers for CNN said that she was “not even sympathetic” to victims of the Las Vegas shooting because “country music fans often are Republican,” when discussing the mass shooting that unfolded in Las Vegas:

    “If they wouldn’t do anything when children were murdered, I have no hope that the Repugs will ever do the right thing. I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country music fans often are republican gun toters.”

    Does anyone seriously believe that this racial divide, this abject hatred will go away if only we had better gun laws? But by focusing on guns as the problem, we don’t have to deal with the real issue, and of course, there’s that pesky issue of political gain. A more cynical person than I (is there such a thing?) might conclude that those in favor of stricter gun laws actually applaud violence like this, as it helps their political cause.

    Guns are an incidental part of the violence – a weapon of choice, a means to an end – but not a root cause. For example, the Fort Hood shooting, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the destruction of the World Trade Center all had the same root cause – radical religious fundamentalism – yet we don’t hear of a “bomb problem” or a “plane problem” in the news. The Boston Marathon bombing had nothing whatever to do with Timothy McVeigh and the destruction of the federal building in Oklahoma City, nor did it have anything to do with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1991 – and they are rightly separated as to cause in the press and in the eyes of Americans.

    Yet guns are a different story. No matter what the cause, if the act is committed with a gun, the gun is at issue.

    Our big problem is one of perception, misdirection, and a complete lack of critical thinking. This focuses on the political issue of guns, instead of the real issue of hate.

    “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” -Rahm Emanuel

    • DH said, on October 4, 2017 at 9:03 am

      correction – I incorrectly stated that the Boston Marathon bombing had nothing to do with the 1991 WTC bombing, which, of course, is wrong. But neither incident was attributable to the readily-available bomb-making materials and information in this country. Had the Tsarnaev brothers opened fire on the crowd instead of setting off explosives, the debate about guns would have raged on.

  6. TJB said, on October 4, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    I’m going to go with the “ronster hypothesis” on this one–drug-induced psychotic break. What meds was he taking?

    • CoffeeTime said, on October 4, 2017 at 11:13 pm

      According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, citing records from the Nevada Prescription Monitoring Program, he was prescribed 50 tablets of Valium back in June. One or two months’ supply; the article contradicts itself.

      The article also notes that while impulsive rage can be a side-effect, this was not an impulsive incident, but carefully pre-planned for weeks. Also, I would expect that he would have finished the prescription months ago. The evidence for a direct causal link seems very weak. It might be more interesting to know why he suddenly felt the need for anti-anxiety meds.

      • ronster12012 said, on October 5, 2017 at 4:02 am

        Good point asking about why he felt the need for anti-anxiety meds in the first place.

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