A Logical Take

Examining UFO sightings, pseudo cures, Facebook memes and the like.

"Guns Don’t Kill People, People Do?"

What exactly is wrong with the "guns don’t kill people, people do" argument?

This is my first entry in my new blog, “A Logical Take” where I will explain how logic can help us examine and make sense of the world around us. For my first entry, I would like examine an argument that is being heard, over and over again, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the subsequent debate about gun regulation:

“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

Everyone's heard it, a lot of people believe it, and some even think it settles the whole gun control debate. (After all, that’s why it’s the NRA’s slogan, and why people brandish it on bumper stickers and post it endlessly on facebook.) Others, however, think the argument is terrible. Interestingly, however, I can’t find a solid consensus regarding what exactly is wrong with it. Some think it begs the question, others think it equivocates, still others think it merely oversimplifies the issue. Consequently, especially as a logician, I think it’s an argument worth some examination.  

Some might not want to read any further, thinking that by using the Sandy Hook tragedy to argue for gun regulations I am politicizing that tragedy. There are a couple of things to say in response. First, I'm not going to argue for or against gun regulations. I am simply going to examine this argument. There may still be good arguments against gun regulation, or there may not. All I want to know is whether or not this argument is one. Secondly, the notion that the political ramifications of a tragedy should not be discussed in the wake of that tragedy is itself fallacious. We do need to make sure our heads are emotionally clear before having a serious discussion, but it is not disrespectful to the victims of a tragedy to discuss possible ways that we might avoid similar tragedies. Besides, tragedies such as Sandy Hook have now become so common that if we are not allowed to speak about gun regulations in the wake of such tragedies, we will never be allowed to speak about it at all. Truth be told, the notion that one shouldn't talk about such things after a tragedy is a political notion itself – one invented by those against gun regulations because they know that people are more in favor of gun regulations after such tragedies.

So let us turn to the argument itself: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The first thing to notice is that the argument has no stated conclusion. What follows? Since the argument is usually given in the context of a discussion about gun regulation, by gun advocates, I assume the conclusion has something to do with that. But what exactly? That there should be no gun regulation at all? That there should not be more gun regulation than there is? That the increase in mass killings done with guns is irrelevant to whether or not there should be gun regulations? Who knows? And an argument without an obvious conclusion is hardly an argument at all.

In any event, it doesn't matter because no conclusion about gun regulation logically follows from these two statements. To understand why, let me articulate the difference between ultimate, intermediate, and proximate causes. Consider the words you are looking at right now. What "caused" the words to appear as they are appearing to you right now? You might say that I, the author, did – but that is not the whole story. The whole story is long and includes my fingers typing on a keyboard, the creation of an MSWord document, me posting the words on my blog, etc. There is a long "causal chain" standing between my intention to type these words and the emission of light from your screen to your eyes. The causal chain starts with me – I am the ultimate cause. Other subsequent links in the chain—my typing, Justin’s postings, your clicking—are “intermediate causes." And the light emitting from your screen is the proximate cause—the thing or event most immediately responsible for your current experience.

The argument under consideration clarifies that, when it comes to murders, people are the ultimate cause and guns are merely proximate causes – the end of a causal chain that started with a person deciding to murder. But nothing follows from these facts about whether or not guns should be regulated. Such facts are true for all criminal activity, and even noncriminal activity that harms others: The ultimate cause is found in some decision that a person made; the event, activity or object that most directly did the harming was only a proximate cause. But this tells us nothing about whether or not the proximate cause in question should be regulated or made illegal. For example, consider the following argument:

"Bazookas don't kill people; people kill people."

Although it is obviously true that bazookas are only proximate causes, it clearly does not follow that bazookas should be legal. Yes, bazookas don't kill people, people do—but bazookas make it a lot easier for people to kill people, and in great numbers. Further, a bazooka would not be useful for much else besides mass murders. Bazookas clearly should be illegal and the fact that they would only be proximate causes to mass murders does not change this. In fact, it is totally irrelevant to the issue; it has nothing to do the fact that they should be illegal. Why? Because other things are proximate causes to people’s demise, but obviously shouldn’t be illegal. For example, consider this argument (given in the aftermath of a bad car accident):

"Cars don't kill people; people kill people."

Obviously cars should not be illegal, but notice that this has nothing to do with the fact that they are proximate causes. Of course, they should be regulated; I shouldn't be allowed to go onto the highway in a car with no brakes. But all of that has to do what cars are for (they are not made for killing people), what role they play in society (it couldn't function without them), etc. It's a complicated issue—one to which pointing out that that cars are merely proximate causes to some deaths contributes nothing.

So clearly the argument under consideration, and any other argument that merely points out that guns are proximate causes (e.g., "stop blaming the guns and start blaming the person") is fallacious. Since people can't seem to agree on what fallacy such arguments employ, I would like to give a name to the mistake I have identified within them: "the fallacy of mistaking the relevance of proximate causation."

So, should all guns be illegal? After all, like the bazooka, they do make killing people in mass easier to accomplish. Then again, like cars, using them for mass murder is not their intended function. Most people agree that they should at least be regulated (at the least, most think that all gun sales should require a background check). But how strictly should they be regulated? Perhaps very strictly. After all, states with stricter gun regulations have fewer gun related deaths. Then again, there may be philosophical issues related to the protection of liberty that trump such utilitarian concerns. It’s a complicated issue.

And that’s my point: It’s a complicated issue. There are lots of relevant factors involved, but the fact that guns are proximate causes isn't one of them. So the next time quotes the NRA slogan, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people," in an attempt to end a discussion about gun control, do me a favor: point out that they have “mistaken the relevance of proximate causation,” pause briefly to enjoy the confused look on their face, and then patiently explain the fallacy to them.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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