It's Not a Gun Problem, It's a Heart Problem
A flawed defense of the status quo.
Posted Apr 09, 2018
In God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, Mike Huckabee makes the following points:
"Yes, guns can be dangerous. And in the wrong hands, the hands of someone who has a nefarious purpose or is careless and fails to respect the power of the firearm, or is mentally ill, they are dangerous. Fire in the hands of a cook is useful; fire in the hands of a pyromaniac is deadly. Water can be for bathing or drowning. A pair of scissors can be for opening a box or stabbing someone. An airplane can be an incredibly efficient vehicle to travel between distances, or it can be a missile to be flown into buildings. I don’t, however, hear any suggestions that we ban fire, water, scissors, or airplanes.”1
The argument, then, is that the reason people use guns to kill others is that we are fundamentally flawed. Those who state that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” likely have this in mind. The issue is not guns, but rather it is us. Since we can’t legislate morality into the human heart, more restrictive gun laws will not transform the heart of those who would seek to harm others. Rather than creating more laws, we should focus on helping people deal with their heart problem.
This argument is appealing because it contains some important truths. We do have a heart problem. Human nature is flawed. A change in gun laws will not in and of itself change our nature. Even if we could effectively restrict or abolish access to guns, murders would still occur by other means. Many people would use knives, cars, or rocks if they didn't have access to a gun. These points are true. However, there are problems with this argument.
First, the argument poses a false dilemma. This is sometimes called the fallacy of false alternatives. This fallacy occurs when someone presents a false either/or choice in an argument. Here, the assumption seems to be that if we have a heart problem, then guns aren’t the issue. Since we do have a heart problem, guns aren’t the issue, and therefore we do not need to craft more restrictive gun laws. But why believe this? Why believe that it is either a heart problem or a gun problem? Surely it is possible that it is both a heart problem and a gun problem. The assumption that this is an either/or situation, rather than a both/and one, is false. In fact, it seems clear that it is both a heart and a gun problem.
We already recognize this. The National Firearms Act of 1934 (and its modifications in 1968 and then 1986) contain strict regulations governing fully automatic weapons. Under federal law, citizens cannot own a fully automatic weapon that was manufactured after May 19, 1986. They can own such weapons manufactured prior to this, but the process for doing so is fairly demanding and they are very expensive to acquire. And, given human nature, this is as it should be. The laws that prohibit or regulate private ownership of fully automatic firearms are based in part on the fact that human beings are morally flawed. Such flawed creatures should not possess such power to efficiently kill or maim large numbers of people. The problem, then, includes both guns and the human heart. While in a sense it is true that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, it is also the case that people often kill people with guns. And it is relatively easy to do so, given the power a gun has to harm others in a relatively quick and efficient manner. It is a human problem and a gun problem.
Second, there are important flaws in the comparison between guns and other things we might use to kill one another that also undermine this argument. Many guns are specifically designed for the sake of killing large numbers of human beings in a short period of time, with relative ease. This is not the case for knives, cars, baseball bats, or rocks. Consider an incident at a school in China that occurred on the same day as the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. A man attacked and stabbed twenty-two children and one adult at a primary school. While this shows that laws will not prevent violent crime, it does highlight an important difference between guns and knives. All of the victims of the knife attack in China survived, while twenty-six people died at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Cars have the most potential to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time, as we recently saw in Germany. But again, cars are not designed for that purpose, and this difference is important. Importantly, there are numerous regulations in place to reduce the risk of this happening, intentionally or accidentally, because of the potential for harm. And we have many regulations in place to prevent people from turning airplanes into missiles. The same reasoning applies to guns. More restrictive and effective laws should be in place to reduce the risk of people using guns to harm others.
Third, the fact that humans have a heart problem actually supports the claim that we need more rational and restrictive gun laws. Given our flawed nature, surely the answer is not to allow for easy access to weapons that make it fairly easy to kill a large number of people in a short amount of time. If laws are not relevant to changing human hearts or at least to restricting the human ability to do evil, then why do conservatives tend to support laws restricting abortion? Why do liberals tend to support laws concerning prejudice based on race or gender? After all, even with such laws in place, abortions will still occur and prejudice remains alive and well. One reason is that the law can function to deter us from making some choices, even if our hearts remain unchanged. Laws can protect others from the harm we might do apart from their restraining power. The same justifications exist in the context of guns. Of course, gun laws cannot change the human heart, but they can make it more difficult for that flawed heart to express its evil intentions on others through the barrel of a gun.
Finally, stricter gun laws are not a panacea. We must not think that changing the laws will by itself solve the problem of gun violence in America. We also need to address the many other issues that are present. We have a culture of violence and death, a waning respect for the dignity of all human beings, a lack of community, a need for better access to mental health care, and a host of other problems and needs that must be addressed. But better gun laws are one part of the multifaceted solution that we need.
1. Mike Huckabee, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016), 23.