I apologise (especially to Bronze Dog) for initiating a game of blog tag.
And for those who have read my posts in the past, be warned. I treat unsupported or poorly presented gun control arguments with the same contempt I have for woo arguments. Just saying.
About me and guns
In order to preempt the inevitable future accusations of being some gun hating liberal let me first dismiss the 'gun hating' part. I like guns. Guns are cool. In the right hands.
I shot .22 inch and 5.56 mm target rifles at paper targets regularly between the ages of 13 and 18, after some pretty comprehensive training. Before 13 I was also into archery. After university I qualified as a marksmanship coach through the ATC/RAF - I was trained by a police marksman, people who had represented the UK at pistol target shooting and a serving member of the RAF Regiment. I was the shooting officer for my ATC squadron and during this time my cadets became the best L98 shooting team in Trent Wing, ATC. I was a pretty good shooting coach and was thinking about going for my range certificate so that I could be a Range Conducting Officer. I trained other people how to use guns and how to shoot them properly and accurately. I was incredibly anal about safety, I lost count of the number of times I threatened to throw people off my firing point because they were not concentrating. I still tell my kids when they aim a water pistol at me that the first rule of weapon safety is "Never point a weapon at anybody whether loaded or unloaded."
I say this just to establish the fact that I have no problem with guns themselves and that I know a thing or two about them, people using them, what they can do and what people need to know about them. This does not make my views the authoritative views on the subject though - like I said, I'm just preempting the inevitable.
And I just remembered that when I was still doing the shooting stuff we all hated people who called them guns.
Why 'Of Skeptics'
And here is where I'll start to piss people off.
I've found in my travels through the skeptical blogosphere that critical thinking often stops when people get to a personal political or social viewpoint. Just look at the number of skeptics and atheists who also happen to be Libertarians as well. Don't tell me that someone who thinks unregulated companies can do better than governments at protecting individual interests and liberties is a critical thinker.
Gun control is one of those issues, I have found. On quite a few occasions already in the brief discussion over at the Bronze Blog I have found skeptics making inconsistent and unsupported arguments; arguments not supported by the facts; guesses and statements based on nothing but inaccurate or uninformed opinions. At times logic even seems to be taking a vacation.
And yet these are people who when arguing about religion or pseudo-science are careful to make well crafted, well researched and well supported posts. These are people whose opinions I've admired from a blogging point of view as well presented and argued. I'll go into the specifics later, but is this the case that Shermer makes for why smart people believe weird things in action?
So anyway, as well as looking at the arguments presented so far in the Bronze Blog thread, I'm going to be looking at this: what seems to me to be the suspension of critical thinking in relation to personally held views.
My experience with anti-gun control arguments
I've had a few arguments about gun control in the past. Hell I used to be anti-gun control and I did, in the past, use some of the arguments I'm about to list.
Anyway, I have noticed that the same arguments come up again and again. Some good, some bad. Some terrible.
- It's in the Constitution.
- It's a liberty the government can't take away or has to justify taking away.
- You can't/shouldn't ban gun ownership because people like shooting/owning guns.
- Target shooting is a sport.
- They can be used for self defence.
- Banning guns doesn't stop gun crime.
- Guns don't kill people, people kill people.
- X and Y massacres were committed with illegal guns so banning guns wouldn't have stopped them.
- Massacres are rare so why ban guns or how do you know banning guns stops them.
- Civilian guns are different to military guns so don't need to be banned.
- You're just a gun hating liberal.
- So what if guns are made to kill, that doesn't mean they are wrong or should be banned.
- Swimming pools/cars kill more people than guns, should we ban them?
- You just don't understand where I'm coming from and that's why you don't get it.
- EDITED 27/8 to add this after Techskeptic reminded me: Citizens need to be armed to defend themselves from tyranny and government oppression.
Here's where I am really going to piss people off - I see many similarities between anti-gun control arguments and the way they are phrased and presented and the way many proponents of woo and religion phrase and present their arguments.
In particular I am talking about creationists or the proponents of 'Big Pharma bad, alternative medicine good' arguments. The creationist tactic is to attack Evolution (the argument of their opponents) but to ignore calls for them to explain their position and the evidence for it. The same is true of those pushing alternative medicine and attacking Big Pharma, they like to attack incidences of 'allopathic' medicine killing people etc and don't think they need to examine their own arguments.
So, I'm not going to present my arguments (at least not yet) because I don't want my opponents (those against gun control) to focus on that rather than explaining and defending their own position first. Unfortunately, at least one of them admits they feel they don't have to do so.
So, how are these skeptics like those others?
Does the notion of someone claiming they don't have to defend their position when you do sound familiar to anyone of a skeptical bent? It should if you spend any time in the skeptical blogosphere.
When a religious believer says there is a god and they don't need to prove it because the person saying there isn't one is the one making the claim, how do skeptics respond?
So why do some skeptics say they don't have to defend the freedom to own guns, it just is a liberty they should have; and the person saying it isn't is the one who is making a claim they need to defend?
Why has the burden of proof shifted from the person making the positive claim to the person assuming the negative until presented with evidence showing otherwise?
How many times as a skeptic have you heard this:
You don't understand why [insert alternative medicine] works because you have a different mindset/paradigm/set of axioms to the Oriental/Traditional medicine one?Well, how is that different to:
You don't understand why gun ownership is a liberty I don't need to defend because you have a different mindset/paradigm/set of axioms that says it is OK to take away liberties?Regardless of what I might or might not believe, someone should be able to defend the reasoning and evidence behind their belief. The reasoning and evidence speak for themselves. I thought that is what skeptics and critical thinkers believed.
OK, so on to specifics.
Early on, Dunc wrote:
Whilst I think we may have gone a bit too far here in the UK (what with banning all handguns)This prompted me to respond:
Why does your average citizen need access to firearms?And so it began.
Until someone can satisfactorily explain why gun ownership is a necessary right, why is there any debate?
For instance, why do you say that a ban on all handguns is going too far Dunc? Why is it? Why should people be allowed ownership of something whose sole intended purpose is to kill?
I regard target shooting as a perfectly legitimate pass-time - it's an Olympic sport, after all. Next you'll be asking me why I've got a takedown recurve bow under my bed... It's certainly not for shooting anything live - I've only got target points.Which is arguments 3 and 4 from the list above with a hint of number 12 thrown in.
People liking shooting is not a justifiable reason for allowing it - it's an argument from personal preferences. I listed some other things that people like to do that are also banned or illegal. Liking something is no good reason to assume it is right or justified. This could be argued to be a form of the Appeal to Popularity, or more accurately the Appeal to Common Practice.
James K then added this:
Many people held to the belief that it is up to the government to justify taking away a liberty, rather than it being up to you to justify keeping it.This is argument number 2 from the list. I responded that I am not the government. I wanted him to explain to me, not the government, why this liberty was one that shouldn't be taken away. This was a chance for an anti-gun control proponent to explain his position.
I had also earlier in the discussion asked why private citizens had a right to own something that is designed with the purpose of killing. Almost all guns don't have another purpose, they are designed to kill. As I later pointed out, even the ones that aren't designed specifically to kill can still be used very easily to do so and without any modification.
James K responded:
As for the "designed to kill" part. This is the Genetic Fallacy, it doesn't matter what its designed to do, all that matters are the costs and benefits.Here's the Genetic Fallacy. What I wrote is not the Genetic Fallacy.
I responded that my question is not an example of the Genetic Fallacy, I made no claim that guns are wrong or true or false because they are designed to kill or that gun ownership is wrong or true or false because guns are designed to kill. I asked why it is a liberty to own something designed to do this.
Note that I understand perfectly well that some firearms are designed just for target shooting, but they are highly specialised and the overwhelming majority of gun owners do not own this type of firearm.
James K further wrote:
In Freakonomics, Levitt notes that swimming pools kill more children than guns, so should swimming pools be illegal? People don't need pools after all.This is argument 14 from the list, although I more commonly hear it as cars rather than swimming pools.
The problem with this is that it does not compare like with like - swimming pools are not designed to kill. If anything, this is evidence that things that can kill should be more tightly controlled or supervised. Which, lo and behold, is actually an argument for gun control.
Dunc then posted:
Well, I simply don't think that a total ban is either justified or necessary.What someone thinks is irrelevant isn't it? Would you accept a creationist argument because it is what they think? He highlights that gun control in the UK was very strict anyway before firearms were banned outright and that he thinks this goes too far. I happen to agree - but Dunc does not explain why it goes too far other than to reiterate that some people who used to target shoot before the ban now can't.
So what? Why is that a reasonable and sound argument for relaxing the gun control laws? Some people like to stone adulterers, should we all adopt Sharia law?
Dunc then raises a good point, that handgun crime does not appear to have fallen since the ban, by linking to this 2001 article. This 2008 article shows that gun crime continued to rise until 2006, and then started to fall. All this at a time when crime in general was also rising it must be noted. Was the fall down to the firearms act, or are there other factors at work? Was the rise evidence that the laws didn't work or evidence of other factors? It certainly seems that the British laws were a failure if they were intended to reduce gun crime, but again was that down to bad law or other factors? The raw numbers don't tell us.
But then, were the laws a failure? They apparently didn't reduce gun crime - but there have been no Hungerfords or Dunblanes since then at a time when they seem to be increasingly frequent around the world. Of course, this involves playing 'what ifs' and 'what might have beens' - as Dunc notes those incidents were so shocking because they were so rare anyway.
But what of deaths from firearms not related to crime - something the strict firearms laws certainly do help prevent? This article gives compelling evidence. In the year 2001 (when gun crime was rising in the UK) the USA suffered 5.92 firearms suicides and 0.36 deaths from accidents per 100,000 people. In England and Wales it was 0.2 and 0.03 respectively, for Scotland 0.2 and 0.02. This page highlights that in 2006 55% of gun related deaths in the US were suicides. It highlights that handguns, whilst only making up one third of the firearms owned in the US account for two thirds of the firearm related deaths. It highlights that a gun in the home is 11 times more likely to be used to commit suicide than to be used in self defence. It highlights that a gun in the home increases the risk of homicide by a family member by 3 times and the risk of suicide by 5 times compared to homes where no gun is present.
This article then also points to the rise of the use of imitation firearms in gun crime - which as far as I can tell were not affected by stricter controls until 2004.
This also suggests that the increase between 1998/99 and 2001/2 may be down to certain police forces also introducing new crime reporting standards.
This (in section 3) also makes the point that firearms used in reported offences are often assumed to be real firearms because it is often impossible to tell if they are real or imitation in many cases. How much of the rise can be attributed to the use of more available imitation weapons rather than the heavily controlled real weapons? In the same section the point is made again that reporting of firearms offences changed on April 1 1998.
The same report includes gun crime trends since 1968 - the trend is generally up with some dips. The sharpest rises occur after 1998. The use of handguns in crime has fallen in five of the 6 years from 2001 to the time of the report.
Look at this and tell me strict gun control doesn't reduce, very significantly, gun related crime (in this case firearms homicides per 100,000 people). England and Wales have the second lowest rate. Japan is the only country with a lower rate, and the laws there are similar in severity to the UK.
The truth is that it is not as simple as Dunc implies. Gun crime figures are not even half of the story.
I also find that this is somewhat of a strawman - where did I say that gun control was just about reducing gun crime? Where did I say that gun control succeeds or fails based solely on the effect it has on the incidence of gun related crime? Or is gun crime simply the easiest thing to look at and rest your case on for the anti gun control argument?
Again I am forced to ask - where was the skeptical and critical thinking? Where was the diligence often given to many other arguments elsewhere?
Dunc later writes:
Common-or-garden shootings, on the other hand, have become much more common.Which is not strictly true - firearms related offences have increased, not simply shootings (and here I am really being a pedant). He then writes:
I'm generally in favour of the presumption of positive liberty: things should be legal unless there is a good for them not to be.How much of a good reason do you need? Many of the figures given above suggest a good reason, do they not? What sort of threshold do you set? What is the justification for this threshold? Furthermore, your presumption is inconsistent. Why allow semi-automatic handguns for example, but not semi-automatic assault rifles? If you allow semi-automatic, why not fully automatic? Why allow rifles but not machine guns? If machine guns why not rocket propelled grenade launchers?
Any of the arguments that can be raised in favour of handguns can be used in favour of machine guns, should we allow machine guns under this presumption of positive liberty? If not, why not? What is the difference? What is your justification for this difference?
I'm not convinced that a complete ban is either necessary or even useful - I think the previous regulatory regime was sufficient. (I'm pretty sure that the weapons used for both Hungerford and Dunblane were illegally held.)This latter part is wrong, both Michael Ryan and Thomas Hamilton were legal gun owners using legally owned weapons. The previous regime was not sufficient for the people they killed. What is the threshold?
And here is another example of what I was talking about earlier. I've seen Dunc make long posts filled with citations about things as relatively trivial as GM crops elsewhere. Yet here, on a topic as important as gun control, "I'm pretty sure" is good enough for him to claim something. It took me less than 3 minutes to use Google to find out that Ryan and Hamilton used legally owned weapons - why didn't Dunc? If accuracy is important for debates about GM crops, why not gun control? If an alternative medicine proponent wrote "I'm pretty sure that homeopathy works." would it be acceptable to skeptics? Then, in a classic piece of woo like behaviour, Dunc seems to have ignored the fact that I pointed out this was wrong. In this debate it is important that you acknowledge what you get factually wrong - people don't remember the corrections but the original claim. That's what creationists rely on.
Dunc finishes that post with:
Fox hunting (with hounds) is a different matter, because that's an animal cruelty issue. That's a perfectly good reason to ban it, IMHO.Here I find it hard not to be snide - there's the famous British obsession with animal welfare.
Why are the deaths of animals good reason to ban something, but not the deaths of human beings?
James K returned:
The reason I cite the genetic fallacy is that you assume that the fact that guns are designed to kill is in any way relevant. The intention with which an object was created is wholly irrelevant to evaluating that object.I did not say that the intention with which an object was created was relevant to the evaluation of the object. I was asking why the intention with which the object was created is apparently not relevant to the right of someone to possess it as part of their individual liberties.
Berlzebub then posted:
As others have pointed out, the original firearms were developed for battlefield use. However, they now have civilian versions that have the "sole purpose" of target shooting (too heavy to carry around), and hunting. Of course, they can be retasked to take the life of a person, but that's an action on the part of the individual not the firearm.I responded by asking what was the difference between a civilian weapon and a military one. I should have made the point clearer by asking, what is the difference between a civilian owned semi-automatic assault rifle (which my father in law has) and a military semi-automatic assault rifle?
What exactly makes something that can shoot a paper target different to something that can shoot a real person?
I have fired target shooting 'versions' of military weapons - they are not too heavy to carry around, that's simply complete nonsense with no factual basis. Tell me, how could one shoot a rifle that was too heavy to carry around?
What makes a hunting rifle unable to kill a person? How many people need a hunting rifle for something other than sport (if you count blasting an unsuspecting animal from 200 yards with a high powered rifle using a telescopic sight a sport)? What do you need to specifically do to a civilian target rifle to retask it to shoot people? I'll give a hint to people who have never shot a firearm before - bugger all.
The important thing to note here is that most privately owned weapons are useless for target shooting as a sport or hobby, and most people don't use them for this anyway - I'm not even sure if my father in law has actually fired his AK-47 yet - a weapon that is useless for target shooting, hunting and self defence at close quarters in the home anyway. If the weapon is useless for its supposed purposes then why is it necessary to be allowed to have one?
Furthermore, as I pointed out over there, even a .22 air rifle can kill. As a young boy's family found out in the UK yesterday. Take a good long look at the picture of that boy and tell me you really can't think of a good reason for banning all private firearms, without sounding like an uncaring shitbag.
At least we don't hunt foxes anymore. Look how civilised and free we are.
James K then came back with more of argument 2 from my list. He also added this:
Gun death follow a classic Pareto Principle pattern, the vast majority of gun deaths are caused by a small fraction of gun owners, specifically gang members. Gang members are experts at accessing illegal goods, after all they do sell drugs. The way to stop these deaths is end the "War on Drugs", not by piling bad laws on top of other bad laws.No citations, no supporting evidence. Just simple assertions. Would this be acceptable from a creationist or pseudo-scientist? Why did a skeptic think it was OK here then? I called James K on this after doing my own research, and he admitted he could not find the source he thought had claimed this and withdrew the claim. But that isn't what people will remember is it? Who remembers newspaper retractions?
I found that the figures flatly contradict the claims he made. For instance, this page shows that homicides by a family member, friend or acquaintance with a gun are far more common than homicides by a stranger with a gun. This page shows a similar trend - there are far more gun deaths through circumstances other than gangs than those related to gangs. In 2005, in the US, 71% of homicides were committed with a firearm.
If I could find this out, why couldn't James K before he made the claims? Why did he feel he didn't have to? Why did he basically abandon his critical thinking skills and skepticism?
James K then reverts back to argument by swimming pool:
Guns do more than kill, the provide pleasure (target shooters and hunters), food (hunters), peace of mind (self defence weapons). These are real benefits that are lost if guns are banned. Once again I use swimming pools as an analogy. They also provide intangible gains like pleasure, and they kill a lot of people every year. Do you support banning swimming pools? If not, why not?First, as I already mentioned, you are not even close to comparing like with like. Swimming pools are not weapons designed to kill. Second, your use of swimming pools is helping to prove the gun control point - things that can be dangerous require close supervision and control. Third, you are twisting and basically ignoring the facts.
How many swimming pools are used in homicides compared to firearms?
How many swimming pools are used in suicides compared to firearms?
How many swimming pools are used in muggings compared to firearms?
How many swimming pools are used in armed robberies compared to firearms?
How many swimming pools are used in sexual assaults compared to firearms?
How many swimming pools are used in kidnappings compared to firearms?
How many swimming pools are used in gang fights compared to firearms?
How many swimming pools have been used in school shootings compared to firearms?
Do you really need me to go on in order to demonstrate how utterly ridiculous this attempted comparison is?
Fine, I will anyway. In the US in 2006 there were 30,896 deaths from firearms. In the same year there were 4,279 deaths from drowning. Note that is drowning in total and NOT just deaths related to swimming pools. 1,139 of those deaths come in the age group 0-19 years of age. 688 of those are in the age group of 0-9 years of age. Could it be that the swimming pool argument is not as simple as James K is making out?
How about the other version of this argument, cars? Well, in 2006 in the US there were 45,509 motor vehicle related deaths. Why, that's more than firearms. However the figures on motor vehicle deaths can mislead. In 2004 there were 243,023,485 registered vehicles on the road. There were 136,430,651 passenger vehicles. According to this page, in 1994 there were 192,000,000 guns in the US owned by just 44,000,000 Americans. Many more people are exposed to motor vehicles than guns.
Again, the cars argument simply works in favour of gun control anyway - it just shows that closer and stricter supervision of things that can be dangerous is needed because of the number of deaths involved. Have you seen how badly people drive in this country?
Then we had some of argument number 15. Which is basically just a version of the woo argument about 'western science versus eastern mysticism/ traditionalism'. Do skeptics ever accept this argument? So why should I now with this debate?
James K wrote:
That's what I mean about different premises. I don't think anything you just said addresses any of my points, and its clear you feel the same about what I said. We're just talking past each other.He used another classic woo tactic here by also claiming I had not really addressed any of his points even though I had specifically addressed them, and then he has the cheek to get upset when I point this out!
James K then goes on to write:
Bringing pleasure is the best reason for anything, what is life for, but to find pleasure in it? If there are large offsetting harms in an action, then there may be space for controls on those things, but only if the harm is clearly established and the control proposal can be demonstrated to work.Which is more of argument 3. Enjoyment of something is not a sound or justifiable reason for something to be legal or a liberty. I also asked how the harms are judged, how is the harm clearly established in relation to the pleasure that is gained? Why is it that if there is large offsetting harm James K only considers there 'may' be space for controls? I also asked for James K to define how he is using pleasure. In his next response, he answered none of my questions.
Ignoring difficult questions is also another favoured tactic of creationists and woos.
The Null Hypothesis
Here's where things got really interesting for me. Here's a brief explanation of the null hypothesis.
I stated that in gun control arguments I believe that the null hypothesis is that it is not a necessary freedom to own a gun. Dunc and James K are arguing that it is a liberty ot own a gun They have made the claim that gun ownership should be allowed - the null hypothesis is therefore that it shouldn't be. It is not up to anyone to demonstrate the null hypothesis.
Remember the argument started with me asking why Dunc thought something was the case, and what good arguments for gun control were. That means anyone who answered is making the claim that needs to be supported. The negation of their claim is the null hypothesis.
Dunc and James K simply responded by redefining the null hypothesis.
Well, that's where we differ. I view the null position as "everything is permitted". If you think something should not be permitted, the burden of justification lies on you.In other words, Dunc is saying that the null hypothesis is the claim that gun ownership is a liberty that should be freely available and gun control is the claim that needs to disprove the null hypothesis. Or he is saying the null hypothesis is "This is the case until someone can show otherwise". Anyone happy with that?
Apply that logic to God and suddenly it is atheists who have to disprove God because the null hypothesis is that God exists (everything is permitted). Anyone happy with that? So why should we accept that as a skeptical argument against gun control?
The null hypothesis is surely "This is not the case until someone shows otherwise". Applied to gun control this is "gun ownership is not a liberty that requires no justification."
But look closer at what Dunc says after this:
Is the default "everything is permitted", or "nothing is permitted"? I take the former, you take the latter.His default position is that 'everything is permitted'. Forgetting gun control for now, is anyone comfortable with that in regards to other areas? Do I really have to prove that a persons liberty to have sex with children should be taken away and until then it is OK, and it continues to be OK if I can't find a good reason for it not to be? Are we really happy to argue that the only reason the freedom to murder someone is not a liberty is because currently the state has a good defensible argument to make it illegal? If someone can find a good justification should the liberty to murder become legal?
James K responds with semantics.
"Do people have aright [sic] to won [sic] guns?" is an ought question, not an is question. The rules about null hypotheses apply only to is questions.Really? Well I am asking "Is gun ownership a fundamental and/or necessary liberty and can someone explain why?" So, luckily for me, the null hypothesis applies then. Isn't it fun what you can do when you play semantics?
Then he writes:
Scepticism, reason and evidence are all useful, but things are always more complicated when dealing with human questions.Which is basically an admission that he thinks critical thinking counts when it does, but doesn't when it doesn't. Which is the point I am trying to make about skepticism suddenly being abandoned when a personal view is in question.
Then James K finishes with this:
To have a proper hypothesis, let alone a null hypothesis you have to have a factual question. "Does gun control significantly reduce violent deaths?" is a factual question, the null hypothesis is no.Which is handy. I've quite easily and clearly proved the negation of this null hypothesis with the statistics included above. Yes, gun control significantly reduces violent deaths AND injuries. Next.
To finish up
It's been a long post and no doubt some people by this point are going to be pissed off - tough, I make no apologies for the arguments presented. Like I said at the start a poorly presented and supported argument deserves strong responses no matter who it is from - and should probably get a harsher response if the proponent is supposed to be a critical thinker or skeptic - we should hold ourselves to higher standards.
Higher standards doesn't include inconsistencies, bad analogies, lazy fact checking, guessing, factual inaccuracies, ignoring difficult questions, ignoring what we get wrong, re-writing the rules to suit you, adopting debate tactics you would condemn in others and using logical fallacies.
I've looked at anti-gun control arguments from skeptics and find them sorely wanting.
My opinion remains unchanged.