Montana Politics

Rules for Liberals Discussing Gun Control

As the push for some kind of policy response to a year of horrific mass shootings is confronted by a frustratingly intransigent US Senate, we’d love to see both sides making their arguments coherently and accurately. This is, however, unlikely, but the least we can hope for is that those favoring some kind of gun control reform can learn to temper their most counterproductive argumentative tendencies and keep the following facts and guidelines in mind:

1. You are not playing for a majority of Americans.

If a majority of Americans could pass laws in the US, we’d have a very different set of policies than we have right now. However, two complications in the gun debate mean that it will take far more than a majority to get control passed. First, gun control opponents tend to be much more invested in their lifestyle than gun control advocates, and so are more likely to include gun control on a very short list of issues that determine their voting. Secondly, the structure of the US Senate and Electoral College does not equally represent all Americans. Instead, rural Americans are immensely over-represented. Therefore, even measures with solid majority support may die if that support is focused on the coasts or in under-represented cities – we MUST have buy in from rural areas for any effective gun control.

2. Belittling people does not work.

Guns are not toys, they are not compensatory phalli, they are not adolescent obsessions. Too many liberals speak in terms that belittle those who believe in gun rights – which plays well with their supporters and particularly well with academia, which adores phallic comparisons and psychoanalysis. But gun advocates are right to respect (and even revere) firearms – guns are not just hunks of metal to be regulated like any other object. The Framers of the Constitution recognized this, no doubt because experiences like Lexington and Concord had taught them that being armed dramatically changed, for better or worse, the relationship between a citizen and his or her government.

Belittling guns and gun owners also weakens the most powerful line of argument in favor of common sense gun regulation: the inherent power that comes with owning a firearm, far from being an object of ridicule, ought to be a source of great respect for guns themselves, and a call for responsibility on the part of gun owners (private or commercial) to ensure that tools of such immense destructive potential do no fall into the hands of those demonstrably unfit for them.

3. Stop using bad stats!

First off, ‘gun deaths’ is an absurd statistic, so stop talking about it. The problem is murder rates – because if we bring down gun deaths without bringing down homicide rates, we’ve accomplished nothing (we could bring down accidental gun deaths or gun suicides, but neither of those aspects are really being addressed in the current debate). And while the US does have abnormally high murder rate compared to, say, Germany, saying we have ‘the highest murder rate in the industrialized world’ is a mite bit disingenuous, as it’s playing fast and loose with the definition of industrialized. When your definition excludes such enormous modern industrial economies as Mexico and Brazil (as it must for the statistic to be true), you’re really using the word ‘industrialized’ as code for ‘white’. Please don’t.

4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

No amount of gun control is going to make us Germany, and no legal measures will eliminate mass killings by people who don’t mind dying, certainly not quickly. If we aren’t clear that this is a long term goal to address one of many causes of our disproportionately high murder rate, we’ll shortly see dozens of graphs showing the ineffectiveness of gun control once another gun (probably stolen or purchased long ago) is used in a mass killing, and any legislation enacted will expire before it has a chance to really take effect.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • A thoughtful post, but I am inclined to disagree with a few points.
    I’m not sure that most who criticize the gun lobby are interested in belittling them, but I do admit I feel compelled to mock their illogical interpretation of the Second Amendment and occasionally seditious rhetoric.  It would be a lot easier to have a reasoned debate with people whose positions were grounded in reality.
    I also think it is fair to discuss the U.S. gun deaths in terms of comparison with the “developed” world at least, as this source notes:

    • dpogreba Oh certainly some gun control arguments can be belittled, but the general trend is frequently to dismiss gun owners or argue against gun ownership as a general principle.  There are irrational gun arguments, and there are smart ones.  A smart gun advocate points out that internationally there is absolutely no correlation between gun ownership and homicide rate unless you exclude data on some other basis.  Like supposed development status:
      As to the developed world?   Check the asterix on the WP chart- it very misleadingly defines the developed world as ‘the OECD, excluding Mexico.’  First of all, one what grounds is Mexico excluded, but Turkey included?  Their GDP/PPP numbers are nearly the same, but adding Mexico to the right would skew the scale nearly as much again as the US does!  And again they are left arguing that Argentina and Russia(!) aren’t ‘developed’ because they aren’t part of the OECD.  All in all, I think that as wealth is a poor predictor of violence, it makes little sense to compare the US only to other very wealthy countries.

  • I find  “Gun control” too general a term to be useful. I prefer to discuss specific proposals for regulating firearms.
    And, for me at least, the problem is not just murders committed with firearms. Accidental deaths and injuries are also important, as are cases of intimidation or coercion. I agree that the murder rate is a useful statistic, but I would say as general guidance that putting statistics in context is as important as the choice of statistics.
    I agree with Don that humor, satire, etc., can be, and often are, the best rhetorical devices for dealing with crackpots and demagogues. We are not being little when we do that.

  • I disagree somewhat with #2, only in as much that guns are toys and are frequently referred to as such by gun owners ourselves.  It doesn’t mean we don’t respect them or value their power; just that they are ours to possess and use for fun, just like any other ‘toy’, whether it be a fishing rod, monster truck or star wars action figure collection.  The ‘toy’ argument makes no sense to gun owners, and frequently derails conversation not because it’s demeaning to us, but because it’s so supremely arrogant from those who attempt to deride firearms as unworthy.  Everyone has toys.  The ‘toy’ argument fails not because it demeans gun owners but because it attempts poorly to demean the object as ‘unworthy’.  That’s nonsensical.  Why would anyone fear something unworthy of having so much they would think it beneath having?
    Rules for discussing gun control are useful tools, but only if they see the actual effect arguments have.  Demeaning gun owners as having small genitalia is dismissive, and meant to rally the superior while dismissing the opponent.  Argument over, with bad feelings all around.  Demeaning the object itself, as with the toy argument, is more damaging because it invites the strongest defense of what ownership rights we all think we have.  That’s a self-defeating loser from the get-go.

  • Here’s an idea, PW, how about “Rules for the NRA and Montana Shooting Sports Discussing Gun Control.”  Sure, there are radical proposals from the anti-gun crowd but they pale in comparison to the no compromise crowd on the other side.  While the majority of Americans want a meaningful debate on reasonable gun regulation, the gun lobby maintains a take no prisoners approach.    
    As to point #3, “Stop using bad stats!,” the NRA lobbies hard to stop any sort of legitimate measurement of gun violence.  And gun advocates are the worst offenders at abusing existing statistics.
    The recent failure of the Senate to pass the expanded background checks is a prime example of being cowed by the gun lobby.  The public wanted it but that august body rolled over like two-dollar whores.

    • Pete Talbot Because the Montana Shooting Sports Association I’m pretty sure is one guy.  And the NRA is almost completely divorced from reality, and certainly from rational rhetoric.  The point isn’t ‘these are rules for a civilized debate’, though I think they help that.  The point is, these are mistakes liberals continue to make which undermine our point.  There can be no doubt that requiring background checks for every firearm sold is a good idea, and a person who truly respects guns ought to agree with that.  The problem is that we get tripped up by these mistakes – underestimating the power of the rural minority, belittling people whose votes we need, using bad data, and acting as though gun control is the primary solution for our crime problem.  And these mistakes then dictate the conversation nationally, or more accurately distract from a real conversation on what should be common sense.  The gun lobby makes infinitely more mistakes, but they make up for it by having a lot of money.  We can’t afford the same.

      • MatthewDownhour Pete Talbot 
        I appreciate your message here, Matt.  As you can probably tell, I’m passionate about this issue and have a hard time cutting the gun lobby any slack.
        Another note, though: I see in a comment below that you mention Mexico as a country that should be included in the stats.  True.  But where do you think Mexico gets all those guns?  The good old U.S. of A.

        • Pete Talbot Oh absolutely.  Indeed, further restrictions on ‘assault weapons’ will probably have little effect on our crime rate, as the majority of US murders are done with handguns.  But the effect it could potentially have in Mexico is enormous, and that alone makes it worthwhile.

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