The main arguments against tougher gun control being trotted out again after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., represent a fallacy of logic – perhaps not clearly seen until now.
You’ve heard the counter-arguments before: Such laws won’t keep guns out of the hands of those determined to use them unlawfully; miscreants bent on evil will have their way with or without guns; and the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School presents a mental health issue, not a gun-control question.
It will be argued in the coming weeks and months that bans on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammo clips as well as stricter standards and longer waiting periods for gun permits are simply off the mark or ineffective. And after the media refocus on the fiscal cliff and Syria, the arguments may very well help thwart reform as they have countless times before.
Indeed, Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas tells us “Guns aren’t the problem; sick people are.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee let us know that “[w]hen somebody has an intent to do incredible damage, they’re going to find a way to do it.” And, as commentator Bill O’Reilly told us right after the massacre in the Colorado movie theater, “The truth is, criminals will always get guns.”
There is, of course, great truth to these arguments. But whether Adam Lanza in Newtown or the killers at the Colorado theater or Virginia Tech or the Sikh temple in Wisconsin or Columbine, Colo., would have been stymied by gun control measures is not the central issue.
Even if particular killers would have obtained a weapon anyway, opposition to gun regulation on the basis that it won’t keep guns out of the hands of murderers or that mental health resources could be brought to bear in these cases reflects what is known in formal logic as the “red herring fallacy.” This is when one argument is used to deflect attention from what’s really at issue.
Legislation aimed at limiting access to guns, like all other law designed to protect human life, is not put forward in the naïve belief that it will prevent all wrongful loss of life or that it’s a substitute for mental health care and education.
No one would argue, for example, that homicide laws have no place on the books just because a legal proscription can’t prevent all killings and timely counseling might have dissuaded a perpetrator. And even if our homicide laws prevented only a handful of murders, they would still serve a useful purpose. The fact that a law won’t completely eradicate a particular harm is not an argument against its adoption.
This holds true for gun regulation. The point is that, as with all law designed to protect life and limb, tighter gun control laws will reduce the carnage. Even a modest measure banning, for example, the high-capacity ammunition magazines used in these atrocities would have saved many innocent lives.
The arguments that guns would still fall into the wrong hands, that death will be wrought by other means, and that those who pull the trigger often have mental health problems are a sleight of hand when offered to defeat tighter gun controls.
As federal and state proposals for gun regulation sweep across the nation in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, the opponents of these measures will place before us evidence of imperfection and, in a dangerous deception, represent it as proof of illegitimacy. Lawmakers must see through this fallacy.
Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida. His commentary has appeared in the The New York Times and other national and local media. Silver's opinions are his own.