Thursday, March 07, 2013

Shooting Sophistry

   Last November, a columnist whose work appears regularly in mid-Hudson Valley newspapers shared with readers his take on the impending presidential election. “Unless you want to wake up in a house of horrors” on November 7, said Dick Nelson (“Outdoors”; 11/1/12), “you should” vote on November 6 for Mitt Romney.  This would help to prevent an event that is “more frightening” than a Halloween encounter with a poltergeist, more dreadful than the vision of “Hurricane Sandy turning into another Irene”: re-election of Barack Obama.  That would be terrifying on account of Obama’s record of “blatant disregard for the Bill of Rights—the Second Amendment in particular.”
   Although President Obama has only advocated banning assault weapons, Nelson warned, that is just a decoy. “Banning all guns is one of his top priorities and he will do anything within his means to make it happen.”  So, people, if you give Obama four more years you will “lose your right to keep and bear arms.”
   This bit of electioneering demonstrates three traits of character:
     *Tunnel vision.  The choice between presidential candidates allegedly hinges on just one issue: safeguarding our right to keep and bear (fire)arms.
     *Arrogance.  Nelson pretends to be a mind-reader.  He pretends to reveal, and thus to know, not just what Obama has said on a selected topic, but what he actually, urgently, intends. 
     *Contempt.  In his column Nelson offered not a single word in support of his opinions and accusations--that in the choice of presidential candidates, the gun issue trumps all others; that the President despises the Bill of Rights; that the President will do “anything” to ban all guns.  Such omissions exhibit, to Dick Nelson’s readers and to his role as public commentator, blatant contempt.
    (Instead of supporting those judgments, Nelson proceeded to name his preferred candidates for local elective offices; all were Republicans).
    Soon after the election, anyhow, Nelson’s words earned an additional claim to attention.  On December 14, in Newtown CT, a gun-wielding young man speedily slaughtered 20 children in a school, as well as six adults.  That massacre gave fresh urgency to the subject of civilian gun usage.  It triggered new demands for legal controls over gun ownership and use.  And on January 18th, Dick Nelson took up a reader’s challenge to explain how “gunowners” can “make a strong argument against stricter gun control when so many innocent children have been killed or when a crazed gunman goes on a shooting spree” at a shopping mall or school or movie theater.  Particularly, “What’s wrong with having a federal gun registration or making it tougher for anyone to own a gun?”  Nelson’s response, his version of the required “strong argument,” proved to be remarkable for positions not taken.  It went this way.
 SUPERFLUITY?  “There are already more than 35,000 gun laws on the books,” said Nelson, and “most” of them “aren’t being enforced.”  That factual claim (a bold bit of arithmetic creativity) could pave the way for contending plausibly that we don’t need stricter gun control laws because the present ones, if properly enforced, would suffice to meet the problems invoked by reform agitators.  But Nelson did not voice that argument.  He did not advocate enforcement, or stricter enforcement, of current gun control laws.  Neither did he affirm or deny that the Sandy Hook massacre, or any other events, offers cause for concern about civilian uses in America of firearms.
 FUTILITY?  If the opponent of a contemplated course of action contends that enactment would not bring substantial progress toward the goal(s) invoked by proponents, he lays the foundation for an appealing line of argument.  He offers practical advice that pertains to the proponents’ way of gauging success.  His advice earns further respect if the contemplated action would impose costs on affected persons (material costs, and/or violations of their sense of propriety).  And his advice earns more respect to the extent that, by recalling the apparent results of similar measures applied to comparable communities, he invokes relevant experience. 
    Nelson did not take that road.   He did not say, much less undertake to show, that the contemplated gun control measures would fail to reduce casualties inflicted on innocent civilians by gun-wielding psychopaths and other criminals. 
    And yet he did address the matter of effectiveness.  He asserted that stricter laws on gun ownership and use would not, could not, stop a resolute assassin: “None of the proposed anti-gun legislation will deter anyone hell-bent on killing the unarmed” (emphasis added). That kind of futility claim is question-begging.  It ignores the crucial question of quantity—of the extent that proposed gun control measures would cut the volume of carnage inflicted on innocent victims by clumsy shooters, crime-bent thugs and psychopaths.  It treats an imperfect deterrent as a useless deterrent.
 VULNERABILITY?  In addition to contending that gun control laws cannot thwart a hell-bent assassin, while dodging the matter of success against a mob of assassins, Nelson suggested that such laws put citizens at the mercy of hell-bent governors.  Thus, “Every national gun licensing and registration in history has led to confiscation…” and “history has repeatedly shown that gun registration has led to disarming its citizenry and the extirpation of millions of people.”
    Nelson devoted more attention to this grim scenario than to any other gun control issue.  He did not, however, make explicit the bearing of the alleged historical experience on the current American scene.  Perhaps he meant to invoke his arbitrary claim that President Obama craves total civilian disarmament.  Perhaps he meant to prophesy that any new regulations here on civilian gun ownership and use today would lead (by subtle insidious stages) to tighter regulations tomorrow, culminating in wholesale government-ordered extermination of domestic foes, who would be weaponless and not protected by soldiers, sailors, airmen, National Guardsmen, police or sheriff’s deputies.
    At any rate, in ostensible support of his version of the lessons of history, Nelson cited nine putative cases.  After Turkey, the Soviet Union, China, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Guatemala and Uganda “established gun control” at times in modern history, masses of target group members (Armenians, political dissentients, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mental defectives, Malaysians, Christians), “unable to defend themselves,” were “rounded up and exterminated.”  The victims of these government-inflicted massacres numbered, cumulatively, “55 million-plus people.”
    In no case, however, did Nelson say, much less undertake to show, that the unspecified gun controls that were established in those countries actually yielded a major roundup of guns (=confiscation) and then a roundup of now-defense-less victims.  In no case, again, does Nelson say that, but for those gun control measures, the eventual purge victims would have been able to defend themselves.
    Two of his cases, moreover, work against his implied version of cause and effect. In China, “gun control” allegedly was imposed in 1935 while the murderous roundup of dissentients (“no longer able to defend themselves”) began in 1948—which is to say, after the regime that had enacted gun control was overthrown by gun-toting Maoist revolutionaries.  Similarly, the domestic Cambodian butchery that Nelson dates from 1975 was inflicted after gun-toting Khmer Rouge insurgents overthrew the regime that, 19 years earlier, had “established gun control.”      
    Dick Nelson’s rhetorical efforts, and those of his many National Rifle Association comrades, did not dampen the post-Sandy Hook clamor for fresh regulations of firearms.  In New York State, strong pressure was added by top government officials.  On January 10th, then, Nelson returned to the fray.
    After sketching the terms of “anti-gun bills” that had just been submitted to the State legislature (eventually bundled into the SAFE Act), Nelson declared that “each will do little to curb crime or carnage.”
    How little is little? 
    What cases show that each of the proposed measures would do no better than “little” to curb crime or carnage? 
    What would be the effect, on crime or carnage rates, of a package of those measures?
    Nelson did not answer those questions.  He did not address those questions.  
    Similarly, he opined that “all the gun control laws in the universe won’t stop the mentally ill from taking their psychotic behavior out on innocents.”  But would such laws cut the amount of death and damage inflicted by psychotics, and by non-psychotics, on innocents?  To that question Nelson addressed not a single word. 
   Those omissions are representative.  Through all his fulminations against gun controls, early and late, Dick Nelson has ignored vital questions.  He has not affirmed or denied that guns figure in a distressing number of deaths and injuries suffered by innocent American civilians.  He has not affirmed or denied that gun-related casualty rates differ significantly in communities that differ in, among other things, firearms regulations.
    The omissions (cum evasions) cannot be due to lack of opportunity.  Thus, in his column attacking the prospective SAFE Act, Nelson chose to include contentions that the National Rifle Association is composed of “average Americans” who happen to “love guns and the Second Amendment”; that rifles have been involved in killing people less than have blunt objects and personal weapon (fists, kicks…); and that guns serve as defensive weapons. 
    Nelson also found time to commit another act of arrogance and contempt. Without making even a pretense of proof, he declared that the present gun control clamor is not aimed at getting guns, especially fast-firing guns, away from crowded places and from felons and fools and psychopaths.  No sir.  Don’t be na├»ve.  Actually, it’s the “latest barrage of gunfire aimed at separating law-abiding citizens from their firearms.”