There’s a well-worn template of gun discussion that goes like this:
Alice: Why crack down further on gun ownership?
Bob: Because a lot of people get shot to death every year.
Alice: A lot of people die in car accidents, but that doesn’t cut in favor of a crackdown on car ownership.
Bob: True, but cars have a lot of constructive uses. Guns are specifically designed to kill.
Each sentence there has several essays’ worth of material to scrutinize. (We’ve written, and will write, a few such essays.) But this archetype is interesting in a way that both sides tend to miss — there’s an unspoken assumption in “guns are specifically designed to kill” which both Alice and Bob skipped over. Let’s unpack it.
To do that, we have to take a quick detour into a bit of pedantic English trivia. If you say something like, “This mystery meat tastes like raccoon”, what’s the go-to joke you’d expect in response?
“That begs the question, how do you know what raccoon tastes like?”
A good question, but, it turns out, if we’re nitpicking, a bit incorrectly worded. In modern English, “begs the question” means “raises the question”. But by its archaic definition (and even today, as technical jargon among lawyers), it actually refers to a specific logical fallacy. The begging-the-question fallacy is when someone presents evidence for a conclusion, but the evidence presupposes the truth of the conclusion. It’s a form of circular logic. Aristotle described it 2050 years ago like so: “Begging the question is proving what is not self-evident by means of itself.”
That’s a bit abstract, so let’s think about some examples:
“Climbing a ladder is dangerous because you can get hurt if you fall.”
“It’s a good idea to make the police get a warrant before they enter your house, because otherwise they could just come in anytime.”
“You should try this cake. It’s delicious.”
These seem like good points! But look closer and you start to realize that I haven’t actually presented any evidence. I made an assertion, then (perhaps without even realizing it) reworded the assertion and presented it as evidence for the very thing it’s a rewording of.
For example, zoom in on “You should try this cake. It’s delicious.” The first sentence is basically, “I think you’ll like this cake.” The second sentence, where I say it’s delicious, is just another way of saying that you’ll like it. Which is precisely the thing that needs to be proved.
Pivoting from cake to guns, let’s think about “guns are specifically designed to kill” through this begging-the-question lens.
Hypothesis: guns (or for narrower versions of the hypothesis: “the lack of new, more restrictive gun laws”) are a net-negative.
Evidence: guns are specifically designed to kill.
Sounds like an argument! But “guns are specifically designed to kill” is another way of saying that guns are inherently noxious or deviant. That’s a hypothesis, a starting point. And like any hypothesis about cake, death, or everything in between, it can’t be its own evidence.
Ok, fair enough, few people would disagree at this point. It’s logically sound, in formal terms. But actually internalizing this is a bigger emotional leap than many people are used to making. Because if you’re not allowed to assume a priori that guns are noxious (since that the thing you’re trying to prove), then you have to start from what is, for many people, an idea so jarring that it’s almost a paradox: that guns are not noxious.
That’s the null hypothesis — it’s not where folks have to end up, but it is where they have to start. That is extraordinarily difficult if you have, like many millions of people, literally no first-hand knowledge of healthy gun usage.
(There’s an easy way to measure where you are on this spectrum: from 0 to 10, how jarring is the very phrase “healthy gun usage”? There are lots of folks out there at 0–1. There are also a lot of folks at 9–10. Things get weird when they talk with each other.)
David Yamane, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University, puts it like this:
A quarter-century ago in 1995, sociologist James Wright included among his “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America” that “gun ownership is normative, not deviant, behavior across vast swaths of the social landscape”. The idea that guns are normal and normal people use guns may seem common-sense to those of us gathered here, but it’s actually a dramatic departure from the standard social scientific approaches that view guns and gun owners as deviant, and research literatures that are dominated by criminological and epidemiological studies of gun violence. This theme is so constant that the New York Times ran a headline just last week declaring, “Gun Research Is Suddenly Hot”. In fact, the story was about how research on gun violence is suddenly hot. Research on the lawful use of guns is as cold as ever.
“Guns are normal and normal people use guns.” Those of us who are those people know that. But for millions of others, the very idea is almost not even parseable as English. A gun appears — in a movie, on the news, etc. — and then someone gets shot. That’s just what happens. It’s not just that people have no experience with “someone took out a gun, we all shot it and had a great time, and then we took the kids to soccer practice”. It’s that they don’t even know that’s a thing.
In storytelling, for example, Chekhov’s gun is a punchy metaphor because it’s about guns. “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” That makes sense to us; guns are expected to shoot someone. I mean, I wouldn’t buy a ticket for John Wick 4: Everybody Has a Fun Day at the Range and Nothing Bad Happens.
But in real life, it turns out that “nothing bad happens” is the overwhelming norm. So begging the question boils down to not seeing the denominator — zooming in on harmful gun uses, and not considering (or perhaps even being aware of) healthy gun uses. That’s what “guns are specifically designed to kill” means. If that’s true, then guns are empirically probably the most defective product you can buy.
We’ll circle back to the math on that, but to set it up with an example everyone can relate to, consider the 4th Amendment. Imagine there were a group of nonprofits and university research labs producing studies on how if you require warrants, you’ll make crimes easier to commit and harder to solve.
The studies would find that warrants have a lot of problems! And forget about the researchers’ potential biases. If they start out loving police searches, then yes, sure, they’ll find a ton of problems. But here’s the more dangerous part: even if it’s painstakingly even-handed, research that is focused on all the harms of warrants will see — naturally — the harms of warrants.
Crimes go unsolved because police can’t (in theory) stop whomever they like for no reason, or search every apartment in a building they saw a suspect visit. That all unquestionably causes measurable harms. And if you spend $x00 million studying the harms, you’re going to publish some nice papers.
But in the warrant context, we all intuit that to stop the analysis there is to miss the other side of the scale. And the other side holds the entire reason to require warrants in the first place: because your personhood as an individual has value. Even if it’s hard to quantify.
The key difficulty, mapping this back to guns, is the “we all intuit” part. On warrants, people (mostly) share a gut feeling. But on guns, that intuition isn’t just not universal, it’s in fact the core of the disagreement. Some people think the discussion is “guns are noxious so now what should we do about that”, whereas a lot of other people think the discussion is whether guns are noxious in the first place. The former are begging the question, and the latter are missing a chance to showcase the reality that, as Prof. Yamane puts it, guns are normal and normal people use guns.
It’s great to study harmful gun uses. But to stop there is to close the book on the first page — to beg the question. There are 423 million guns in the US. Each year, about 14,500 of them are used in a murder. Those are extensively studied, and that’s good. So now is a good time to start studying the other 99.9965721%.