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Ross Douthat’s Assault on Logic

July 25, 2012   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX

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By Marie Burns:

In a post on gun control, published online late Tuesday, the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat made a number of logical mistakes common among opponents of gun control.

Douthat writes, “Whatever their views on gun rights, most Americans are sensible enough to realize that if gun restrictions reduce crime at all – and the evidence on this point is murky at best – they are probably least effective at deterring would-be mass murderers, who tend, like James Holmes with his homemade bombs, to be highly adaptable in their choice of weaponry.” Douthat is right only in the narrowest sense. While the crime rate as well as the number of single-victim gun deaths have declined dramatically, it is true that the rate of mass murder has remained steady over the past four decades, even during the decade an assault weapons ban was in place. But the assault weapons ban of 1994 – which expired after in 2004 – had limited impact because gun manufacturers easily found ways to evade it. We haven’t tested an effective assault weapons ban in this country. Douthat’s “wins” by misleading the reader. He suppresses an essential fact – that the 1994 assault weapons ban didn’t really ban assault weapons. We don’t know if “gun restrictions [are] … effective at deterring would-be mass murderers” because we haven’t tested it.

Douthat asserts that mass killers are “highly adaptable”; that is, if you take away their guns, they will find another means to murder. This is the argument Colorado’s Democratic governor John Hickenlooper made when he appeared on network talk shows Sunday: “’This person, if there were no assault weapons available, if there were no this or no that, this guy’s going to find something, right? He’s going to know how to create a bomb. Who knows where his mind would have gone. Clearly a very intelligent individual however twisted,’ Hickenlooper said during an interview on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’” This logical fallacy – sometimes called the “Nirvana fallacy” – in the “he’d build a bomb” theory is obvious. If some individuals might beat the system, then we shouldn’t have a system. That’s the argument. It’s like saying we shouldn’t have police because they won’t catch every criminal or we shouldn’t brush our teeth because we’ll get a few cavities anyway. Douthat and Hickenlooper have established what’s known as a “false dilemma”; that is, only two outcomes are possible: he will shoot you with a Glock or he will kill you with a bomb (or something else). The “he’d build a bomb” theory fits neatly into the government impotence theory that is the engine that drives conservative ideology: “There’s nothing we can do, so do nothing.” Or, carried to Reaganesque extremes: “Government is the problem.”

While I acknowledge that explosive devices can be made with materials commonly available, there is a reason federal and state governments regulate the use of explosive materials and require licenses for their use. You might have a valid reason to use explosives – perhaps you want to blow up that dead tree stump in your front yard with a little pack of dynamite – but you can’t. And strangely, the dynamite lobby is not, as far as I know, urging Congress or the courts to enshrine bomb-building as a Second Amendment freedom.

But even if another mass murder were not a compelling reason to change our gun laws, neither is it an excuse to leave in place permissive laws that facilitate killing sprees.

For instance, it is possible to purchase an infinite number of rounds of ammo online with no one in law enforcement the wiser. We constantly hear stories about the ability of the government to surveil our every action. I have been buying bathroom fixtures on the Internet over the past few weeks so every time I call up a new site, I can just about count on seeing an ad for vanities or lighting fixtures. Stores and outlets I never called up know what I’m buying. Yet over several months, James Holmes reportedly purchased 6,000 rounds of ammo on the Internet, and nobody noticed. I guess he had cookies disabled. According to Jack Healy of the New York Times, critics of our gun laws say there is “a virtual absence of any laws regulating ammunition sales.” Douthat’s editor Andrew Rosenthal, in a post more sensible than Douthat’s, invoked the wisdom of Chris Rock’s crime-reduction proposal: “If a bullet cost $5,000 there’d be no more innocent bystanders.” If an individual has good reason to need 6,000 rounds of ammunition, he should be required to explain it to law enforcement. I doubt James Holmes – intelligent though he reportedly is – would be able to convince officials that he had a legitimate need for that kind of stockpile. His purchases should have warned law enforcement of his deranged intentions. The ammo sellers knew what Homes was buying, his bank knew, Google knew. But nobody told the cops. They didn’t have to because Congress allows them all to look the other way. The history of Congress’s ignoring Internet sales of ammunition goes back to 1999, according to Healy, when a bill to regulate Internet sales was introduced but never adopted.

As Jack Healy reported, Holmes “also bought bulletproof vests and other tactical gear, and a high-capacity ‘drum magazine’ large enough to hold 100 rounds and capable of firing 50 or 60 rounds per minute – a purchase that would have been restricted under proposed legislation that has been stalled in Washington for more than a year.” Democrats in both houses introduced bills that would outlaw these high-capacity magazines in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in 2011, including six who died. Who could pretend there is any lawful need for such magazines? Oh, Congressional Republicans:

Appearing on Chris Wallace’s Fox “News” Sunday show, “Tea party-backed Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) says that the right to own high-capacity ammunitions magazines like the 100-round drum that was used to kill at least a dozen people in Colorado last week is a ‘basic freedom‘ that is protected by the U.S. Constitution.” Johnson did not oppose only a ban on high-capacity magazines. He was offended that liberals insisted on calling military-grade semi-automatic rifles “assault weapons.” “’The left always uses the term “assault rifle,” and they’re really talking about semi-automatic weapons that are used in hunting,’ Johnson explained. ‘That’s what happens in Wisconsin. These are rifles that are used in hunting. Just the fact of the matter is this is really not an issue of guns. This is about sick people doing things you simply can’t prevent. It’s really an issue of freedom.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who was on the program with Johnson, pointed out that in a law she proposed, “we exempted 375 rifles and shotguns by name so that no weapon used for hunting was effected at all.” Feinstein said she “would be very surprised if hunters in [Johnson's] state hunted with a 100-round ammunition feeding device.” Whoever is right, if Wisconsin hunters are so lazy they can’t be bothered to pull the trigger more than once* and so incompetent they can’t hit Bambi with a single shot from a high-powered rifle with a precision sight, they should find some other “sport.” As Prof. Daniel Webster writes, a ban on clips that hold more than 10 rounds “might not prevent many of our mass shootings, but it should reduce the number of victims from these incidents.” Such a common-sense argument goes over the head of irrational ideologues like Sen. Johnson, but anybody with an 8th-grade education can understand it.

There’s more: “A 2011 report by the Government Accounting Office found that from February 2004 to February 2010, ‘individuals on the terrorist watch list were involved in firearm or explosives background checks 1,228 times; 1,119 (about 91 percent) of these transactions were allowed to proceed because no prohibiting information was found.’” It’s hard to imagine that the super-patriots at the National Rifle Association would favor allowing terror suspects to purchase guns. But, hey, when the object is selling more guns, a possible terrorist’s money is as good as a bona fide hunter’s. The NRA claims that a bill that would prohibit suspected terrorists from obtaining firearms was “aimed primarily at law-abiding American gun owners.” In fact, the majority (71 percent) of NRA members support barring “people on terror watch lists from purchasing firearms.”

Ross Douthat argues that “our increasing individualism” explains the country’s growing reluctance to impose gun control measures. He writes that “the same trends that have buoyed public support for gay marriage and marijuana legalization have also encouraged a more expansive reading of the Second Amendment.” That is such a nice way of letting the NRA and its politician water-carriers like Hickenlooper and Johnson off the hook. And look how Douthat equates the freedom to marry with the freedom to own an arsenal. Talk about false equivalences!

Even in the Roberts Court’s individualization of the Second Amendment, the conservatives on the Court agreed that the state had an interest in controlling firearms. So, no, there is no “basic Constitutional right” to own weapons of mass destruction, and the Second Amendment is not at issue here. The issue is the desire of gun and ammo sellers to maximize profits by selling their products to anyone and everyone in every venue available. If there is an issue about “freedom,” it is whether or not we want to allow the “free enterprise system” to be so free that madmen and terrorists can buy semi-automatic weapons, high-capacity magazines and thousands of rounds of ammo. Ironically, the Motion Picture Association of America placed more restriction on “The Dark Knight Rises” – the film playing when the Aurora murders occurred – than Congress placed on the real-life (alleged) murderer when he went on his buying spree. The film garnered a PG-13 rating for “intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.” A little more sex (more violence probably would not have mattered) would have doomed box-office sales: an “R” rating would restrict admittance of children under the age of 17 to those accompanied by adults.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that places more restrictions on a depiction of a character saying “fuck” than on someone purchasing “modified military weapons…, more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition…, along with body armor, other non-sportsman gear and a high-capacity drum that could hold up to 100 rounds and shoot 50 or 60 rounds a minute.”

And there is something wrong with a New York Times columnist who sees rising popular support for “gun rights” as a sort of payback to liberals. Douthat concludes “… the gun control debate offers liberals a chance to experience something that social conservatives often feel: The mix of confusion and alienation that comes with sensing that your country has somehow slipped away from you, and that your convictions don’t have a place in the unfolding of the American idea.” I find this a strange and callous response to people who want to take prudent measures to make our public places safer.

Besides “increased individualism,” Ross Douthat lists three possible factors that have contributed to the public’s greater acceptance of lax gun control: (1) Democrats cowed by the power of the NRA, (2) “if it bleeds, it leads” local news, and (3) a declining crime rate. He may be right about some or all of these. Oddly, Douthat does not fault the NRA itself for purchasing and strong-arming legislators of both parties to plead its case. Nor does he mention Republicans, who have dressed up in Tea Party attire and pretended that the right to bear single-shot muskets has something to do with the freedom to assemble an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. A reader might think the two institutions most dedicated to turning the public against gun control have had no effect at all. Douthat’s omission is glaring, but is not technically a fallacy. Douthat doesn’t argue his list is complete, and an advocate could be completely ineffectual. But to make no mention of the influence of the NRA seems to be yet another kind of weapon in Ross Douthat’s arsenal — an assault on his reader’s intelligence.

* Correction: Reality Chex contributor David informs me — correctly — that all those Wisconsin hunters equipped with semi-automatics do have to pull the trigger for each shot. They don’t have to “manually cycle” the weapon after cycling the first round.

Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com

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Readers Comments (1)

  1. maineprep says:

    Our society is remarkably inured to violence as long as that violence happens elsewhere and is profitable to someone. Contrast our acceptance of such violence with the necessity of using asterisks when repeating Dick Cheney’s immortal farewell to Patrick Leahy: “Go fu*k yourself.”

    By Douthat’s and the NRA’s standards, the innocent victims in Aurora, like many in Baghdad and the tribal areas of Pakistan, are merely collateral damage of a divinely-inspired agenda that is far more important than human lives.

    This sort of dogmatic thinking is likely to flourish in this society that prizes belief in ancient myths and fairy tales over rational assessments of reality, that fetishizes Jesus while denying pretty much everything he said, that takes John Calvin seriously when he suggests that the whole thing’s already been written.

    In Calvin’s script, if the killer hadn’t been able to buy assault weapons, he would have blown everyone up with fertilizer and blasting caps, although getting the ox-cart into the theater would have been tricky. Such craven fatalism absolves the believer from any responsibility in the negative consequences of his irrational beliefs and, while convenient in the wake of a mass murder or random invasion and wanton destruction of someone else’s country, is also on view every day in the climate and fracking debates.

    I was going to say, “Don’t get me started,” but clearly you (and dear Ross, bless his medieval heart) did.

     Reply





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