With the recent spike in gun violence in the United States and with the most highly publicised candidate in the ongoing U.S. presidential election season being endorsed by the NRA, it comes as no surprise that the gun control regulation debate has resurfaced as a divisive issue in the media. The core of this division can be separated into two underlying perspectives of guns: that they are the cause of violence or that they prevent violence. Typically, the central claim of the former is that in order to reduce gun crime, the government should be reducing or controlling access to guns. However, the latter claims that gun control leaves victims defenceless and that there is a lack of causation between legal gun ownership and gun violence. These arguments are inherently recommendatory claims directed towards legislators and lobbyists, with the assumption that government action has a pivotal role to play in the future of gun crime. Despite their differences, a common thread between both arguments is an underlying concern and fear of gun violence in society. These concerns and argumentation addressing these concerns have historically been given a higher platform in the wake of tragedies such as Columbine High School, Sandy Hook and the Colorado Theatre shooting.
In order to reveal the key differences in how each perspective deals with similar concerns and events, this discussion samples articles written since December 2012, following the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut and the following spike in conversation regarding legislative action. This discussion will begin by analysing two opinion pieces published in the wake of this tragedy, and this will be compared with how the issue has been dealt with more recently since the study released by the Centre for American Progress that claimed to find a connection between gun laws and gun violence.
Making Gun Control Happen and The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control) were both published immediately after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, where 26 people were killed (20 children, 6 adults). They both address an audience still in mourning and assume their audience is looking for a solution. Whilst both reach similar conclusions in terms of their solutions to gun crime, that the government should introduce measures to control gun ownership, their representation of guns and their place within society are starkly different.
The central claim in Patrick Radden Keefe’s opinion piece Making Gun Control Happen written for The New Yorker is that in the absence of an organised and continuous push to reevaluate gun laws, there is no legislative action in the aftermath of contemporary gun tragedies. It is clear from the title that this argument relies upon the assumption that making gun control happen is the solution to gun violence, and that guns are the cause of violence. The writer claims that the Sandy Hook massacre can be simplified down to one cause:
“…the single syllable that might explain how one disturbed young man could walk into an elementary school and end twenty-six lives in a matter of minutes: ‘gun.’”
His central claim is supported by an appeal to fact:
“The N.R.A. has only four million members — a number that is probably dwarfed by the segment of the U.S. population that feels uneasy about the unbridled proliferation of firearms. But the pro-gun constituency is ardent and organised, while the gun control crowd is diffuse and easily distracted. In the 2012 election cycle, the N.R.A. spending on lobbying outranked spending by gun control groups by a factor of ten to one.”
This is essentially an ad populum argument, as the writer is asserting that his claim is a belief that is widely held without using any facts to support this claim. This appeal to popular opinion is used throughout the article, suggesting the writer is addressing the ‘majority’ of people who are outraged by the situation. This is evident from the beginning of the article, where he writes:
“Do you feel that? That’s your sense of moral outrage dissipating.”
This is further supported by the accompanying image of a crowd protesting gun violence, with an action shot of a couple holding a protest sign and candles in a candlelight vigil in response to the massacre.
The writer then addresses the opposing argument with an appeal to authority, using Larry Pratt as a straw-person for the entire gun advocating community, which is positioned as a minority group that has perpetuated a “profound national lunacy:”
“Following the Newtown shooting, Larry Pratt, the Executive Director of Gun Owners for America, suggested that these massacres might be avoided in the future, if only more teachers were armed.”
The writer then responds to this argument:
“As Pratt’s sentiment should make clear, the United States has slipped its moorings and drifted into a realm of profound national lunacy.”
In order to further support the claim that the position of gun advocates is illogical, the writer uses an appeal to analogy:
“Ponder, for a second, the fact that I cannot walk into a C.V.S. today an purchase half-a-dozen packages of Sudafed, but I can walk into a gun dealership and purchase a .50 caliber rifle of the sort that U.S. snipers use in Afghanistan.”
Whilst Keefe positions gun control critics as an illogical minority group whose coordination has a strong influence in the lack of legislative changes, Goldberg positions this group as logical and rational whilst gun control advocates in his article “make an emotional argument rather than logical one.”
The headline of Goldberg’s piece for The Atlantic, The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control), hints towards his primary claim that we should adopt a balanced approach to gun ownership. He claims that gun-control legislation is not the only answer to gun violence, and recommends the consideration of responsible gun ownership as an alternative that addresses both sides of the issue. This claim is only explicitly stated at the conclusion of the 17 page opinion piece, which indicates the writer is aware of the unpopularity of his argument at the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy and carefully justifies this argument. The writer interviews both a father who has lost his son to gun violence and conservative gun rights activists, suggesting his appeals to authority are balanced, that he is unbiased and understands the complexity of the issue. The headline ‘the case for more guns’ highlights the idea that this article is taking a more detailed and constructed approach, which
is also suggested by the image of a photo of a gun constructed by cut up squares that implies the article is deconstructing and reevaluating the role of guns in reducing gun crime and mass shootings.
The first primary justification made is that guns are usually effective for self-defence purposes, hence gun control is not the answer to gun violence. The writer uses his “instinct” as a justification:
“My instinct was that if someone is shooting at you, it is generally better to shoot back than to cower and pray.”
This is supported by an appeal to fact:
“…especially when you consider the massacres that have been prevented or interrupted by armed civilians before the police arrived.”
The writer tends to rely on anecdotal evidence that appeals to emotion rather than fact to support this claim:
“The presence in the Columbine library of a well-trained, armed civilian attempting to stop killers could hardly have made the situation worse.”
An appeal to the ‘facts of the matter’ is used to justify this claim:
“Maybe it’s possible to distract a heavily armed psychotic by throwing a pencil at him. But the psychotic would likely respond by shooting the pencil thrower.”
The links back to the story told at the beginning of the article:
“Eric shot him once, and Daniel pushed chairs at him to try to make him stop, and Eric shot him again.”
This story of the Columbine High School shooting now works to justify this claim, which becomes an appeal to precedent.
The writer also claims that there is no proof to support the idea that concealed-carry permit holders create more violence in society than there would be otherwise. The writer uses an appeal to the authority of Dave Kopel, research director of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute who posits that “opposition to gun ownership is ideological, not rational.” The writer also refers to law professor Adam Winker: “permit holders in the U.S. commit crimes at a rate lower than that of the general population.” The writer doesn’t directly disprove the casual link between gun laws and gun crime — rather, this writer relies on the assumption that because there is no evidence that proves this link and because it is an just an emotive argument, no link exists.
One of the most interesting claims made by the writer is that the argument for gun control is invalidated by the fact that it is too late for America to eradicate guns:
“However much I might wish it, the United States is not going to become Canada. Guns are with us, whether we like it or not…”
At the end of the article, the writer quotes gun-control activist Dan Gross, who states:
“Do we want to live in [a society] in which the answer to violence is more violence, where the answer to guns is more guns?”
The writer then answers this question with an appeal to fact:
“What Gross won’t acknowledge is that in a nation of nearly 300 million guns, his question is irrelevant.”
This suggests that the writer is attempting the persuade the reader to see the ‘facts of the matter’ and to understand the ‘more logical’ appeals used by gun owners. The gun control activists interviewed throughout the article, including the father who lost his son in Columbine, serve to represent the view of the reader. In many instances, a direct quote from this side of the debate is countered by the more ‘logical’ approach of the writer, further suggesting he is attempting to persuade the reader to think otherwise.
These sample articles are illustrative examples of how either sides have represented the issue of gun legislation. Whilst Keefe takes an emotive approach that assumes guns control legislation is the answer, Goldberg questions the lack of authority to support this assumption. For instance, whilst Goldberg argues that it is not feasible to ban guns in American when there is nearly 300 million of them, Keefe took a different approach:
“But the fact that banning all guns, or even all assault weapons, may not be politically feasible is no excuse for the Obama Administration to do nothing.”
Four years on, the rhetoric and argumentative appeals used by either side of the gun control debate has changed very little. However, the debate has reached a pivotal point with the upcoming elections possibly determining the future of gun ownership in America. The New Yorker’s recently published article What’s Really Standing in the Way of Gun Control written by Jeffrey Toobin follows in line with the warrant of Keefe’s opinion piece for the same publisher that assumes gun control is the solution because guns are the problem. This article’s primary claim is also similar — that there is something blocking the countries progression to introduce gun control legislation. Whilst Keefe argued it was a lack of public discourse, Toobin argues the blockage is Congress and the Republicans, currently controlling the House of Representatives, who “have chosen to preserve the status quo.” The article uses an appeal to fact:
“But because most guns are easily portable over state and jurisdictional lines, there is only so much that can be done without action by the federal government…. Even in the period immediately after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when the Senate was still in Democratic hands, an attempt to impose a background-check requirement fell to the threat of a Republican filibuster.”
The article concludes by suggesting that the effects of the blockage of Obama’s initiative to ban individuals on the terror watch list from buying guns were “in Orlando and elsewhere, evident to all” — an appeal to both emotion and fact.
Also in line with Keefe’s argument, advocates of gun control laws continuously rely on the warrant that gun violence can be simplified down to one word: “gun.” In an editorial piece published on The Age last month titled Need for tougher gun control laws is obvious, the writers’ central claim is premised upon the assumption that strict gun laws will ‘obviously’ create change. This argument relies on an appeal to popular opinion and emotion, evident at the beginning of the article:
“For many of us, any discussion of gun control in this country turns our thoughts to the Port Arthur massacre…”
This is complimented by the image of a gun photographed front on, suggestive of the dangerous consequences of gun ownership which places its whole audience in direct line of danger. This article makes a direct comparison to lack of gun control in the US and their “sickeningly common” gun massacres with the recent reports that the Turnbull government was considering relaxing gun laws in return for Senate support. The article refers to itself as an authority to support the claim that Australia is seeing an alarming rise of gun crimes:
“In Australia, we are seeing an alarming rise in gun crimes. As The Age detailed last month in an investigative series, a culture of carrying, and using guns is becoming entrenched in criminal circles.”
However, gun laws in Australia have not yet changed, and the link between legislative efforts to reduce gun ownership and levels of crime is not proven nor explained in this article. This suggests that the writers rely on this assumption as a warrant that the audience will just take on as ‘common sense.’
This appeal to ‘common sense’ and popular opinion was also relied upon in the article When the People Choose Gun Control published on the New York Times. The central claim is that the majority of Americans support gun regulations, citing a study from Gallup as an appeal to authority. This argument is supported by the accompanying image of a gun barrel being stuffed with confetti by the collective public.
Last month, the Centre for American Progress (CAP) published a new study that claimed to finally prove the link between gun laws and gun violence, and the media’s response is an illustrative example of how each argument deals with the same information.
Mike Weisser in an article titled Gun Violence Research Will Lead to Smarter Gun Laws published in the Huffington Post said:
“Our good friends at the Centre for American Progress have published a new study on the link between gun laws and gun violence which is a ‘must-read’ for everyone who is concerned about reducing gun violence.”
Similarly, the New York Times said:
“The latest analysis comes out Wednesday from the Centre for American Progress, a leading liberal group that supports toughened gun control. It concludes that gun fatalities in states with weaker laws are more than three times as high as in those states with tougher restrictions, including background checks or permits.”
This article uses an appeal to authority to further support the findings of the CAP:
“While the centre is unabashedly in favour of tougher gun measures, Daniel Webster, an expert on gun violence at Johns Hopkins University, who reviewed the findings, said its methods were scientifically sound and expanded on previous research in the issue.”
In response to this article, the Crime Prevention Research Centre sent a letter to the New York Times explaining that they had incorrectly described the study as showing that gun control laws reduce violence, which it then published on its website. In criticising the the New York Times, the letter follows the argument of many critics of gun control research that they don’t take into account other factors which affect rates of violence, such as demographics, income and law enforcement.
Other critics of the research labeled it as “junk science:”
“The national media’s unquestioning acceptance of the junk science in an anti-gun ‘study’ concocted by the leftist Centre for American Progress not only threatens your rights, but may cost innocent lives, as it gives politicians cover to ignore the real causes of crime to push gun-control gimmicks…”
Similarly, Connecticut Post described the research as a “sham study” and “junk science that would not pass muster in a middle school science fair.”
Whilst the New York Times took a more positive light to the fact that the CAP is a leftist organisation, critics addressing a more conservative audience premise their argument on the assumption that leftist bias would infiltrate the findings of the research and invalidate its results.
Therefore, whilst gun control advocates will use this study and similar upcoming research as an appeal to authority, these are not treated as fact or accepted by the gun advocating community as genuine and authoritative research.
Ultimately, the opposing viewpoints are drawn from irreconcilable world views: access to guns is the problem or access to guns is the solution to gun violence. The challenge for gun control advocates in constructing well grounded arguments that prove the casual link between gun laws and gun crime is in using appeals to authority that will be accepted by the gun community. The difficulty in this has been clearly shown in the brief analysis of the trending arguments that arise in the media – that the argument for gun control is often positioned as a purely emotional and irrational argument by the gun community. However, both sides claim that their argument is more logical and grounded in common sense warrants, and the challenge for legislatures is determining which common sense prevails.