Is 'guns don't kill people, people kill people' a good argument?

  • I'm hearing the argument X doesn't do Y people do Y in quite a few guises. For instance in it's original form

    guns don't kill people; people kill people

    Presumably, therefore guns are OK

    cars don't kill people; people kill people

    Again, the inference is that fast cars are OK

    And more recently on the BBC business news

    Securitising debt doesn't destablise financial institutions; people destablise financial institutions

    Again leading implicitly to ... these kind of financial instruments are perfectly fine so lets start using them again.

    Instinctively these kind of arguments feel invalid. Can anyone perhaps use some more rigorous or formal type (logical?) analysis to demonstrate their validity/invalidity. Is that even possible?

    What I am interested in is an analysis of this particular form of argument using the tools of philosophy. When it was just used by the gun lobby it just seemed like a rhetorical tool. But it's now bleeding over to other areas so I'm interested in the form of that argument and it's validity. It's almost incidental that it's gun control. As an aside there is a really good podcast about the philosophy of gun control if anyone is interested in those particular issues.

    The only thing these arguments *might* be able to hinge upon (and even then their efficacy will remain questionable) is agency, in particular that guns, cars, and financial institutions (?) are not agents. Otherwise they're blatantly ignoring transitivity of causation.

    I think this argument is a shorthand for a more nuanced argument: X doesn't intend to do Y, people intend to do Y. (X being an inanimate object, of course.) The mere existence of the inanimate object won't result in Y happening, without some intentional act instigated by a person. Of course, the really fun question is did Schrodinger kill his cat, or did the radioactive isotope rig do in the kitty?

    Please take your comments RE: gun control specifically and not argument analysis to chat. This question is about logic.

    Actually : please don't remove that comment. I am interested, and it was useful.

    @commando Transitivity of causation doesn't get you out of everything. Did your computer cause this web page to load? Did your enter key cause your comment to be posted? You can argue semantics around causality all day, but this isn't what people mean when they say "Guns cause deaths" and it isn't the argument that this is meant to refute.

    Gun's might not kill people, but they do make it a lot easier...

    guns are extensions of the human mind and body, so guns kill people is = people kills people

    Logical arguments must have two components: a premise (or premises) and a conclusion. "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" is not an argument at all because it's only a premise. It lacks a logical conclusion. Therefore it's not an argument at all. And that's politics in a nutshell. All premise and no conclusion. Here's a proper argument: philosophers know how to make proper arguments, therefore philosophers should replace politicians and run the government. See...there's a premise AND a conclusion!!

    **"Guns don't kill people, people kill people" is not an argument.** It's a slogan, a motto, whose intended meaning goes beyond its literal interpretation.

  • This line of argument is basically a strawman fallacy, which is when you construct a weaker version of your opponent's argument in order to then disprove it. In this case the weaker argument is that "guns kill people" all by themselves. No one actually believes that or argues that. Even the most committed gun control advocate acknowledges that firing a gun takes human intervention. The stronger argument being concealed by the strawman is "people with guns kill more people than do people without guns."

    It's also a black or white fallacy in that it is an attempt to frame the debate as two mutually exclusive choices, when other options may exist. You'll often find these two fallacies together, where the debater creates an artificially weak version of your position, and then tries to frame it as the only alternative to his or her position.

    IMPORTANT: The fact that this particular argument is fallacious does not mean we can therefore be justified in rejecting the conclusion the argument is intended to support (that in itself would be an argument from fallacy error), it just means we cannot take the argument as providing any actual support for the conclusion.

    Whether or not it's a strawman fallacy depends on what your opponent's argument is. If your opponent's argument concludes, for example, "guns are bad", then this is a perfectly rational refutation of that argument. Inanimate objects cannot be "bad" unless they somehow compel a result all by themselves.

    @David I think you might be demonstrating the same fallacy by reducing a (theoretical) complex argument to that simplistic conclusion, which is obviously not literally true. For the theoretical possibility that someone could make an argument with “guns are bad” as its (earnest, complete) conclusion your comment is valid, but in the context of actual arguments made _en masse_ like the one in question it isn’t of much help.

    It is also not a strawman fallacy when the claim being refuted is that people without guns don't kill people. I'm not sure it's a black or white fallacy, either: in practice, it seems like a stretch to interpret the statement to mean "either guns *or* people participate in the killing of other people;" I doubt whether anyone who uses the cliche would intend that interpretation.

    @Kyle See my comment above for how helpful I find your theory that someone might earnestly claim that people without guns don't kill people. As for the _black or white,_ I thought the implied dichotomy was “either guns _are responsible for_ killing people or people _are responsible for_ killing people.”

    @TylerJamesYoung Then reformulate the claim as "people without guns are safer for society than people with guns, just as cats without claws are safer than cats with claws." This, I think, is a fairly reasonable (if not necessarily comprehensive or flattering) reduction of a typical anti-gun argument. In that context, the "people kill people" response emphasizes individual moral agency more than it emphasizes the possibility of using non-firearm weapons; since the original de-clawing analogy de-emphasizes moral agency, this is not a strawman argument.

    This also solves the black or white problem: when "responsibility" is defined in terms of moral agency, there *is* a dichotomy between guns bearing the responsibility and people bearing the responsibility, and the position implied by the "people kill people" statement is *factually correct*.

    @KyleStrand - see my comment to the original post, the truth value of the premises has no bearing on the structural weakness or strength of the argument. David Schwartz is correct, I believe, to note that this argument is less of a strawman in the case that the opponent is directly ascribing moral qualities to the firearms themselves, which I think would be uncommon but not unheard of. However, in the case of your version of the anti-gun argument, the "guns don't kill people" argument still misses it entirely.

    @ChrisSunami The statement isn't a syllogism; it's just two premises juxtaposed. There's no structure to formally criticize in the first place.

    Wish i could -3 for: 1. Claiming total knowledge of every being. 2. Claiming that only humans can cause a gun to fire. 3. Claiming that unproven stats are superior to reality.

    -1 (-100 if it were possible) **All wrong:** The slogan just means that you can't control people's bad choices simply by outlawing guns. There was a "gun free zone" sign by the school in Sandy Hook, but that didn't seem to stop Lanza...

    @Vector "All wrong" is only your line of attack. Chris answered the question whether or not the statement in question is a good argument and quite convincingly explained why it's not. This says _nothing_ about the validity of any particular _viewpoint_. It's _only_ about the argument itself which is clearly invalid. Guns kill people when used by people and people kill people when using guns. So "guns don't kill people" is just plain wrong. Again, this says nothing about the standpoint that everybody should possess as much firepower as he wishes.

    @Christian : ? - 1) I explained that the answer is based on a false premise. 2) I didn't post answer.

    @DavidSchwartz "Guns are bad" is not an extremely clever argument but let me try the following reductio ad absurdum on your argument. If I say "planet busters are bad" then "planet busters don't pulverize planets, people pulverize planets" is obviously dumb. Planet busters, just like the actually existing biological weapons, should be banned because their potential for destruction when used by people is too large. If someone wants to reduce this fact to "planet busters are bad" then so be it. Some people think the lethal potential of firearms is too big for them to be privately owned.

    @Vector What are talking about? 1) Which premise in particular is false in this answer? 2) Who says you did?

    @BartoszKP - the "weak argument" postulated is incorrect. Nobody is trying to claim or infer such an absurd notion. I explained the correct implication of this slogan.

    @BartoszKP - certainly. The problem here is that there is no such "strawman" to begin with, which is what I explained. If so, the answer falls apart.

    @Vector Sorry, I removed my comment to think a bit more about a better explanation of what I think.

    @BartoszKP - NP. All I'm saying is that the "strawman" is a strawman... :)

    @Vector OK, I think I've managed to understand your comments. The first part, regarding "Nobody is trying to...": well you can't be sure that really "nobody", and I have seen some people that really present/believe in such a degenerated version of this argument. Perhaps after consideration they would admit that it's absurd, but some people don't waste time on considering. Secondly, your interpretation ("you can't control people's bad choices") covered (more or less) by the stronger version, presented in the answer: can't influence people's choices ~ can't lower the probability of bad choices.

    ~ which further gets you to something very similar to what Chris Sunami said. There are of course many subtleties here, but saying that it's all wrong seems wrong to me :)

    @BartoszKP - "People who are born are more likely to die than those who aren't"...therefore?? **OK - enough.** We will not settle this here - but at least we had a rational discussion which is _alright_ - Enjoy. :)

    I don't think it's correct to say "people with guns kill more people than do people without guns", because that infers that people who legally own guns are more inclined to kill other people than people without guns, and, that the people without guns couldn't/wouldn't use something else to kill someone. To be correct, you would have to say "More people are shot (and killed) by people with guns than by people without guns". But obviously, that applies to ***anything*** one could use to kill someone with. -->

    ... so, "ban all guns". "More people are stabbed (and killed) by people with knives than by people without knives" so ban all knives. "More people are smashed in the head (and killed) by people with rocks than by people without rocks" so ban all rocks, etc with cars, golf clubs, ...

    @KevinFegan Banning rocks etc. being absurd does not invalidate fact that `More people are smashed in the head (and killed) by people with rocks than by people without rocks`

    @KevinFegan I wasn't intending imply that "people with guns kill more people than people without guns" is necessarily correct, just that it's (a) a more defensible premise than "guns kill people" and (b) it's more legitimately part of an argument that anti-gun advocates might actually make. You can still potentially defeat that argument, but you need a better argument than "guns don't kill people" to do it.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM