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“Guns and Values,” or, “Why We All Can’t Just Get Along”

January 21, 2011

So, what do you do about gun laws when someone uses a legally purchased firearm to shoot 19 people? This is an important question that’s entered our collective consciousness since the tragedy in Arizona earlier this month, so let’s take the time now to really figure out where we stand on this issue. No, seriously. I want you to take five minutes and really reason through this before you read on.

Don’t lie to me, dear reader. I already know that you didn’t really take more than a second or two to think about it, if you had to think about it at all. Why? Because the answer to the question is pretty obvious to each and every one of us. The problem is, the answer that seems so obvious differs depending on who we are and what we already think about gun rights.

For instance, consider this statement from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s blog. In it, author Dennis Henigan calls for stricter gun laws, laws that would make sure that someone like

Jared Loughner would not be permitted to legally carry a gun to a Tucson Safeway. And he would not have available to him ammunition magazines that allowed him to fire over 30 shots from a semi-automatic without the need to reload.

Sounds right to you? Well, clearly you must not be Arizona state representative Jack Harper, who believes that “when everyone is carrying a firearm, no one is going to be a victim.” You also wouldn’t happen to be Arizona Congressman Trent Franks, who said “I wish that there had been one more gun in Tucson.”

So, on one side we have people saying that the Arizona shootings prove that states like Arizona, which has among the most lenient firearm laws in the nation, need to tighten restrictions on who can have what kind of gun where. But on the other side, we have people saying that the Arizona shootings prove that we need looser gun laws so that people can have guns with them in order to protect themselves from events like this. So, uh, we’re all talking about the same event here, right guys?

Thing is, the reason that two different groups of people can use the Arizona shooting as evidence for two completely opposite claims is that in and of itself the shooting doesn’t really prove much of anything. It’s an event—an incredibly tragic one for sure—but events aren’t symbolic or communicative; they don’t mean anything until we bring our beliefs, thoughts, and values to bear on them. And if it’s your belief that, as the bumper sticker says, “guns don’t kill people, people do,” well then the fact that everyone on scene didn’t pull their own Glocks on Jared Lee Loughner just goes to show that we better make sure we get more guns out there in the name of protection. But if it’s your belief that guns actually do kill people, then this event just furthers your belief that you ought not to be able to walk into a sporting goods store and walk out with a semi-automatic weapon.

So, despite how obvious your answer to my earlier question seemed to you, it’s kind of shocking to realize that someone else, when considering the same question, would find the exact opposite answer to be just as obvious. This is because our beliefs and our values are often broadly conceived—we think in terms of things like “protecting the public from firearms” or “the right to bear arms.” But these broad ideals also inform how we navigate new situations; we make arguments for how to proceed based on what our values dictate. Nothing intrinsic in the situation itself says what the best course of action is, but our values allow us to interpret that situation in a way that proves what we already thought was the best course of action to begin with. So, far from the obvious clarion call to a particular course of action that it may seem to those of us with strong opinions on gun laws, the tragedy in Arizona doesn’t really dictate one course of action or another—a fact that we all need to recognize as we, a community with vastly different preconceived notions on the matter, plan how we will go forward.

If you want to know more:

  • As I wrote this post, I was thinking about Thomas Farrell’s argument in “Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory” that values are both normative and generative—we assume a common identity with those that share the same values, and we use those values in arguments about how to proceed in novel situations.
  • The quotes from Arizona legislators came from this op-ed by Timothy Egan in the New York Times. Timothy does not agree with these men, not one bit.
  • When writing the part where I mentioned the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” bumper sticker, I thought the quote was on Richard Kiel’s t-shirt in “Happy Gilmore.” But then I was like oh, wait.
  • In the interest of making a point, I tried really hard in this post to not make my own opinion on the matter too clear. Which is hard, because my opinion is clearly the only one that any rational person would reach after using even the most basic reasoning skills. See what I did there?
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Doug Cloud permalink*
    January 22, 2011 11:30 am

    I’m relieved that there’s someone else whose mind IMMEDIATELY jumps to that shirt from Happy Gilmore whenever they hear “guns don’t kill people…”

    Also, your post reminded me of the Deepwater Horizon disaster last year. I heard the same thing happening in political discourse: one side said that this was the result of the oil industry run amok; the other side said that this happened because liberals had forced the oil industry into drilling in more and more dangerous places.

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