Way back in 1988, in my first quarter at Cal Poly, I took a lower-level English class whose lessons have proved broadly useful over the ensuing years.
It was a course on critical thinking, and it focused on teaching these young adults fresh out of high school how to analyze issues, build solid arguments, and, perhaps most importantly, identify the fallacies of logic that can punch holes in an otherwise sound bucket of ideas.
Those distant lessons popped to mind this week amid the flurry of debate over gun control and the tactics employed by the NRA.
Of course, it’s an unfortunate given that the NRA would automatically oppose most of the president’s efforts to strengthen our gun laws, but it’s the strategies the organization employs in its crusade that truly boggles the mind.
Let’s start with the new ad the NRA released this week using the Obama girls as foils in the pitch to arm our schools with gun-toting guards.
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the narrator asks ominously. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security.”
Let’s put aside the fact that the NRA is drawing the president’s children into the gun debate, which in itself is an underhanded move. Let’s also put aside that it includes a name-calling ad hominem attack.
Instead, let’s look at the core argument itself. Why do the Obama children have armed protection?
Is it because they themselves are somehow intrinsically superior to other children, or is it because to do otherwise would be nothing less than a national security threat?
The first family is not any old family. What might the consequences be if a terrorist were able to kidnap one of these girls and hold them as hostages toward demands made personally on the president of the United States?
This is an egregiously stupid and hollow argument that is easily dismissed, and the fact that it was conceived and approved by some number of association leaders is discouraging to put it mildly.
But let’s continue. For another example of misused logic, we can examine the NRA’s general opposition to any measures that might curb the rampancy of guns in American society.
“The real question that needs to be addressed is not what we do about guns,” said NRA president David Keene in an interview Thursday on “CBS This Morning,” “but what we do to make our schools safer.”
Actually, no, that isn’t the “real question.”
This is an NRA red herring, attempting to use the specific tragedy in Connecticut as a way to misdirect the focus of the debate from general gun control to school safety.
Sandy Hook was one terrible case of gun violence. But solving the problem there doesn’t solve the problem outside the supermarket in Arizona or in the movie theater in Colorado or on any random street corner in cities across the country.
Same goes for the mental illness argument, the one about how it’s not guns that are the problem but rather the disturbed people who use them illegally.
This is a variation of the old trope, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Yes, it’s true — a trigger without someone to pull it will never induce carnage. But many triggers that can unleash many rounds make killing many people much easier and more likely.
The same can’t be said for other potential methods of mayhem, which leads us to another fallacious argument — that we shouldn’t regulate guns further because sociopaths bent on violence will always find a way.
They could use a car or a knife or a baseball bat. But cars, knives and baseball bats have valuable, primary uses and are not designed first and foremost as killing machines. Used correctly, they don’t kill people.
A gun that kills somebody, however, is merely achieving its ultimate, intended purpose.
In the end, the NRA’s greatest bit of errant reasoning, and the way the group probably generates its best fundraising, is through its massive campaign of fearmongering, that any discussion of gun control is but one step closer to a repeal of the Second Amendment, which in turn will eventually render us a society of post-apocalyptic victims helpless to turn back the bands of armed thugs who will one day roam our lawless lands.
This is the old slippery slope fallacy, that the toppling of one domino will inevitably, inexorably lead to the falling of all the rest, and the end of America as we know it.
No person in any place of authority is calling for an outright ban on guns. This is a fantasy. It — like these repeated Mad Max scenarios — is not a true threat.
In lieu of anarchy, then, arriving at some sort of reasonable limits is merely the just and true function of a responsible government looking out for the health and well-being of its people, the same way it does with food, water, automobiles, toys, drugs and any number of other products in our society.
There was a time, for example, when cars were clunky, slow and scarce. The number of traffic fatalities was small. But today they are fast, numerous and potentially deadly. So we have added seatbelts and air bags and speed limits to ensure people are as safe as possible on the road.
It is reasonable — even wise — to expect the same of firearms.
This is the best case I can lay out, using logical arguments. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll agree.
And that is what I’m most curious about.
To local NRA members and gun owners who are reading this, I want to hear from you. Do these arguments make sense, and if not, how would you refute them?
Send me your thoughts, and I’ll share them in a future column.