Sandy Hook and the Politics of Tragedy

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of my political pet peeves is when people reach a conclusion with which I agree via arguments that are broken. Opponents of our shared conclusion see right through the bad argument and usually come to the conclusion that it’s the only argument. As a result, it strengthens the opposition and only serves to make proponents of my position look bad. A particularly salient example of this is in the American news today–the call from the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to pass gun control. Despite my documented support for control, to let this most illogical of arguments pass without criticism would, from where I’m sitting, amount to abandonment of intellectual integrity.

The argument the parents are making? One parent put it this way:

The liberty of any person to own a military-style assault weapon and a high-capacity magazine and keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life.

He goes on to say that the constitution endows Americans with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (never mind that the oft-quoted line is from the American Declaration of Independence, which has no legal force, not the US constitution, which is the law of the land), and concludes with:

Let’s honor the founding documents and get our priorities straight.

For this, he received a standing ovation. He deserved nothing of the sort.

Firstly, if we are going to follow the principles of the founders to the letter, we would have the same gun control laws we had in the 18th century–namely, none. In addition, we’d also permit slavery, deny women basic rights, and resume slaughtering Native Americans en masse. The ethics and laws of the 18th century are grossly inferior to the ethics and laws of the 21st century, and we should make no effort to imitate them. Any argument for anything that appeals to “what the founders would have done” is asking us to supplant our modern moral sensibilities with the quasi-medieval puritanism of centuries past. Modern intellectuals and philosophers are in many respects more developed than their 18th century equivalents. Considering the words of Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and so on to be gospel flies in the face of any notion of progress. If we speak strictly, it even runs contrary to their own beliefs–Jefferson believed that all doctrines needed to regularly be challenged and that nations should endure revolutions once a generation or so. On top of that, many of the founders disagreed. You can find the seeds of statism in Hamilton while simultaneously finding the seeds of libertarianism in Jefferson. The founders’ beliefs were not monolithic, many of their beliefs were flawed, and many of them believed that their beliefs should not be taken by others as gospel. If there was any principle common to the founders it was the central premise of the enlightenment–people should think for themselves. They would be appalled by our constant efforts to outsource our moral and political reasoning to the dead. If the founders had acted as such in their own time, America could not have been conceived. The founders would simply have argued that the American Revolution was not what the political theorists of several centuries prior had wanted and abandoned the effort. Appealing to the founders is a garbage argument. Always. No exceptions. It goes the other way, too–gun control opponents who base their opposition on the second amendment are just as guilty of the fallacy.

There’s a wider, more foundation problem with this argument, however. The problem is that a right to own a gun in and of itself does not threaten the life of the man’s son. If there were a right to murder people, that would directly contradict the son’s purported right to life, and we would be faced with a choice (assuming we’re the sort of theorists who think rights exist in the first place) of whether to prioritise a right to kill people over a right to life. As it stands, we simply do not recognise a right to kill people; if you kill people, you will go to prison. It is not a right to own a gun that directly threatens the son, it is the hypothetical right to use a gun on people, a right that does not exist.

Now, it is true that the pervasion of guns throughout society increases the chance that a given person will be killed with a gun, but gun ownership by itself does not contravene a right to life. Only the tendency for guns to be used to kill people does this. This may sound like a version of the “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” argument. To an extent, it is. It is however also true that people who kill people tend to kill people with guns, and that, statistically, in countries with fewer guns, fewer people are killed (especially with guns)–the social pathology of gun violence can be fought in this way. For that reason one could back control–but that isn’t the argument being made here now, is it? Perhaps it should be.

The CNN article I ran across on these parental calls for control opens with this line:

They spoke with the passion that only those who have lost so much can speak.

The trouble is that having lost a child does not make one a policy expert, a philosopher, or a good arguer. It does not qualify one’s opinions. There is no special insight or wisdom about gun control gained by having lost a child to guns. If anything, the experience is biasing and distorting. The statistical incidence of gun violence is no larger because one’s own child was a victim. The schools are no more dangerous now than they were before the Sandy Hook massacre. The arguments concerning gun control are no more valid or invalid than they were previously. The parents of the victims speak with an irrational, grieving, emotional passion.

Often in politics we make the mistake of thinking that people who are personally involved in an issue know more about what should be done with regard to that issue than other people do. The trouble is that when we are ourselves involved in issues, we become partisan. We take a side, a perspective, and we minimise and diminish in our minds the opposing perspective. The best judge is a third party, an impartial observer who is not directly involved, who has the minimal possible stake in the outcome. Too often we say to intellectuals, academics, and other outsiders that their lack of personal experience or involvement disqualifies them as judges. It does precisely the opposite. The less involved one is, the less biased one’s thinking is, and the better the resultant judgement is likely to be.

Too often we privilege the victims of tragedies in our debates. It is natural to do it–we feel sympathy, perhaps empathy, for them. But being the victim of a crime does not make one the appropriate judge of what the proper response is. If a mother loses her son in a fire, that is no reason to submit to her subsequent arguments for the banning of matches. If the parents were to produce a proper argument, one that would be just as convincing if it came from people who had never lost children, then and only then should we be swayed. The journalists who made the parents’ call for control into a major story of the day have done the public discourse a grave disservice by aiding in the dissemination of bad arguments that misrepresent the case for gun control and which reinforce the false notion that because one is a victim, one is an expert.

Only in politics are we so dismissive of real hard-earned knowledge and wisdom that we elevate anyone and everyone, regardless of sophistication or quality of reasoning, to positions of expertise. Were we to heed a similarly illogical victim of medical malpractice’s pontifications on how doctors should practice their craft, we would be deemed ridiculous, unscientific, and anti-intellectual, and rightly so.