People with Guns

30 March 2016

What do August 8, July 23, July 16, and June 17 have in common?

Answer: these are dates in 2015 (among others) in which mass shootings took place in the United States.

August 8, David Ray Conley broke into a house in Houston and killed his ex-girlfriend, her husband, and six children. July 23, John Russell Houser killed two and injured nine before shooting himself at a presentation of the movie Trainwreck in Lafayette, LA. July 16, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez shot and killed four marines and caused fatal wounds in a sailor, who died two days later, before police killed him in a gunfight. July 17, Dylan Roof shot and killed nine people out of racial hatred, including State Senator Clementa Pickeney, at Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.

Conley had a criminal record, including domestic violence, going back to 1988. Houser’s family members acquired a protective order against him in 2008, in which year he had a mental health evaluation due to “erratic and violent behavior.” Abdulazeez had extensive history of alcohol and drug abuse, along with bi-polar disorder, and the only reason his family had been unable to put him in in-patient care was that a health insurer refused to cover the charge. Finally, Dylan Roof had pending felony charges, but he was able legally to receive a gun from his father as a birthday present in April.

Against this background, the case for tighter gun control laws is clear:

Firearms enable people with deadly intent to kill much more easily than they otherwise would. Tighter laws would focus on groups of people, like those with criminal histories, who are more likely to kill. Thus, fewer people with deadly intent would have firearms, so they would be far less effective at killing. True, such laws as more extensive background checks cause some inconvenience to people who want firearms for legitimate reasons. But that’s a reasonable price to pay to reduce the number of murders.

The response?

“Guns don’t kill people…people kill people!”

There are, of course, many other responses (guns keep people safe, Second Amendment, etc.), but this is one of the loudest. And notice how short and quick it is in comparison to the argument for gun control.

But how does this response work? Why is it often so effective at halting discussion?

The phrase, to start, manages a clever trick. It portrays the person who would increase limits on firearm as thinking something stupid: namely, that the mere presence of a gun is a sufficient cause for someone to get killed. The phrase implies, Those idiots actually think a gun can go out and kill someone! Of course, no one thinks that. What gun control advocates actually think—and all that’s needed for their argument—is that having a firearm is a necessary causal condition (one among others) for being as deadly as the killers mentioned here in fact are. And that is plainly true. Just imagine Roof with a knife; we’d be talking about maybe one death instead of nine.

The next question is: why are people so easily switched over to thinking in terms of a single cause, as opposed to a collective body of causes?

One answer can be found in the psychology and experimental philosophy of how people think about causation.

Classical theories of causation in philosophy, such as those by J. S. Mill and David Lewis, treat all causal factors as basically on par. When you strike a match, both the oxygen in the room and the striking itself are counted as causes of the resulting flame.

But more recently, philosophers such as Christopher Hitchcock and Joshua Knobe have explored how and why people typically single out one (or just a few) factors as the cause. On their theory, people select the causal factor that is most obviously contrary to what is expected as “normal” and identify that one as “the cause.” So people don’t think of the oxygen in the room as a cause, because it’s “normally” there; striking is much rarer and so less “normal” (where “normal” on this theory comes in degrees).

Why is it generally useful that people think this way? Hitchcock and Knobe argue that identifying the causal factor that is most out of the “normal” is useful for figuring out how to intervene in a situation. Better to stop striking the match than to drain the oxygen, if you don’t want a flame.

If they are right, then explicitly identifying a certain cause (“people kill people!”) does two things. First, it pushes aside other causes in people’s minds, since people tend to think of “the cause”. Second, it makes an assumption, without stating it, about what the background “normal” state of affairs is. That’s because if the least normal causal factor and the cause are the same thing, then there is an implied “normal” in every causal claim (at least in ordinary speech).

And generally the unstated assumptions about what’s normal have the biggest psychological impact. People absorb those assumptions without quite even realizing it.

So when people hear the phrase, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people!” a shift suddenly happens: having a gun just suddenly just becomes—at least long enough to derail the discussion—the unconsciously assumed background “normal.”

And against this background “normal,” a person’s action is the cause. The fact that there were many necessary causal factors in a killing is hard to articulate, because natural psychology gravitates to one cause.

So what’s the best way to respond when you hear, “Guns don’t kill people…people kill people!”?

I think the best thing to say is this: People with guns kill people, so carrying a gun shouldnt be considered normal. This at least reverses the implicit assumption that the presence of guns is just normal and that we should take it for granted.

Then the real argument can begin.

Comments (10)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, August 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Trace the history of guns and

Trace the history of guns and intimidation culture in America. First of all, the Anglo-Saxons require all men to be armed, and counted a show of weapons as a means to balloting. It was a "show of arms". The Normans suppressed this tradition, but did not eradicate it. America was settled at a time of tremendous unrest in England. The "Enclosure Acts" were well under way, but a civil war which, for a time, seemed to put many of the colonists in political ascendance. And just imagine how a British peasant would feel when introduced to vast forests teeming with game they could legally hunt. Even so, the early years were relatively peaceful in relation to the natives. In New England, settlers (fleeing the strictures of Boston "Puritans" and Plymouth "Pilgrims") settled  in former Indian villages, well into native territory and surrounded by native peoples, and, initially, with no defensive provisions at all. They were friends. The Crown then was reinstalled and set to work undermining colonial autonomy. He stimulated Indian wars, and, indirectly, a civil war in Virginia, which set up the (armed) animosities between local and central authority we see in American politics today. The constant threat of slave revolt inspired a culture of division and intense intimidation, often as violent to its "friends" as to the objects of its ferocity. The culture has not died, and in some ways is intensified. But even so, America was an extremely peaceful society, even in the (falsely named) "Wild West". The settlement of the West was in fact amazingly serene, with a few notorious exceptions. But it was the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, and, supremely, the specter of black men wielding weapons in public, under the Panthers, that gave the NRA the impetus to become what it is today, and that, along with the economic alternative to Jim Crow laws, has made this country the armed and dangerous place it now is. In other words, the solution is not social, it is political and economic. Political and economic justice will bring America back to its more 'tranquil' aspiration. But the politics will not defeat the NRA until the history of that aspiration becomes central to the issue.

Guest's picture


Saturday, April 2, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

?Guns don?t kill people.

?Guns don?t kill people. People kill people!? it is really true. When I have a lot of homework I become so angry and can kill someone. It is so boring. Maybe someone can help me? Thanks a lot.

Guest's picture


Saturday, April 2, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

So intresting 

So intresting 

EricaShaw's picture


Friday, April 8, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I am from best essay writing

I am from best essay writing service.The post is written in very a good manner and it details many useful information for me.

DonaldStewart's picture


Sunday, April 17, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

your  article is very nice

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RepoMan05's picture


Thursday, October 3, 2019 -- 9:42 AM

Mass shootings.

Mass shootings.

It's important to remember we cant trust the media or a governmental duality.

After short examination of these shootings we find partisan extremism all over them. Knowing that any dichotomy of extremism is essentially a false dichotomy in order to maintain itself, we can assume bipartisanship. Both supposed sides having something to gain from mass shootings. Manufacturers benefit from increased sales, politicians benefit from the idiots these things spawn.

How many of them are hoax if any. And exactly what kind of hoaxes might they be? Some might be hoaxes behind the scenes and real death tolls upfront while others are full on media hoaxes. Besides this simple duality, theres yet another motivation. The motivation to make undercover agents in prisons. What better cover in a prison than the cover of a mass shooter? Who would even question such a thing?

I personally know for a fact that some of these are outright hoaxes. There was a Milwaukee shooting done by some nazi band member. None of the details were suspicious to me. No philosophical or mental gymnastics lead me to my conclusions or suspicions. It was personaly seeing the supposed killer who was supposedly shot dead at the scene working at a country hardware store along with his girlfriend(who i honestly already knew.)

Cops get publicity for being heros. Villians get infamy they seek. Victims get awareness. While the public gets an idifying mind fk to keep them busy and polarized for the political dichotomy elite. Win win win for everyone except us, we just lose.

The worst thing about partisanship is bipartisanship.

RepoMan05's picture


Thursday, October 3, 2019 -- 10:40 AM

This article is about guns?

This article is about guns? causes? outcomes? beneficiaries? Philosophy?

I think this is a partisan political persuasive rag written with intent of causing intrinsic argumentum ad populum to the benefit of authoritarianism.

Yes, lets conclude what normality is?

Dont forget, if you dont have a gun, you cant defend yourself with a gun either. What "normal" place does that leave you where you haven't been before?

Science isnt a belief, you're doing it wrong.

I think your efforts would be better spent making motorcycles cheaper and more accessible. Nothing cleanses the genepool better or faster than feeding adrenaline dependence.

Theres no reason at all why a 97mph 70mpg motorcycle should cost more than 2k. Fact is, the rest of the world already has this and has had this since 2006.

The hidden myopic political agenda is clear in your op.

RepoMan05's picture


Thursday, October 3, 2019 -- 6:47 PM

Propaganda, as i pointed out

Propaganda, as i pointed out earlyer, is mostly used to disguise actual intentions. Is preventing people from carrying guns about public safety and normality or is it about preventing people from being able to use a gun in self defense. Its possibly even more insidious than that. A repeal of the right of self defense. After all the rhetoric and all the hoaxes, we now see it emerging the complaint from the cops that they dont like being shot at when they're sent to an increasing number of standoffs. If this is the true goal, should they be forgiven for all the misleading propaganda and beating around the bush thus far?

On top of that, there's really far more deadly things than guns. Like whole corporations starting epidemics to sell cures. They cant talk about it. People would march on them and gun them down. That kind of lawlessness has to be prevented, doesn't it? But what does that mean.

I think it means people are getting tired of keeping secrets. I think it means theres a lot of people with too much power and too few bullet holes. I think there's a lot of people who're a little bit too afraid to walk down the street because they know how much they should be shot.

I think we can all make our own choices.

RepoMan05's picture


Thursday, October 3, 2019 -- 7:19 PM

Klebold with a knife? True,

Klebold with a knife? True, true. But who even needs a knife? Pen is mightier than the sword. Guns are a simple tool. Cellphones kill more people than guns. There's more than one way to skin a cat, but you're only able to see klebold with a knife instead of a gun?

You havent even looked at that shooting. You mentioned the target but you didn't mention what he'd done. He's the one that put body cams on cops. It was an assasination, not a shooting.

Do you want a cheese burger too?

People are so cheap sometimes.

RepoMan05's picture


Tuesday, November 5, 2019 -- 12:02 AM

"Race" is a just a reified

"Race" is a just a reified british equivocation fallacy they made so they could turn "family" into a competition so they could justify nepotism and slippery slope for aristocracy.