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.
“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 shouldn’t 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.