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Argumentation and Gun Control

posted: 1.18.13 by Donna Winchell

Raise your hand if you have a list of banned writing topics in your first-year writing class, and gun control is on it. Those of us who have been around long enough remember readers in which a unit on gun control was standard. Maybe we started steering students away from the topic because the arguments pro and con didn’t change from year to year, while the students did. We got tired of correcting the same logical fallacies and trying to control the heated class debate. But that was long before the rash of recent school shootings.

Now, I see no reason to avoid gun control as a writing topic not only because it is such a serious issue in America but also because there is enough bad logic out there to base a whole semester on. Every concept in almost any rhetoric text could be applied to the issue, and using some key terms to guide discussion can impose some order on the current chaos of ideas.

So much depends on such a short piece of prose:

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

That short statement exemplifies the significance of definition in argument. What is a “well-regulated militia”? How is the definition of “arms” different in the twenty-first century than in the eighteenth? What did the framers of the Bill of Rights have in mind when they referred to “the security of a free state”?

If those on different sides of the gun control debate could dispassionately consider what claims they were trying to support, it might be the first difficult step toward common ground. Many gun owners protest that the government does not have the right to take their guns away but add that if that were the law of the land, they would give up their guns because they are law-abiding citizens (and the scare tactic is to add that then only criminals would have guns). They have been attacking a straw man in that political leaders are not proposing taking all guns away from American citizens. Now that Obama has proposed numerous specific actions to control gun violence, his opponents can formulate their own specific claims in response.

On Facebook and in brief sound bites on television news, we hear statistics that seem to support different positions on gun control. This country had fewer homicides once gun laws were toughened; that one had more. That’s the sort of evidence that needs to be studied. One thing that we do know is that America is way ahead of other nations when it comes to gun violence, a statistic no one is proud of.

Analyzing warrants or underlying assumptions can be extremely useful in understanding why those on opposite sides of the gun control debate often do no more than shout at each other. They approach the issue from such different points that dialogue becomes almost impossible. Proponents of stricter gun control are arguing that hunters don’t need assault rifles while opponents are comparing our government to Hitler’s Germany. That’s a real disconnect. What those in favor of gun control seldom seem to face head on is the fact that while others want their guns to protect themselves and their families against home invasion, they also want their guns in order to protect themselves against the government. As soon as Obama announced his plans to combat gun violence, he was crowned “King” Obama by members of the NRA, and one sheriff in Oregon declared he would not enforce federal laws that violate the Second Amendment. An ad that was running on a sportsman’s network even before the announcement calls Obama a hypocrite because he doesn’t want armed guards in the nation’s schools while his own daughters go to school protected by the Secret Service. The government is the enemy that must be armed against, and no proposal about guns made by that government or decreed by that president seems likely to face easy acceptance.

However, perhaps some should. Like the one to enforce existing gun laws, or the one widening background checks, or any measure designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Therein lies the possibility of common ground because, after all, no one wants any more children to die.

And when it comes to logical fallacies, how do you argue with the old bumper sticker that reads, “I’ll give up my gun when they pry my cold, dead fingers from the trigger”/ “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” was bad enough, but I look forward to tackling this one from the friend of a friend on Facebook: “Obesity kills people all the time, but we haven’t outlawed forks!”

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