Law & the Courts

Nick Kristof Argues with Straw Men about Guns; Straw Men Win

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. (CBS via YouTube)
If you can’t win an argument even when you stack the deck in your favor . . .

Yesterday, the New York Times’ Nick Kristof posted a column that purported to tell his largely progressive readership “how to win an argument about guns.” I’m interested to read good arguments from the other side, so I clicked eager to find how Kristof would best an informed gun-rights advocate in debate.

The short answer, it turns out, is that he wouldn’t.

The column’s pattern is simple: Kristof posits a primitive caricature of a gun-rights argument, delivers a thoroughly inadequate response designed to settle the issue, and then repeats the cycle. In other words, he erects one straw man after another and fails to best any of them.

Kristof first purports to answer the “argument” (it would be helpful, by the way, if he included a link to serious people making the arguments he’s purportedly rebutting) that cars are more likely to kill a person than guns, but we don’t try to ban cars. Here’s the core of Kristof’s response:

We don’t ban cars, but we do work hard to take a dangerous product and regulate it to limit the damage.

We do that through seatbelts and airbags, through speed limits and highway barriers, through driver’s licenses and insurance requirements, through crackdowns on drunken driving and texting while driving. I once calculated that since 1921, we had reduced the auto fatality rate per 100 million miles driven by 95 percent.

Notice the glaring omissions here?

First, Kristof fails to note that we do, in fact, already work to keep guns out of dangerous hands. We have a background-check system that regulates the vast majority of gun sales and a labyrinth of criminal and civil laws designed to prohibit violent and unstable Americans from ownin guns.

Second, he fails to mention that American gun violence is down 49 percent since its peak. The victimization rate for other firearm crimes dropped by a whopping 75 percent between 1993 and 2011. In other words, our national effort to reduce gun violence has been an extraordinary success. There’s work left to be done — just as there is work left to be done on automobile fatalities — but in any other context improvements like this would be cause for celebration.

Why not even mention the dramatic decline? Perhaps because it coincided with a generation-long easing of restrictions on gun ownership. Not only are there more guns in American circulation and less crime, there are more law-abiding people carrying guns and less crime. These are facts worth mentioning. They’re facts worth wrestling with. Kristof does neither.

He does, however, take aim at another classic straw-man argument about the Second Amendment, saying that the amendment “does not prevent sensible regulation.”

No serious gun-rights advocate argues that the Second Amendment protects unregulated gun ownership, of course. The devil is in the details. For example, universal background-check requirements are almost certainly constitutional. But the argument against these laws isn’t that they’re unconstitutional; it’s that they’re unenforceable and ineffective. A recent Rand study looked at studies of the effects of universal background checks on violent crime and found the evidence “uncertain” and “inconclusive.” Last October, Duke professor Philip Cook analyzed studies examining how criminals obtained their guns and noted that the guns typically have been “diverted from legal commerce.” In other words, criminals break the law not just when they use their gun but also when they obtain it. A universal background-check requirement isn’t relevant to already-illegal transactions.

An assault-weapons ban, by contrast, is unenforceable, ineffective, and likely unconstitutional. According to the Heller standard, the Second Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms in “common use” for “lawful purposes.” An assault-weapons ban would violate this test (the AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America; millions of Americans use it for self-defense, hunting, and target shooting), and it wouldn’t make a meaningful dent in gun crime, suicides, or mass shootings.

Having lost to two straw men, Kristof proceeds to make a puzzling argument about suicides. He addresses the claim that suicides “are not about guns” like this:

Actually, that’s not true. Scholars have found that suicide barriers on bridges, for example, prevent jumpers and don’t lead to a significant increase in suicides elsewhere. Likewise, almost half of suicides in Britain used to be by asphyxiating oneself with gas from the oven, but when Britain switched to a less lethal oven gas the suicides by oven plummeted and there was little substitution by other methods. So it is about guns.

Hold the phone. If you look at suicide rates by country, you’ll notice two things immediately. First, though America is awash in firearms, its suicide rate is relatively low compared with that of a number of other developed countries. Second, those developed countries have much stricter gun-control regimes than the United States.

“Suicide in Britain used to be about ovens, so suicide in America is about guns” strikes me as a less persuasive argument than the idea that suicide is an incredibly complex social phenomenon, and that the instruments by which it’s carried out are far less important than the underlying conditions and culture that produce it.

To his credit, Kristof does at least note that other nations have large numbers of firearms without American levels of violence, but here’s the entirety of his response:

Yes, there’s something to that. America has underlying social problems, and we need to address them with smarter economic and social policies. But we magnify the toll when we make it easy for troubled people to explode with AR-15s rather than with pocketknives.

Putting aside the fact that it’s far easier for a troubled person to obtain a knife than a gun, he hardly begins to grapple with the cultural question. There’s more than “something” to the argument. For example, “41 percent of white households own guns, compared to just 19 percent of black households.” Yet the gun-death rate among black Americans is almost twice the rate among white Americans. Gun-control advocates would love to lower the gun-ownership rate nationwide to 19 percent, but clearly cultural factors — what Kristof calls “underlying social problems” — can and do swamp other considerations.

If Kristof wanted to ‘win an argument’ with a gun owner, why did he completely ignore the benefits of gun ownership?  He never once addresses the effects of his so-called sensible gun restrictions on the right of self-defense.

Kristof ends with a lengthy discussion of the relative danger of pools and guns. But this is a misdirection. No one argues that pools are generally more dangerous than guns. They argue that pools are more dangerous to young children than guns are. Kristof brushes off this fact by noting that children “routinely swim and take baths but don’t regularly encounter firearms.”

True enough, but it’s also worth noting that guns are designed to kill, while pools and bathtubs are not. To note that a killing instrument kills fewer children than a pool is to note that guns are handled responsibly by the overwhelming majority of those who own them.

Finally, if Kristof wanted to “win an argument” with a gun owner, why did he completely ignore the benefits of gun ownership?  He never once addresses the effects of his so-called sensible gun restrictions on the right of self-defense. An informed gun owner is always going to respond to a gun-control proposal with at least two follow-up questions: First, will it make a material impact on the gun problem you seek to solve? Second, will it materially impact my ability to defend myself from known and foreseeable threats?

All too often, the answer to those questions is “no” and “yes.” All too often gun-control proposals operate as a form of collective punishment on the law-abiding while serving as barely a speed bump in the path of the criminal. There is a cost in the “let’s just try” approach, and that cost is borne by the men and women who comply with the law.

Kristof won’t “win” his argument because he can’t. We’ve proven that we can decrease crime while we protect the Second Amendment and expand access to guns. We know we can reduce suicides without restricting any person’s right to self-defense. We know we have fewer suicides than many other developed countries even as we have more guns. Moreover, we know that various so-called commonsense gun-control measures wouldn’t have prevented a single recent mass shooting.

The law-abiding gun owner is a tremendous asset to American society. He’s a protector of his family and of American liberty. It will take more than the arguments that Kristof can muster to persuade him to further limit his freedom in the vain hope that criminals might finally obey the law.


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