Timothy McVeigh used fertiliser.

Now Seung-Hui, a 23 year old student, has used firearms to commit a heinous act of mass murder at his university, Virginia Tech. In each case the most pertinent question one can ask is Why?’ rather than How? The ‘why’ is an analysis of the reason the event occurred. The ‘how’ is a mere technicality. Whether the weapon was fertiliser or firearms, the person committing the act was, alone, responsible. Firearms did not kill 32 innocent people yesterday; Seung-Hui killed 32 innocent people using firearms. This is a monumental difference. Had firearms been unavailable, his motive for mass murder would have existed nevertheless. This is about what would cause someone like him to do something like this, not what weapon he used.

Yet the discourse on this has inevitably created new fuel for the arguments of the anti-gun lobby, some of the weakest arguments in contemporary political discourse. I’ve written extensively on the issue of guns (some of my articles on the subject are available on this blog within search category: Firearms). Over the past day since the V-Tech massacre, I’ve heard many of the same arguments so commonly used at times such as this, some of which are merely irrational, a few of which border on the deranged. I’d like to use this post to refute some of the central arguments surrounding Virginia Tech and firearms; then maybe we can get on with the real debate, which involves analysing the motive rather than berating the existence of the weapon.

1) Guns are designed to inflict harm, so should be banned.

As fellow Libertarian Reason blogger Stephen Graham asked, “Is inflicting harm intrinsically bad? It seems to me clear that there are obvious cases when inflicting harm is not bad at all – the most obvious being the infliction of harm in self-defence, or inflicting harm in the interests of justice (perhaps to over-throw an oppressive dictator), or inflicting harm through pest control (as would be the case for rural dwelling folks). Even if it is true that guns are built to inflict harm it still doesn’t follow that they should be banned.” Most of the guns I’m aware of are used more frequently for recreational purposes than to inflict harm of any kind, even in pest control. Shooting sports are an extremely popular activity here in the States, and handgun shooting is an Olympic sport.

2) America’s obsession with guns is responsible for this tragedy.

This is a tricky argument. It assumes that high levels of gun ownership are somehow responsible for causing violent crime. I responded to a comment on Will & Testament which said, “I’ve visited Northern Ireland recently and it is MUCH safer than Philadelphia, where I live.” His point was an attempt to connect the higher gun ownership in Philadelphia with his contention that there are higher levels of violent crime in that city as a result, compared with Northern Ireland where firearms are prohibited.

Firstly, it seems immediately apparent that Northern Ireland is a bad example for him to use to support his argument. Every gun that was responsible for every sectarian murder during the ‘Troubles’ was illegal, yet it didn’t stop those crimes. It seems curious to use Northern Ireland as an example of a safer society than Philly! (And I’m far from convinced that that’s been proven to be the case.) But assuming that his anecdotal ‘evidence’ is valid, and granting that, while on vacation, he was capable of assessing and comparing the annual crime figures of an entire city just by visiting, it is still extremely difficult to know how enacting more gun laws will remove the guns. Even anti-gun, left-wing nut Rosie O’Donnell today admitted the impossibility of such a task.

What makes anyone believe that removing the guns (which is impossible to do in any case, as should be clear from the British situation among others) will reduce violent crime? Removing access to certain weapons will only cause criminals intent on committing violent crimes to look for effective alternatives. (Moreover, it has the added effect of disarming the potential victims of violent crime leaving them defenseless in the process, a fact I dealt with in some of my earlier articles on firearms and the issuance of concealed weapons permits in the United States.)

In Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore made a blistering attack upon the high level of gun ownership in America, linking it throughout his film to high rates of violent crime. Halfway through, he contradicted his entire thesis by introducing the evidence that there are other nations with high levels of gun ownership who do not suffer high levels of violent crime, like Canada and Switzerland. Despite introducing this evidence into his own film, Moore continued to make Bowling about firearms ownership rather than about the real motives and sources of violence. If that’s not an irrational, unbelievably ridiculous logical fallacy, I don’t know what is. His movie considers the premise, ‘Countries with high levels of gun ownership are violent places’ and finds it lacking. Yet he continues his tirade against gun ownership as though he hadn’t just gone and proved the argument deficient in the most basic logic.

The fallacy runs something like this (help me out Stephen?):

1) Countries with high levels of gun ownership are violent places.
2) Canada and Switzerland have high levels of gun ownership.
3) Canada and Switzerland are not violent places.

Thus, Premise (1) is disproved by the second two premises.

3) How awful that Americans love guns so much!

I responded to another comment earlier from a Northern Ireland citizen who expressed his sadness that, in a culture such as America, people feel the need to own guns for their protection. He said, “John, your arguments are interesting. I must admit I think that you’re probably right – there is no way that American gun culture can be changed. It’s a pity – if not a tragedy. But it’s very unfortunate – a kind group paranoia that leads to a community arms race.”

This kind of sentiment is normal and is to be expected. But Americans don’t see it that way. They don’t regard it as a “pity” at all, and there is a certain advantage to being able to understand it from a U.S. resident’s point of view, living in a nation where gun ownership is just commonplace and not a paranoid or fearful thing at all. If I could bring everyone reading this blog to my home in the American southwest and show you the practical, realistic optimism of average, everyday America, I believe your opinion on this and perhaps even your worldview to an extent would be changed by the experience. Mine was.

Set in the context of American culture, gun ownership is two things at one and the same time. Firstly, it is a precautionary measure, in much the same way that a fire extinguisher, burglary alarm or seatbelt are – options, in case of emergency. There is little paranoia or fear or shame in owning a burglary alarm; neither is there in owning a firearm for the purpose of protecting property and loved ones. Both items address the reality of emergencies: they aren’t expected, they’re prepared for. And the gun is secondly a recreational item for many Americans. Come here to California and you’ll be amazed by the number of residents who own boats, skis, motorbikes, quads, jetskis, huge motorhomes, Jeeps, kayaks – in huge quantity and at huge expense. ‘Work hard and play hard’ is the ethic here. Guns are just another recreational activity for millions of law-abiding, peaceful American families.

I agree with him that guns cannot be separated from American culture. But I’d discourage people from seeing that as an awful thing. Firearms are tools which can be used for good, bad or just for fun. It’s those who wish to use them for bad and their motives we should be concentrating on.

4) We should be outraged at gun stores that continue to promote themselves regardless of this tragedy.

An absolutely farcical piece appeared in today’s Guardian, under the headline ‘Virginia gun giveaway to go ahead despite massacre.’ One can already see the heads of many a British liberal shaking in disapproval after reading only the headline. The article starts out, “They are calling it the ‘Bloomberg Gun GiveAway’. On Thursday two gun shops in the state of Virginia will stage a prize draw. Anyone spending more than $100 in either Bob Moates’ stores or Old Dominion Guns and Tackle will be entered, and the first prize a free handgun or rifle worth $900.” It continues, “Despite yesterday’s tragic events at Virginia Tech, a clerk at Bob Moates said the draw would still go ahead. …. It was revealed today that the Virginia Tech killer, Cho Seung-Hui, had been carrying a 9mm Glock pistol and a 22mm Walther semi-automatic.”

The last sentence should betray how little Ed Pilkington, the reporter who wrote this masterpiece, is qualified to write about firearms. A little education may be in order. The term ‘calibre’ (UK) or ‘caliber’ (US) denotes the interior diameter of a gun barrel. Some pistol calibers are measured in millimetres, like the 9mm he mentions, but most are measured as points of an inch. What he’s trying to describe is a .22 cal pistol, and a very nice little pistol at that (the Walther P22). I’m familiar with both the guns, and they’re both reliable and great to shoot (though I think he may have overpaid on the Glock).

Now, some of you cringed when I described these pistols in positive terms after this tragedy. That’s exactly my point. Such a reaction is irrational in exactly the same way that Pilkington’s article is irrational. Firearm stores continuing to sell firearms and continuing to promote their businesses is not news, unless one is already predisposed against firearms in general before thinking about it. There’s a term for it, actually: hoplophobia. The product of hoplophobia is that one will blame the use of firearms rather than the motive for a killing, and therefore Pilkington’s story works. He knows that most of his readership is like him and will react emotionally against such a headline. But is that rational? The answer is no, it isn’t.

Had this massacre been conducted using fertiliser, would Pilkington be ‘reporting’ on the continued business activities of fertiliser dealers? Had it been conducted using a kitchen knife, chainsaw, nailgun, or large vehicle, would Pilkington’s article have appeared in today’s Guardian as it did? Of course not. And for those who suffer from hoplophobia, remember that acknowledging your problem is the first stage in healing. This link may help.

I’m pleased to see that, despite the inevitable politicisation of this unbelievable tragedy by those who had already decided to oppose guns, voices of reason are coming from many quarters also. Presidential candidate Arizona senator John McCain says that this changes nothing about Americans’ right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, and that no amount of gun law would have prevented the action of someone committed to the idea of murder. The New York Times, surprisingly, had an editorial questioning the shrill cries for gun control as a response to yesterday’s massacre.

Meanwhile, families and friends at Virginia Tech will be left in the wake of a media frenzy to pick up the pieces and move on. As grieving gives way to anger, they’ll be looking for answers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are persuaded by some handy liberals that guns are to blame. Emotion can sometimes be the enemy of reason. But good societies are built upon the principle that reason should prevail, despite the difficulty of the circumstances upon which it is called.

May reason prevail.

John Wright