Recent mass shootings in the US have renewed the national debate over gun control. On one side, gun-control proponents argue that banning/regulating/controlling guns will reduce murders and improve social welfare. On the other side, gun-rights proponents argue that the illegal actions of a few shouldn’t restrict the freedoms of the many.
Striking the right balance between social welfare and personal liberty is an important debate for every society, but lately I’ve noticed the debate over gun control being tainted by a recurring logical error. See if you can spot the fallacy in the following fictitious debate.
Alice: Guns are dangerous. Countries with heavy gun regulation have fewer murders. We dislike murder; therefore we should heavily regulate guns.
Bob: No way! The 2nd amendment protects our right to own guns. Heavily regulating guns would violate the constitution.
Alice: I disagree! The founders had no conception of today’s gun technology; the 2nd amendment should only apply to muskets and similar weaponry.
Bob: No, in writing the 2nd amendment the founders were establishing a fundamental right of self-protection and self-determination that exists irrespective of the technology in question.
Alice and Bob: yada yada yada …
Did you spot any fallacies?
Though there may be more than one fallacy above, the particular fallacy I had in mind is what’s called the is-ought problem. At some point, the debate above shifted from the question of what our laws ought to be, to the question of what our laws are. These two questions are very different, yet they are confused with one another over and over again in the debate over gun control.
If you think about it, why should the existence of the 2nd amendment have any bearing whatsoever on the optimal level of gun regulation? Sure, amending the constitution may present a practical barrier to achieving the optimum level of regulation (wherever it may lie), but barriers to achieving the optimum have no relevance to the location of the optimum. If it turns out that heavy gun regulation is best, then we should argue to amend the 2nd amendment. If it turns out that light gun regulation is best, then we should argue to leave the 2nd amendment as it is. But in both cases, the existence of the 2nd amendment needs to be the output of the debate, not the input.
Philosopher David Hume first wrote about the is-ought problem 300 years ago in his Treatise of Human Nature. But despite having hundreds of years, it’s sad that the debate over gun control still hasn’t absorbed his wisdom.