Thursday, April 18, 2013

What's wrong with the gun-control debate (and public debate in general)

The debate over gun control frustrates me immensely, and this has nothing to do with whether or not anyone supports any specific law that I may or may not support.  It's all about how people defend their own opinion and criticize others' opinions.  This debate is a good illustration of problems that appear in public debate over lots of issues.  After the jump is a (probably non-exhaustive) list of tactics that aren't helping any.

  1. Oversimplification (I).  Many of the most vocal supporters and opponents of gun control treat it as an all-or-nothing issue: we should ban all guns (resting on the assumption that this is the thing that will reduce or eliminate violence), or we should not restrict them at all (resting on the assumption that gun control has no effect on violence and won't reduce crime at all). Both assumptions, as well as their implications for policy, are unreasonable extremes.
  2. Oversimplification (II).  Even for someone who does not take one of the above extremes, it is common to view gun control as one-dimensional, i.e. that there should either be more or less of it. This way of framing the debate is not constructive at all. It is much more reasonable to think in terms of specific policies, and whether a given policy can accomplish what we would like (in terms of reducing gun violence) at relatively small cost (in terms of infringing upon responsible gun ownership).
  3. Confirmation bias, i.e. paying attention to evidence that supports your point of view, while disregarding evidence that contradicts your point of view. Even someone who reads lots of things can maintain an illusion of being thorough and unbiased. I'm not an expert in this area, but I have seen quite a lot of research, in various fields, on gun control and its effects. The evidence appears to me to be quite mixed, and there definitely does not seem to be a great preponderance one way or the other. Some efforts at gun control appear to have been effective, while others have been ineffective or counter-productive. Back to the point above: simply asking whether there should be more or less gun control is misleading because the question is not well defined. When considering various methods of gun control, there is no reason at all to expect to see the same effects in every conceivable context.
  4. Straw man, i.e. attacking a point of view that your opponent does not hold. Frequently this takes the form of criticizing a moderate point of view as if it were extreme, e.g. equating someone's support for gun control to a desire to ban all guns.
  5. Repetition of an opinion/argument/assumption instead of responding to criticism of that opinion/argument/assumption. If you have a reasoned response, make it; if not, consider what that means.  Silence is not a constructive response either. Something I've seen a lot of, in debates over many issues, from people of all ideologies: refusing to respond to a good criticism as a means of disavowing that criticism, as if to say, “I don’t have a good response to your criticism, but rather than considering modifying my own stance, I'm just going to stand firm on the original argument that you have thoughtfully and effectively criticized.” If we're trying to work together to achieve reasonable compromise instead of simply warring with each other, each side has to be willing to acknowledge the other side's valid points. A popular means of dodging a criticism of one's opinion is to provide a new justification for it rather than responding to the criticism itself. Then the original justification may or may not pop up later, and in any case the criticism of it goes unanswered.
  6. Mocking one's opponent rather than arguing civilly. I always wonder what people are trying to accomplish when they do this. It's hard to imagine that the goal could be to convince someone of something.
  7. Slippery slope, i.e. assuming that a step in one direction necessarily leads to more steps in that direction. Somehow this idea has come to be thought of popularly as a logical argument rather than a logical fallacy. To be clear, it is completely reasonable to be concerned about where that first step will lead. The fallacy is to assume that one step necessarily leads to more.
  8. Tangents. Focus on a tangential issue is sometimes used as a means of avoiding a central issue. For example, definitions of “assault weapons” have been criticized as overly restrictive or imprecise. This is a reasonable criticism, but it is unreasonable to use it as a means of dismissing the possibility of defining assault weapons in a reasonable way and regulating them appropriately. Another example is the “gun show exception,” which has been (rightly) criticized as a media fabrication: gun shows are just one means of private sales, which are generally less restricted than sales at gun stores. However, this is no excuse for ignoring the potential benefit of regulating private sales.

If everyone avoided all of the above, there would still be plenty of room for disagreement. I'm happy to have reasonable disagreement, but I have a hard time taking many gun control advocates and opponents seriously. I am particularly annoyed with the NRA leadership as well as their most liberal opponents because of their insistence on untenable extremes and refusal to engage with the other side.

Opponents of gun control complain that their rights are being restricted. Of course they are, but there is nothing wrong with the very idea of restricting rights when different rights are in conflict. Consider the 1st amendment: in general, we have free speech, but it is not generally legal to amplify your speech to the degree that you wake up all of your neighbors at 3 a.m.; nor is it legal to slander someone, plus a few other things. There is nothing sacred about guns or gun ownership, or at least not more sacred than free speech. On the other hand, gun control itself can't possibly eliminate violence, and responsible gun owners have rights that should be protected. I'm not going to take a stand on specific measures here, but it is quite clear to me that the discussion of gun control should be a matter of figuring out what kinds of restrictions increase public safety with relatively little impact on the rights of responsible gun owners.

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