Wednesday, 7 October 2015

A special kind of stupid

     I've often seen this quote, usually pasted over a picture of Sam Elliot:

“You actually think criminals will obey gun control laws? You’re a special kind of stupid, aren’t you?”

      Here we see a splendid example of the straw man fallacy. The straw man fallacy is when, instead of taking on your opponent’s actual position, you attack a harmless effigy of it. In this case, the claim is that proponents of gun control actually think that criminals will obey gun control laws, which is of course a stupid thing to expect. Ergo, proponents of gun control are “a special kind of stupid.” 

     Of course criminals won’t obey laws! But that’s actually kind of the point. Criminals tend to ignore laws, big and small, and they usually commit many more small crimes than big ones. That is, a person who commits major crimes tends to already have a lengthy criminal record of minor offences by the time they do something big. This fact can be used to help reduce crime in two main ways. 
     First, on someone’s first arrest for a minor crime, there are opportunities to set them on the right path so that they don’t reoffend. In Canada, judges can grant conditional discharges upon sentencing, ensuring that the accused will not have a criminal record if they complete a rehabilitative program or course or meet whatever other conditions are specified by the judge. Some of these programs actually have a pretty high success rate, meaning that people caught early for minor crimes rarely commit another one. And if someone is picked up for illegal possession of a firearm before they actually shoot someone with it, that’s actually a good thing.
     Second, there is parole. To many people it seems counterintuitive to let a dangerous criminal out on parole before the sentence is complete — they think he should serve his whole sentence! — but in fact it serves to help keep them off the streets longer if they are at all likely to reoffend. Parole means regularly checking in with a parole officer and keeping out of trouble; minor offences while on parole put you right back in jail, and for longer, because committing a minor offence while on parole is itself an additional offence with an additional sentence. Nobody really expects habitual criminals to obey their parole conditions. We hope they will, but if they don’t it’s actually a way to keep them locked up longer so they can’t commit more serious crimes.

     Gun control advocates, then, generally do not actually believe that criminals will obey gun control laws, and so the attacking that belief is attacking a straw man.
     Now, skewering a straw man doesn’t have any effect on an actual opponent, but it can still be an opportunity to show off one’s technique. But it can backfire if your technique is poor; unfortunately, in this case, the attack on the straw man demonstrates embarrassingly flawed reasoning. Consider: the argument seems to be that we shouldn’t have gun control laws because criminals don’t obey the law anyway. But that’s actually a pretty terrible argument. Should we not have laws against stealing? Against driving drunk? Against murder? After all, criminals won’t obey those laws.
    We have these laws, not because we expect criminals to obey them, but so we can do something about it if they don’t: we can punish them or force them to undergo rehabilitation or banish them or whatever it takes to reduce such behaviour.

     So do the authors of this kind of nonsense actually believe that their opponents expect criminals to obey the law? Do they actually believe there’s no point to passing laws that criminals will just break anyway? That’s two kinds of stupid right there.


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  2. Another variant of this is: gun control laws won't stop criminals. No, they won't. No one ever expected they would. But they will reduce the damage caused by criminals in some cases and reduce accidental death and injuries not to mention suicides.

    The argument is like suggesting that since people still speed, we should just abandon the use of speed limits, or since some people run red lights or stop signs, we should give up traffic laws.

    1. (That's the first time I ever deleted a post! Just a duplicate, mind you, of the one I'm replying to here.)

      Yes, it's exactly like that. It's arguing that laws should only exist if everybody will obey them, another variation of which is "If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns." And if we outlaw speeding, only outlaws will speed. Um, yes. Exactly. And only outlaws will be fined or have their licenses taken away for speeding. What exactly is the problem with that?