My article and video “How should people respond to open-carry gun-rights activists?” started making the rounds again. And yet again, I received a deluge of responses from gun-rights advocates who complained about my position, calling me a traitor and an idiot, and claiming that I didn’t have the right to my opinion. Never mind that I wasn’t actually advocating for gun control or limiting anyone’s freedom. The mere suggestion that a gun owner can’t do anything he or she wants, at any time, in any place, appears to be enough to inspire the ire of a very vocal segment of the population.
There is one frequent comment that baffles me more than any others. It is the repeated claim that since I did not get all of the technicalities right, my opinion is irrelevant. The video I made (in one take, by the way) mistakenly identified semi-automatic guns as automatic, so lots of people have told me that since I don’t know anything about guns, I should shut the hell up. The first part is mostly true. I know comparatively little about guns. I’m not as inexperienced as some and I have fired both rifles and shotguns, but I’m willing to stipulate that, for all intents and purposes, I know nothing. And you know what? It shouldn’t matter.
Imagine the following exchange:
J: “I like the Beatles better than the Rolling Stones?”
G: “Do you know what gauge strings Keith Richards uses on his guitars?”
G: “Then shut the hell up. You don’t know anything about music.”
Or this one:
J: “Yum! I love fresh bread.”
G: “Do you know the temperature at which the sugars caramelize in order to make the crust?”
G: “Then be quiet. You have no taste and you don’t get to decide what you eat.”
In each of these examples, G’s comments are as irrelevant to the argument as the claim that detailed knowledge of guns is a precondition to discuss gun control. To be frank, I don’t care whether a gun is automatic or semi-automatic; a straight grip, semi grip, or full grip stock; whether it has a gravity, tubular, or an internal-box magazine; or even whether it’s pink, brings out your eyes, or is well-paired with a nice Merlot. No one else cares either.
The people who object to America’s overly lenient gun laws are concerned about the function, use, abuse, and accidents that come from there being about 300 million guns in the U.S.—“close to one firearm for every man, woman and child.” And, to paraphrase a line form My Cousin Vinny, when some parents’ daughter gets shot in the head, they aren’t going to care what kind of gun the son of a bitch who killed her is using.
There are two very interesting philosophical issues here, both of which are related to argumentation. The first is about the nature of relevance. For a piece of evidence to be relevant, it has to be shown to be important to the discussion or useful in connecting a premise and a conclusion. Relevance is a notoriously ambiguous term and logicians haven’t been successful in establishing criteria to identify relevance in advance. Nevertheless, most technical details are irrelevant to gun control discussions. One might say that the capacity and speed of a gun can be relevant in certain situations, but all guns that shoot more than one bullet and can be loaded or reloaded in anything less than, say, 30 seconds, are, for non gun owners, the same.
The second philosophical issue of interest is what I’ll call the “minimal knowledge problem.” It asks whether there is a basic level of information a person must have to be permitted in a conversation. This differs significantly from context to context. For example, a person might not be a constructive participant in a discussion about India’s international policies if he or she doesn’t know the history of the partition, or someone might be excluded from a discussion about painting techniques for not knowing the difference between acrylic and latex paint. Additionally, when politicians preface their comments about global warming by saying “I’m not a scientist, but…,” they are trying to get around the requirement for a certain minimal amount of knowledge. They are trying to replace knowledge with personal belief.
But discussions about open carry and gun control are not about guns at all; they are about people and behavior. They are about the U.S. constitution and the exploitative nature of the NRA, especially the way that the NRA has duped hunters into thinking they represent them, not the gun manufacturers whom they have made rich. These discussions are not about the kinds of guns people carry or the ways that models differ from one another. They are about human imperfection, fear, and what it actually means to protect oneself. Technical details have been quite useful for the gun lobby in forestalling gun control legislation, but this makes them political tools and not relevant to discussions of morality or liberty.
I have always found it odd that the same people who claim that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” demand that their critics know technical details about guns. Which is it, the people or the guns? If it’s the guns, then we have every right to restrict them because the U.S. Constitution does not protect objects. But if it’s about people, then stop complaining about my mistakes or dismissing people who don’t care to know irrelevant details. Gun owners: your fetish is of no interest to the rest of us. Share it with like-minded people and leave the rest of us alone.