New York Times: Wrong on Guns

April 28, 2009

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert inveighs against our “culture soaked in blood” in his op-ed of April 24th, available here, and blames guns for doing the soaking. In true sensationalist fashion, Mr. Herbert misses the mark, and what’s worse, encourages dangerous assumptions.

Bob Herbert, New York Times columnist.

Bob Herbert, New York Times columnist.

There are arguments on both sides of the gun issue: a Constitutional right and potent symbol of democracy, versus unnecessary and outmoded ideas of states’ rights and anti-Federalism. Scholastics argue our founders’ intent, and interpretation thereof, down to no less earth-shaking an issue than comma placement, with nothing to show for it but D.C. v. Heller expert-witness fees. Mr. Herbert foregoes anything like scholasticism in favor of scare tactics, skewed statistics, and irrational conclusory jumps (made of necessity betweeen cause and effect, because no logical bridge exists to carry his arguments from the one to the other). 

Mr. Herbert writes of a pending Boston, Mass. police investigation:

“Philip Markoff, a medical student, supposedly carried his semiautomatic in a hollowed-out volume of “Gray’s Anatomy.”

And there we lose him (or wish we had), because we cannot follow with any degree of reliance an opinion founded on conjecture, on the word “supposedly.” Not to excuse the crime, but Mr. Herbert’s use of unproven allegations to shock his audience into complacency with his opinion is nothing but yellow sensationalism.  

For example: Mr. Herbert points to 30,000 gun-related deaths yearly. He glosses over the fact that more than half of them are suicides, and that suicidal Americans are unlikely to be deterred just because they can’t find their guns. Equally overlooked: the fact that a substantial number of gun-related deaths are of armed criminals who have attacked police officers, and been shot back at. Mr. Herbert might similarly argue that knives are dangerous because 50,000 Americans are stabbed yearly, but neglect mentioning the majority of stabbings are self-inflicted while chopping onions in the kitchen.

Shock and awe aside, Mr. Herbert offers a simple argument. Scrubbed down, it amounts to: Americans are a violent people, and it is guns which make our violence possible.

What Mr. Herbert fails to notice is a simple conclusion: we are a violent society, to be sure, but guns haven’t caused it; gun violence is a symptom of deeper turmoil. And like any doctor will admit, treating symptoms won’t cure a disease. Deep cultural rifts, lack of opportunity in some communities, poor education, frustration, inequality, injustice, social unrest, jealousy, absentee parenting… these things cause violence. Guns are a convenient way to accomplish that violence, but plenty of violence was done before guns existed in the name of those same motivations and plenty would be done still without them. Logic suggests that the resources devoted to eradicating gun rights would be better spent attacking the reasons behind gun violence; guns are a means, not a motivation. Assigning them the causal abilities Mr. Herbert wrongfully does is like fixing America’s drug problem by building a wall around Mexico, to keep the drugs out. The drugs aren’t the problem; it’s America’s desire for drugs which is the problem, and until that desire is curbed, no wall will be high enough to dent it. Surely nobody would argue, “Oh, if only it weren’t for owning that rifle, Lee Harvey Oswald would’ve been ever so gentle and happy!”

Any parent knows it’s unrealistic to remove a stove to prevent children from touching it; there will always be dangerous items around the house, so the proper thing is to teach children to be cautious. Caution will protect them from dangerous situations, which is necessary because dangerous situations can never be eliminated. Mr. Herbert might teach his own children caution, and to control their impulses, and he might ask them, “Why do you want to touch the stove? Don’t you know that’s not a good idea?” But, more likely, he ripped out the stove.

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MIT, Athletic Powerhouse No More

April 28, 2009

The New York Times reports the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will soon cease funding to eight varsity sports, allowing it to better finance its remaining 33 sports teams. Those programs likely to be cut include men’s and women’s hockey, golf and wrestling. Eliminating these programs will save MIT’s Athletic Department $1.5 million annually, a spokesman for the Institute told the Times.

In other news, MIT apparently has sports teams.