New York Times: Wrong on Guns

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.


4 Responses to New York Times: Wrong on Guns

  1. Noah says:

    Guns are not the problem, they are the sympton. I can only say that minus that statement the rest of your opinion is full of tired NRA rhetoric. Any doctor might say you can’t fix a disease by treating symptons (I would argue that statement is false by the way, but for the sake of argument I will concede it here) but they also don’t let symptons go untreated. If a person with a brain tumor has a killer headache they give medicine to treat it, they don’t sit there dumbfounded by this new development (something Republicans have mastered) and refuse to act. Stubborness is not a virtue (no matter what Republicans think) and sometimes action is called for when the headache has gotten intolerable and people haven’t figured out how to cure the disease.

    • Andrew Eastman says:

      Thanks for your time and comments; let’s begin (and end) discussing guns as a symptom of a deeper problem because surely we can agree a hunting rifle which rolls off the line in Springfield, Illinois isn’t the reason somebody used a pistol to rob a gas station in Norwalk, Connecticut. And agreed, by the way: doctors will treat symptoms even if they’re unable to cure the disease causing them, and there’s no reason for us not to treat the symptoms of social unrest which lead to gun violence: by arresting violent offenders. And by limiting the type of guns available publicly, and the circumstances under which certain arms and ammunition can be had. I’d offer no argument to rational, reasonable control of some sort; my argument is that guns don’t make us violent, and we do ourselves a communal disservice by making them a scapegoat.

      I’ll try to answer your question with another one: while it’s true doctors treat symptoms to improve the quality of the patient’s life in the same way we should treat the symptoms of social ills (like gun violence) to improve the quality of our own, wouldn’t it be more effective, in both cases, to stamp out the disease which causes the symptoms? In such a way, we could both eliminate the symptom and save ourselves a good deal of treatment expense. Wouldn’t it be better to cure the cold, rather than to keep giving out caugh syrup? Wouldn’t it be better to slow our desire for drugs, rather than to build a wall around Mexico to keep them out? Wouldn’t it be better to end the deeper psychoses which push some to violence, rather than to erode Constitutional protection of gun ownership and lean on mis-representative statistics?

      A quick aside: nobody is “refusing to act” with regard to violent crime; prisons are packed to capacity, and more are built every year. Contrary to your comment, we seem to be acting too much. Our contry now holds more prisoners than any other country, at any time in history, ever has. Hardly inaction. Wouldn’t our justice system be equally well-served through treatment of the causes of violence (injustice, inequality, lack of opportunity), rather than their outward indicators (violent offenders)? Which calls back the disease and symptom analogy: another fact every doctor knows is, no matter how well symptoms are treated, if the disease remains, they’ll always come back.

  2. Noah says:

    You will find no argument from me, or any other educated human being, that treating poverty, racism and numerous other social injustices would cut down on violent crimes. But let us be realistic, just as the common cold has no cure, neither do those things. It is not from a lack of effort either, people every day are donating their time, resources and money to ending social injustice.

    Are you honestly saying “Hey, guns aren’t the problem, hatred is.” Goddamn right hatred and fear are the problem, but the tool used to mete out this hatred most often is a gun.

    First, you say the guns are not the reason these people are dying, the hatred and bigotry would have happened some other way without the guns. I would imagine the situation in Laramie would be a prime example. There a fence and truck were the means of torture and eventually murder. Now, obviously nobody wants to ban trucks and fences because of this incident. But I think the point you are missing is the volume of gun deaths (even though you try to downplay them with unsubstantiated facts) and the seeming ease and lack of thought with which a gun allows a person to take the life of another. These make guns dangerous beyond the scope of a burning stove.

  3. Andrew Eastman says:

    Again, thank you for your time and thoughts. Nobody’s argued guns aren’t an easy means of violence. In fact, taking the time to re-read the original post reveals the opposite: “Guns are a convenient way to accomplish… violence.”

    What’s been argued instead is that they’re not a cause of violence, and until we’re able to isolate and treat those causes, violence will continue, with or without guns. Blaming guns for violent crime misdirects our attention, away from areas where we could effect lasting change.

    As for “unsubstantiated facts,” statistical information for this post was taken from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a notably Democrat-lead initiative.

    For more “unsubstantiated facts,” see the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, D.C. v. Heller, pointing out that a city (Washington, D.C.) which had virtually outlawed handguns for almost 30 years still managed to average a murder rate five times as high as the national average, despite having the lowest incidence of private gun ownership of any state in the Union.

    You point out guns are responsible for an outsized volume of violent deaths, and I agree. But I don’t agree (and here may be our fundamental point of contention) that such outsized representation is grounds for their restriction, any more than it is for banning cars (despite the fact that 30,694 Americans died in gun-related deaths last year, and 43,443 died in automobile accidents… that is, almost 30% more people died by car than by gun).

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