All cats have four legs. My dog has four legs. Therefore my dog is a cat.
It is an obvious logical fallacy. Yet it is incredible how many people buy into it when it comes to government and politics!
Guns kill people. There are lots of guns in the United States. Therefore the United States’ high murder rate is down to its guns.
Sam Harris demonstrates the fallacy. It takes him a while, but we can do it with evidence closer to home.
Gun ownership in the United States is very, very high – there are as many guns as people, in fact. Its homicide rate is very high too – at 50 per million people, it is more than quadruple the rate in Northern Ireland (12), the Republic of Ireland (12) and England & Wales (11).
So, two things appear obvious: first, there is a high murder rate in the United States because there are guns; second, this could be solved by banning them. This is a classic case of misreading the evidence and then proposing a solution which is not viable – something all too common in politics.
Harris convincingly demonstrates that, in fact, the precise reverse is the case – there are guns in the United States because there is a high murder rate. Harris rightly dismissed the “Second Amendment Rights” argument and yet the constitutional aspect is relevant – the United States was born as a more individualistic society than almost any other in the western world, and one which values individual liberty much more highly than any other – that is, in fact, what distinguishes it from elsewhere. Although in the absence of guns the murder rate would almost certainly decline, it wouldn’t be by much – certainly nothing like enough to bring it into line with that of the British Isles.
(I omitted, above, the figure for Scotland – which, in fact, stands at 16 per million. Although this is much lower than the United States, it is much higher than anywhere else in the British Isles, and has been consistently so since the end of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ – it is, in fact, the second highest in the European Union. Is this because Scotland has more guns than England and Ireland? Evidently not. In fact, Northern Ireland surely remains by far the most armed part of the British Isles, yet its murder rate is slap bang on the average. So, plainly, high murder rates are not always to do with guns.)
Then, of course, there is the solution – “ban all guns”. How, exactly? Banning their sale is theoretically possible, of course, but how do you “decommission” the 300 million guns already out there? And, er, are you sure that’s what you really want to do? Surely the police would still have guns? If the police still has them, the logical progression is that security personnel, even private security personnel, may have them. If security personnel may have them, the logical progression is that all those who need them for work – say, deer hunters – should have them. If deer hunters should have them, well, pretty much anyone trained should have them, surely?
It is easy, from thousands of miles away, to look on with derision and point to the bleedin’ obvious. Yet, looked at in detail, suddenly it’s not so bleedin’ obvious – and unbelievably difficult in practice to implement. Goodness knows the United States has its faults, but it is hardly backward! There are deeply ingrained historical, cultural and social reasons for high levels of gun ownership there, and for the high murder rate. On reflection, however, they are not connected in the way which is initially apparent; and even insofar as they are, cultural and social change is an incredibly difficult thing to manage. It’s not rocket science – if it were, the Americans would long since have cracked it!