Folio · 2017

Fallacies and Misinformation within the Rhetoric of the Gun Debate

Nikki Devers

Fallacious arguments are not to be disregarded only because they have been found, over time, to lead to bad decisions but also because, fundamentally, they work by violating implicit norms of rational argument and, thus, short-circuit the process of rational-critical debate.

(Duerringer and Justus 186)

Within any debate, there is an expected probability that false data or logical fallacies will be employed. The debate regarding firearms is no exception. Logical fallacies such as the slippery slope, circular reasoning, the straw man argument, and false attribution make appearances often. Without checking resources or being attuned to identifying fallacies misinformation can circulate and pollute an otherwise intelligent discussion. Conversely, for those that can point it out, it only serves to discredit the author of the statements.

The Slippery Slope

This illogical reasoning takes a premise and assumes an extreme hypothetical result, therefore indicating that the premise is faulty.

An example of this fallacy which is used in the anti-gun control argument, and one of the NRA's favorites, is the claim that gun control will ultimately lead to confiscation. Gun rights advocates succumb to fear mongering when they are told by entities seen as authoritative that if any gun control measures are adopted, the public is in immediate danger of becoming victims of a tyrannical government. Gun regulations do not inevitably end in citizen disarmament and prison camps as some "doomsday preppers" assert.

The reality is that some gun control measures have helped to deter gun violence. The gun control act of 1968 made it illegal for felons to own guns, among other regulations. In order to purchase a gun from a licensed dealer, they must conduct a background check on the buyer. If they have a felony on their record, they don't get to buy a gun. There are arguments against this saying a person's past does not dictate their future, but the measure has helped in decreasing the number of people with violent pasts from obtaining a firearm. They can still, however, obtain a gun through other routes that bypass a background check; through a private seller, for example.

Circular Reasoning / Circular Argument

This type of fallacy states the same idea of the premise in its conclusion; i.e. rewording the argument and using that as the supportive evidence of the claim.

A statement heard often in the anti-gun arena is that guns are only for killing because that is what they are made for. This is circular reasoning. It restates the argument rather than providing proof. This fallacy misses a key fact about firearms: "the features that make a gun an effective weapon for committing crimes [sic] are the same features that make guns effective for self-defense, hunting, sport shooting and target practice." (Burress par. 35) This demonstrates how a gun has more purposes than "only for killing".

A common misconception about responsible gun use is that gun "use" only refers to when it is fired; e.g. to lawfully shoot someone in self-defense. In fact, the mentioning or showing of a lawfully carried gun can drastically-escalate a situation and also counts as responsible gun "use". The gun did serve a purpose other than for killing.

The Straw man Argument

The straw man argument is one of the most prevalent fallacies presented when gun control is the topic of discussion. It occurs when an exaggeration of the opponent's position is easily defeated therefore assuming victory over the original claim. This undermines rational debate and suggests the victor is grasping at straws to win the argument.

For example: if someone supports gun regulations then they are also okay with the government taking everyone's guns. This implies all of those in favor of efforts that restrict access to guns are anti-gun. However, firearms restrictions tend to be made with the "public's best interest" in mind and their proponents want safe parameters in place regarding dangerous weapons. This does not suggest a "ban all guns" proposal.

Among the various fallacies we find within the gun debate, we also find an abundance of quotations. From the founding fathers to contemporary authorities on the subject legislative sessions that have proposals of gun regulations up for vote are inundated with addresses from their colleagues and the public who use quotes to support their reasoning in their pleas for congress to vote this way or that.

Arguments surrounding the gun debate, especially those specific to the interpretation of the Second Amendment, are laden with quotes that reflect the idealized notions of the founding fathers. They are often accurate and at other times, total fabrications, or spurious. This is the false attribution fallacy. In Argument and Advocacy, from the Journal of the American Forensic Association, we read: "Too often, people consider this sort of rhetoric to lurk harmlessly on the fringes. However, the false quotations represent a widely circulated viewpoint from which many people interpret public issues". (Harpine 153) What we learn from this is people will accept statements that support their views with less criticism and these misattributed quotes then begin to make rounds in likeminded circles.

False Attribution

A gun rights bill proposed in January of this year to impose penalties for public officials who block people from buying or owning guns included several quotes from historical figures such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. These quotes were used to support the authority of the Second Amendment that the bill relies upon. Half of the six quotes have been found to be unauthentic. One of which is: "firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people's liberty, teeth, and keystone under independence," attributed to the first U. S. president George Washington (Santos par. 6) Researchers at Mount Vernon have confirmed there is no validity to this quote.

A quote also heard within gun rights advocacy circles is: "the beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it" credited to Thomas Jefferson. The author of the article in the Journal of the American Forensic Association wrote that his personal search of Jefferson's online papers at the Library of Congress found no references to the term "beauty of the Second Amendment".

Whether the quote is factual or not, most people won't try to argue with what appears to be a "tradition" which is why there are so many false passages attributed to founding fathers. If it sounds like something Thomas Jefferson or George Washington would say, it tends to slip by without scrutiny and others will repeat the quotes not knowing they aren't authentic. Especially since the gun debate is heavily founded on the interpretation of the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, a "tradition" in itself.

In conclusion; fallacies can drive a discussion off course where nothing more constructive can come out of it. Spurious quotes get interjected into arguments and are used to circumvent reasoned debate. The study of rhetoric gives us tools to learn how to recognize when this happens and we are able to keep the flow of the discussion on the topic at hand.

Works Cited

Burrus, Trevor. "Why the gun debate never ends." Foundation for Economic Education 28 June 2016. 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.

Duerringer, Christopher M. and Z. S. Justus. "Tropes in the Rhetoric of Gun Rights: A Pragma-Dialectic Analysis." Argumentation & Advocacy 52.3 (2016): 181-198. Communication and Mass Media Complete. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.

Harpine, William D. "The Illusion of tradition: Spurious Quotations and the Gun Control Debate." Argumentation and Advocacy 52.3 (2016): 151-164. Communication and Mass Media Complete. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.

Santos, Melissa. "Fake Founding Father Quotes Make Their Way into Gun Bill in Washington." Miami Herald 6 Feb. 2016. 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 17 Oct. 2016.

Folio · 2017