I. Why Guns are Not Like Spoons
“If guns kill people, then spoons make people fat.” That’s a favorite analogy of pro-gun folks to ostensibly make the point that it is bad decisions, and not the inanimate tools themselves that cause undesirable results from the use of the tools. This is a bad analogy, but it is not surprising that bad analogies sound perfectly logical to people predisposed to agree with them, because many such people are terrible at analogies. Unfortunately, most people who disagree with the analogy have a general sense that it is wrong, but can’t point out exactly why. That’s because people who disagree are, also, mostly terrible at analogies. Liberals and conservatives alike may unite in being bad at analogies. Remember that section of the SATs?
It brings up bad memories for most people. The temptation is to read that question as “tree is to leaf as book is to ____” and then rely on sense or intuition to inform the answer. However, the best way to find the answer is to create as highly accurate a description of the relationship between the first two words as possible, then plug in the other words into the description to see what fits best. So, plugging in a simple relationship: e.g., “Trees need leaves” isn’t very good because you can also easily say “Books need covers,” as well as “Books need pages.” A highly accurate description describing what leaves are in relation to trees would be:
“Leaves are the smallest but still very important individual components of a tree, which typically has high numbers of them.”
The only answer that fits “books” in the above sentence is “pages.” What makes a good, strong analogy is when the relationships between two sets of words are very highly similar and the differences are minimal.
Let’s walk through this exercise with Guns:Kill People::Spoons:Make People Fat.
Guns:Kill People::Spoons: _______
In this analogy, “make people fat” is an inaccurate answer. What is a highly accurate description of the relationship between “guns” and “kill people?” It is “the primary purpose of a gun is to kill people.” Does this work for the other set? “The primary purpose of a spoon is to make people fat?” No, that is not true. A more accurate answer is “The primary purpose of a spoon is to feed people.” We can word it in other highly accurate but less stark terms while maintaining a good analogy. An alternative example is Guns:Fire Bullets::Spoon:Shovel Food. “A gun can be used to fire bullets , and a spoon can be used to shovel food.”
The correct analogy is not “If guns kill people, then spoons make people fat;” rather, it is “If guns kill people, then spoons feed people.”
Looking at it the reverse way, the relationship between a spoon and making people fat is “if a person uses a spoon for a long period of time, and makes bad decisions of what to use the spoon for, then in conjunction with other factors, some unrelated to spoons, a person gets fat.” That is not the relationship between a gun and killing people. If a person uses a gun correctly, one time, for its intended purpose, it kills a person immediately.
Sure, you can use a gun for other things. Like killing animals, “merely” injuring people, scaring people away by firing shots, target practice, scaring people by waving it around, collecting it and hanging it on a wall, or hitting someone with blunt end. You could even eat with it—dip the butt in some nacho cheese or something. You can use a spoon for other things. Like hanging on your nose, storing in your drawer, collecting and hanging it on a wall. You could even kill someone with it. Stab someone super hard, or something.
However, these other uses aren’t really the gun’s or spoon’s primary purpose, and they aren’t super important for alternative uses. Everything about a gun is engineered so that IF you use it as intended against a person or an animal, it will kill that person or animal. Everything about a spoon is engineered to help humans eat things like soup and cereal.
II. Why Comparing Guns with Other Inanimate Objects Matters
The distinction of the fact that the primary purpose of a gun is to kill people is relevant because as a society, we tend to regulate physical items themselves based on a combination of a few things, including 1) their primary purpose (i.e., benefit) and 2) their lethality. Guns and other weapons are different from other items because their primary purpose/benefit and their lethality are one and the same. Another common comparison gun advocates make is “well, heart disease kills way more people a year—600,000–why don’t people focus on regulating cheeseburgers?” or “cars kill 30,000 people a year too–why don’t we get rid of all cars?” The answer is that we do regulate cars and cheeseburgers and try to prevent their related deaths, but we do it with a logical relationship to their primary purpose and their immediate lethality. I assert that as Americans, we regulate guns in an illogical manner as compared to everything else we regulate.
(Warning: generalizations are forthcoming. As I have previously written, generalizations are a useful language construct for the purpose of summarizing many underlying details. The body of literature and studies on each concept discussed herein is vast. See links for supporting facts and sources. For example, this link to the CDC’s Annual Fatal Injury Report. The most comprehensive book I have read on the subject of violence is
“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker. Some of my thoughts about human nature and violence derive from that book, which I highly recommend. I’d be happy to further discuss my reasoning behind any of my broad assertions. Additionally, I characterize of different kinds of death as worse than others. This characterization is subjective, but based on my observations of how people tend to react to them, such as how they are reported in the news.)
We (humans, Americans) tend to regulate most physical items based on many factors. In addition to the factors of primary purpose and lethality, we also take into consideration (often subconsciously), several other factors. We do consider the absolute number of deaths per year from a given cause, (e.g., 600,000 from heart disease, 480,000 from smoking, 30,000 from car accidents, 33,000 from guns) but that alone isn’t a determinative factor for how we regulate a particular item.
Much of all human endeavor is related to preventing and/or delaying death, and we have made many improvements in these endeavors over time. The most compelling evidence of our success are our drastically increased life expectancies around the world, especially in the last 100 years. We generally view all deaths as sad, but since all people die eventually, we tend to focus our efforts on preventing and delaying the kinds of death that most seem the most preventable; that is, those deaths that seem most atrocious, heart-wrenching, and/or unnecessary. But what factors inform how we view different causes of death in these ways, and how usually go about preventing and delaying death through laws and policies?
For one, we consider the directness of causality of a given cause of death. Heart disease kills over 600,000 per year, but it does not have one direct cause (e.g., one cheeseburger), but rather many cumulative, far-removed causes (e.g., thousands of cheeseburgers, pizzas, beers, and fried foods, combined with a lack of exercise, genetic factors, etc.). This is why no one would have been horrified if a stranger came and gave out 100 cheeseburgers to high schoolers in Florida a few days ago (*sadly, this is the second time since originally writing this article that I have edited that description of victims and location; previous edits read “club-goers in Orlando” and “concert-goers in Las Vegas.”) We consider direct causes generally worse and more preventable than indirect causes. The distinction between the level of directness of a cause is an important one, not only conceptually, but legally as well—liability or guilt of any offense in court usually requires a direct, or at least, proximate causation. We do regulate unhealthy things like food, but only a little bit because of its indirectness of causality to death.
Similarly, we consider immediacy of a cause of death. We all know that smoking will likely kill you, but not for a long time. If it does, it will likely do so in the form of illness somewhat later in life. We consider immediately-caused deaths to be generally worse than deaths caused over a long period of time. However, we still regulate cigarettes heavily even though death is not immediate, because its cause is direct. Notably, our most restrictive laws regarding cigarettes pertain to a smoker’s ability to smoke near others who do not want to inhale smoke.
Our heavy regulation of second-hand smoking is due to the fact that we also consider whether a cause of death is something self-inflicted or done by others. We object very much when someone else’s actions kill us. Prescription and illegal drug overdoses kill about 50,000 people a year. Like unhealthy food and smoking, drug use is primarily self-inflicted. Because we value our own autonomy and the ability to make our own decisions (even bad ones) ourselves, we consider deaths inflicted by others to be generally worse than ones that are self-inflicted. Still, even though they are self-inflicted, we consider the epidemic of these deaths to be tragic and a crisis—one that the medical community, private businesses and the government are actively trying to address. Drugs are highly regulated and/or illegal, and we actively try to prevent people from harming themselves through their regulation.
Another consideration is whether a cause of death is accidental or intentional. Most deaths occurring because of a vehicle crash are accidental. However, they are direct, immediate, and caused both by one’s self and others, making them especially painful to those they impact. As a result, government, business, individuals, and other organizations have made drastic, concerted efforts to reduce the rate of vehicle accidents over time. There are numerous testing and licensing requirements, entire codes of traffic laws, traffic infrastructure designed to reduce deaths, and ever-improving car safety technology. As a society, we have been remarkably effective at reducing auto fatalities over the last 60 or so years, and we are likely to see a precipitous drop from the current level of around 30,000 in the next few years due to the rapid development of crash-prevention technology. Once bright spot about causes of death that are direct, immediate, and inflicted by others, like auto accidents, is that they are easier to identify and therefore the most preventable through concerted effort—hence, the effectiveness of regulations.
Guns are used to inflict 11,000 deaths per year directly, immediately, by others, and worst of all, intentionally; these alone are the number of gun homicides. There about 33,000 total gun deaths—roughly the same number as deaths from car accidents—but approximately 20,000 of those are from suicides and a little less than a thousand are from accidents. If we just take the approximately 11,000 gun homicides per year (out of a total of 14,000-ish homicides), those are the ones that it would seem we would spend the most regulatory and societal effort to prevent, precisely because they are easily identifiable and therefore preventable. The suicides and accidents would also seem to be a target of legislation at least on par with the level of regulations on cars, given that they are still caused directly and immediately. However, there are very few regulations on guns at all. By “few,” I don’t mean that they are non-existent; it’s just that they pale in comparison to those surrounding the next most comparably lethal item: cars. And extreme resistance to even the most mundane laws and policies prevents progress in reducing these very preventable deaths.
When it comes to guns and other weapons, though, not all guns and weapons are equal in their lethality. Two additional factors come into consideration when we regulate weapons in general, which include 1) how many people can be killed by them at once and 2) from how far away. It makes intuitive sense that the more people can be killed from farther away, the more deadly a weapon is. Before turning to the lethality of guns, let’s address knives. Knives are a bit unique in that their primary purposes range from “spreading butter” to “stabbing” (e.g., a military grade knife), so their primary purpose/benefit is sometimes, but not usually, the ability to kill itself. But because of its shape, it can be classified and used as a weapon. By the measures of “how many/how far away” it can kill people when used as a weapon, its lethality is relatively lower than that of guns. About 1,700 homicides a year are committed with knives—about 15% the number of gun homicides. Based on the wide range of primary purposes of knives, and their lower lethality, we can see why knives are moderately regulated. For example, they are prohibited on planes, in many business establishments, and sporting venues.
Just within the subset of “guns that are legal”, there is a wide range of lethality based on the criteria of “how many” and “how far away.” For example, shotguns and hunting rifles, though capable of killing humans, are primarily designed to kill animals. There are a wide variety of just this subset of guns, but certain features make them relatively less deadly against people than other guns (debatable). For example, shotgun ammunition is comprised of shot, which are small pellets that spray diffusely, so as to kill smaller animals like birds. Such ammunition is loaded often one at a time, or through a small magazine typically holding five or less shells. Many hunting rifles are designed for larger caliber bullets, for killing larger animals, but are also typically loaded through smaller magazines of ten or fewer rounds (bullets).
Handguns, in contrast, are designed for killing people and have features such as being compact and holding bullets sufficient to kill or injure a human from relatively close range. They are designed to kill only a few at a time at most, due to their round capacity. Many hold 5-15 rounds. Again, there are a wide variety of this subset, some more lethal than others.
The deadlier types of legal guns include popular semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15. What characterizes them as semi-automatic is that they can fire one bullet per trigger pull without the need for re-cocking (handguns may be semi-automatic as well). These are designed to kill many people at once, given the design features of semi-automatic firing and the magazine capacity (magazines holding 10, 20 or 30 rounds are common). Other features make this type of rifle more accurate over a longer distance than a handgun (e.g., the long barrel, a sight, firing velocity, and a buttstock for holding the rifle in place on one’s shoulder). There are a wide variety of semi-automatic guns of this subset as well.
Above this level of lethality, weapons are highly regulated and prohibited. For example, fully automatic guns (some known as machine guns) are illegal. These can fire even more bullets at a faster pace because depressing the finger once, continuously, will cause bullets to keep firing. Bombs, land mines, grenades, and other explosives are generally illegal under state and federal laws. Rocket launchers are illegal. Obviously fighter planes and missiles are illegal. Nuclear bombs are the most lethal weapons available, and can kill so many people from so far away that entire countries are prohibited from having them. The prohibition on American citizens on having any of these kinds of weapons is pretty non-controversial.
There are of course, many reasons why there is so much resistance to gun laws and policies in America, including the fact that our Constitution provides a right to bear arms that is open to wide interpretation, and that gun enthusiasts display a unique devotion to these items themselves (similar to the kind of devotion that motorcycle and car enthusiasts display for those items, but with a more fervent bent). However, if we simply compare the level of regulation that we normally apply to items based on their lethality, both to items that are less lethal and more lethal than legal guns, we can see how our level of regulation of guns is out of step with our otherwise logical approach to regulating harmful things.
Below is a list of identifiable items (some non-lethal ones chosen at random) ranked by level of lethality. The ranking includes a consideration of the above-mentioned factors of primary purpose, directness, immediacy, whether self-inflicted or not, and whether resulting death is accidental or not. For items that are actually designed for the purpose of killing, two additional factors of “how many” and “from how far away” are also included. Next to each item is a characterization of the level of regulation applied to the item. There are higher regulations on guns in some states than others, but there are glaring holes in regulation (such as the fact that you can legally buy a gun without a background check or sometimes without identification at a gun show or online) such that the regulations can be easily rendered non-existent. Such gaps in regulation do not exist with regard to, for example, cars. Cars must be at least licensed and registered in every state and for every purchase.
1. Broccoli None
2. Spoons None
3. Cheeseburgers Minimal
4. Alcohol Medium
5. Drugs High
6. Cigarettes High
7. Cars High
8. Knives Low
9. Sporting Guns Low to Medium
10. Handguns Low to Medium
11. Semi-automatic Rifles Low to Medium
12. Automatic Guns High/ Generally Prohibited
13. Bombs/Explosives High/ Generally Prohibited
14. Rocket Launchers Prohibited
15. Fighter Planes Prohibited
16. Nuclear Bombs Prohibited
Based on how we otherwise logically address the lethality of items, the fact that we regulate guns any less than we regulate cars doesn’t make much sense. The fact that there are low regulations on semi-automatic rifles, but that automatic guns are prohibited, is equally nonsensical. If we are going to regulate the safety of items on a comparative basis, we should do so in a proportional manner.
When comparing any item to guns, we should take care to evaluate exactly how they are similar and dissimilar. The farther removed the similarities are, the less effective the comparison. Saying that “anything can be used to kill someone” just dismisses everything we logically understand about physical objects, and is not persuasive regarding non-regulation of guns. If we were to apply our normal rationale to gun regulation, we would regulate sporting guns at least as much as cars, handguns quite a bit more, and semi-automatic rifles quite heavily. To do otherwise is to ignore every rational thought we have about how to reduce death and improve safety.
We have been so successful at extending our lifespans and reducing death and danger in the face of so many potential harms by applying reason, studies, and cause-and-effect relationships. We can apply these same tools to reducing deaths by guns as well. In doing so, if we are going to make comparisons between guns and other things, let’s scrutinize the validity of those comparisons. We may find that it is most productive not to make comparisons or analogies at all, but to evaluate causes and effects of gun deaths solely in view of the attributes of guns alone.