Guns are not cars; cars are not guns

Analogies are often effective rhetorical tools in an argument.  A difficult concept can be explained by using a simpler idea that shows the same relationship.  An easy illustration of this is to say that hand is to glove as foot is to sock.  In those two, both hand and foot are inserted into an article of clothing made for them. Much harder analogies are used in standardized testing, as students who have taken the SAT can attest.

The problem is that human beings are good at connecting things that have no significant relationship to each other, based on superficial or misinterpreted features.  We see the faces on pieces of toast or the mountains of Mars—if I may be permitted to use an analogy here.  In making arguments, we have to be careful not to commit the fallacy of faulty or weak analogies.  Consider the example of Neville Chamberlain’s Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938.  This is well-known in attempts at drawing parallels, both because it shows up every time we negotiate with contemporary tyrants and because making Nazi analogies has been made infamous by Godwin’s Law, the observation that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Debates over gun rights and gun control often involve analogies—including ones using the German dictator, alas.  But a common one is the comparison of cars to guns.  Advocates of control want owners to be trained and licensed and to carry insurance on their guns, while supporters of rights point out the ease of getting a driver’s license, the many options available in horsepower and fuel capacity, and the fact that a license to drive is honored in all the territory of the United States.  And round and round the arguments go.

But are there valid comparisons to be made here?  In some ways, yes, while in others, no, and to avoid fallacies, we have to be clear on what relationships we claim exist.

Cars and guns are both property.  They are both mechanical devices.  They both are commonly owned, and this ubiquity has consequences for the lives of owners and the people around them.  We could jump here to the conclusion that the two things should be regulated in the same manner, but things are not so simple.  My computer isn’t licensed, nor are my books.  Nor are my television and my kitchen knives.  I have fuel cans in my garage, and though there’s a sign at the local gas station that tells me I have to be a licensed driver to use the pumps, no one has ever checked me before I buy.

And unlike cars, books and guns are objects used to exercise rights enumerated for protection in the U.S. Constitution.  Now a case can be made that we also have a right to cars, since the right to travel is understood in law even without explicit listing in the text, but we don’t need to read anything into the Bill of Rights with regard to guns.

Another comparison that gets made is about the skill needed to use the given device.  As Jeff Cooper reminds us, you’re not a guitarist merely by owning a guitar.  Is this a valid argument that gun owners must take training?

As before, no, it’s not.  Think back to the driving test you took way back when.  Parallel parking stymies lots of people, but they get around that and receive a driver’s license anyway.  Stop here, turn there while using your signal, follow the signs, and don’t forget your seat belt—this is not the level of testing that gun control advocates dream of.

Operating a firearm in a safe manner requires diligent application of Cooper’s Four Rules.  This, as the saying goes, isn’t rocket surgery.  Being effective with a gun takes longer, but we as a society don’t insist that people learn how to write before they exercise the freedom of the press, nor do we tolerate testing in advance of casting a vote.

The most common point of failure, though, in drawing analogies between guns and cars is in the comparison of purpose.  Yes, we mandate safety devices on cars.  That’s because a car works best when we minimize risks of injury.  In contrast, a gun is a weapon.  As the Russian starshina is supposed to have said, “Is gun.  Is not safe.”  I’ve discussed the concept of “danger” before, so here I’ll simply point out that a safe gun is no gun at all.  It’s merely an oddly shaped paperweight.

And the way we use cars and guns are also different.  The deaths involving motor vehicles are due either to accidents or to criminal negligence—DUIs, for example—while the vast majority of firearms deaths are intentional acts, either homicide or suicide.  These differences also show how a requirement for gun owners to carry insurance makes no sense.  Insurance rules are complex, but policies don’t generally cover harmful actions that are done deliberately.  I have trouble imagining an insurance company issuing a policy to cover injuries or deaths caused by someone who committed murder, and the demands here made by gun control advocates sound like an attempt at a back-door ban on gun ownership.

The point in all of this is that we can’t make valid arguments with simplistic comparisons.  As always, complexity requires thinking through the details.  There are comparisons to be made between guns and cars, but they don’t lead to the conclusions that supporters of greater control claim when we analyze the logic.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of