Fallacies of ambiguity are erroneous arguments that depend on multiple possible meanings in the definition of a word or the grammar of a sentence. An example of this would be the word, light. An aluminum-frame revolver is a light carry piece, and light is necessary to see, so an Airweight Smith & Wesson is essential for seeing. Equivocations like that are obvious. But in debates, blurring the boundaries of meanings is an all too common technique that leads to a whole lot of sloppy conclusions.
Sometimes this error is deliberate, while other examples arise from ignorance. Consider the word, arsenal. Whenever police raid a suspect’s home and find a collection of firearms, the media rushes in with pre-written copy, blanks to be filled in with the specific weapons. A recent arrest in Brooklyn illustrates this. Law enforcement officers found a 9mm Uzi, a .38 [sic] Hi-Point, some magazines, and a hundred rounds each (gasp!) of relevant ammunition, along with twenty-one unspecified rounds. The reporting article’s title leads with “Arsenal of weapons discovered.”
Two guns and some ammunition. Since that’s now an arsenal, according to many in journalism, I have to wonder what histrionic excesses would be required to describe my own collection. But let’s look at the roots of the word. In Renaissance Venice, arzenale was a dockyard with naval stores, derived from an Arabic word for workshop. The English language acquired the word soon after, using it to mean a “public place for making or storing weapons and ammunition.”
An arsenal thus is a government facility. Now there are metaphorical additions to the definition—for example, a doctor’s arsenal of antibiotics—and as long as we’re clear that the usage is figurative, and that serves a needed function in language. But when produced by the keyboards or pens of gun control advocates, “arsenal” is given sinister colorings, an implication of a stash of weaponry in the possession of someone about to go on a killing spree—someone who will often be called a time bomb that is invariably ticking.
And then there are all the assault weapons supposedly menacing the nation. Readers of this publication will know the definition of an assault rifle as it’s understood by our Department of Defense and the history of such firearms. But here we have once again an equivocation, since “assault” has specific meanings in a military context, but means something else in civilian law.
In 1988, the Violence Policy Center released a policy paper titled, “Assault Weapons and Accessories in America,” that explained how to exploit this ambiguity:
Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons. In addition, few people can envision a practical use for these weapons.
This is a moment of honesty among advocates of gun control that they’re using language in a fallacious manner to achieve more bans on classes of firearms. And it shows what happens if we allow sloppiness in usage—either intentional or through a lack of knowledge—to pass without comment. In the debates over the rights we value and exercise, we have a job to educate participants and more importantly any audience about the subject to promote clear thinking.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.