"Common sense" and other logical fallacies

Gun control advocates have a favorite way of describing their proposals:  common sense or sensible.  Take, as examples of this, Rosie O’Donnell debating guns with Tom Selleck or Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaking about the NY SAFE Act.

And here, we who support gun rights must object.  In my article on framing, I discussed the way that questions are asked or ideas are presented to shape our thinking on a subject.  The same thing is going on here.  Attaching the adjective “sensible” to a proposal is meant to preclude disagreement.  Who could be against common sense?  Who wants to argue on the side of the irrational?

This attempt at framing raises the question (not begs, as we’ll see in a moment) of what we mean by “common sense.”  Americans who know our history will remember Thomas Paine’s pamphlet in the early days of our revolution.  The argument there depends on an awareness of self-evident truths, something we are all supposed to have.  And that is the meaning that the phrase has had, going back centuries in philosophical discussion.  But are magazine capacity limits, “universal” background checks, counts of cosmetic features, and so forth common sense?

What is going on all too often when we hear “common sense” is the fallacy of begging the question.  That term is often misused today as if it means “raising the question,” but it is in fact the error in thinking that assumes the truth of a claim, then uses the claim as proof of its own truth.

Whether a new gun regulation is sensible or not is precisely what is being debated.  Merely labeling something common sense doesn’t make it so.

Take a proposal of the Federal Aviation Administration as an example of something considered as a safety rule that in its effect would have been anything but.

The FAA considered a regulation requiring infants to be placed in restraint seats on airplanes.  The reason for this proposed new rule, one that should sound familiar, was child safety.  And on the face of it, the idea sounded good.  After all, we put infants in such restraints in cars to protect them in the event of a collision.  Who could be against the same kind of safety in the air?

Turns out, a group of pediatricians could.  The analysis of Thomas Newman and others found that requiring child safety seats on planes—meaning that the child would have to have a separate ticket and seat—would result in more families traveling by car instead of flying, due to the added cost.  Given the differences in crash rates of aircraft and cars, the conclusion of the study was that the proposed safety rule would result in more deaths.

Newman, et al., show us the necessity of not taking things as they’re presented.  Gun control measures are offered as a means of increasing safety, particularly safety for children, and their assertion is that what they propose is the sensible means of achieving that goal  But we can’t allow control advocates to get away with the claim that they are for safety and we are not, nor can we let pass their attempt at framing.  What is sensible is the debate, and we can’t win that debate by conceding the argument before it begins.

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

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