A rhetorical trick explained

Even as the US has grown dramatically safer and gun violence rates have plummeted, handguns have become a greater proportion of the country’s civilian gun stock, suggesting that self-defense is an increasingly important factor in gun ownership. — The Guardian, 2016 September 19

One of the advantages of understanding rhetorical tricks is in watching how people of strong opinions and limited intellectual integrity rephrase their narratives of reality to shield themselves from the unpleasantness of feedback from empirical reality.

The quote above comes from the Guardian (one of the world’s most reliable sources of nasty-minded stupidity). Now the Guardian believes many things passionately (none of which, so far as I can tell, are true), and one of them is that guns and gun owners are E V I L and that Guns Kill People. They are, that is to say, emphatically on the side of the gun controllers in the gun-lobby-versus-gun-controller debate.

Now let’s remind ourselves of the background to this quotation, indeed to the whole article. The primary explicit battleground of the debate has for many years been simple. The gun lobby says that guns in the hands of good people are a powerful tool for stopping bad people intent on violence, and therefore the more guns the good people have, the safer everybody is. (They also, of course, have additional arguments that are important to them but these, being unlikely to convince the general middle-of-the-road public, are of less significance.) The gun controllers say that the more guns there are, the more violence there will be. Furthermore, over the past few decades, a massive empirical test of the two competing assertions has been underway: the laws in a significant number of American states have changed, and statistics on violent crime have been tracked both before and after the legal changes. The changes have taken place at different times (making it less likely that some major societal change happened to coincide with the changes and swamped the effect of the legal changes themselves), and they have not all been in the same direction. Overall, however, the legislative changes (to the fury of gun controllers in general and the Guardian in particular) have had the general effect of giving the gun lobbyists what they want: the overall trend has clearly been to relax gun control and allow more guns into the hands of the general public.

And during this same period, rates of violent crime have dropped significantly. Furthermore, places where gun control laws have been tightened have seen violence generally increase, bucking the general trend. This does not mean that the gun lobby’s case has been proved; this shows only correlation, not cause. But it does come very close, at least to disproving the core contention of gun controllers: more guns does not, clearly, as a general rule produce more violence.

Gun controllers have spent the last decade or so trying to disguise this unmistakable empirical fact by sleight of hand: they incessantly quote, not statistics about violent crime, but statistics about gun violence. I have written in some detail about the intellectual and moral malpractice of using statistics about “gun violence” rather than simple violence here. In the present post I think it suffices to point out three things that those who resort to “gun violence” statistics must believe, unless they are complete idiots (always, of course, a distinct possibility).

1. It is sad that Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were stabbed to death; but that is better than having Nicole pull out a gun and kill O.J. – because the murders of two innocent people by stabbing is preferable to the killing of one would-be murderer by a gun used successfully in self-defense. Anyone who uses the “gun deaths” statistics instead of statistics about homicide in general is committed to this preference.

2. If there were a country that had no guns at all and where 10,000 people were murdered every year (but there were no gun deaths), and then all of the non-criminals in that country were given weapons with the result that only 500 murders were attempted the next year and in all 500 cases the would-be murderer was shot to death, thus replacing the deaths of 10,000 innocent victims with the deaths of 500 would-be murderers, this would be an terrible outcome proving that guns should be taken away again and the murderers’ domination over their victims restored. For introducing guns would have caused “gun deaths” to shoot up to 500 from 0, an increase of infinity percent.

3. If a woman buys a handgun to protect herself from rape, and a home invader breaks into her house with the intention of raping her and her eight-year-old daughter, and she shoots him and kills him, this is a bad outcome – because it increases “gun deaths.”

The Guardian, however, is here trying a different strategy. Instead of trying to pretend that violence has gone up wherever gun control has been relaxed by the dishonest practice of substituting “gun deaths” for “violence,” it admits that in fact the massive increase in U.S. gun ownership has been accompanied by a dramatic drop in violence. (In fact it actually says that “gun violence rates have plummeted,” which I think is probably a misprint: rates of violence have plummeted, but I imagine that rates of gun violence have gone up. I suspect the Guardian is so used to using the trick of referring to “gun violence” statistics that it has done so here out of sheer force of habit and thereby accidentally implied that the more guns you have, the fewer people get shot…a statement that might be true but I rather doubt it, and even if it is I’m sure the Guardian didn’t mean to admit it.) But of course the Guardian is not about to admit that the gun lobby is correct in saying that if you give the good people guns the bad people are way less likely to try to do bad things to good people, and less likely to succeed when they try. Instead the Guardian points to the fact that violent crime has dropped – and says that this proves that there was no need for private citizens to equip themselves for self-defense since crime rates were going to fall anyway.

And they do this with a rhetorical trick. Note how they start the paragraph: “Even as the US has grown dramatically safer and gun violence rates have plummeted…” The whole point of starting the sentence with “Even as” is to imply, without openly stating, three propositions. “Even as Thing A happened, Group B did Thing C,” is the rhetorical form employed, and in English the use of this structure implies the following:

1. Thing A was not a result of Thing C.
2. Thing A rendered Thing C unnecessary.
3. Therefore the people in Group B are stupid.

Imagine that the same two facts are laid out this way: “As handguns have become a greater proportion of the country’s civilian gun stock, the US has grown dramatically safer and gun violence rates have plummeted.” Note that this sentence structure clearly implies cause and effect, while the Guardian’s version clearly implies a denial thereof. The facts have not changed; all that has changed is the implication the speaker wishes to insinuate.

Note, again, the facts that are conceded by the Guardian. They concede that when people choose to buy handguns rather than other types of guns, they are primarily buying for the purpose of self-defense. They concede that the American public in general has been pursuing for many years a strategy of acquiring handguns for the purpose of defending itself against the American criminal – they draw that conclusion themselves, without prompting by the gun lobby, from the fact that the proportion of handguns in the nation’s private stock has been steadily rising, and therefore that the majority of gun purchases during this time have been handgun purchases motivated by a need for self-defense. They further concede that ever since the American public has been employing this strategy, the rates at which the American public has been victimized by violent crime have consistently gone down.

And from this they conclude that the American public didn’t need those nasty old handguns after all.

Obviously in order to reach this conclusion they have to convince their readers that the drop in violent crime was not the result of Americans’ being better equipped to defend themselves. But imagine the effect that would have been created had they come right out and say, “We know the gun lobbyists have said that private American citizens have a right to buy handguns in order to defend themselves, and have further claimed that the more law-abiding citizens there were carrying handguns, the less violent crime there would be. And we can see here that Americans have been listening to the gun lobby and following the gun lobby’s suggestion; and we can also see that what has happened has been exactly what the gun lobby predicted, and exactly the opposite of what we and our fellow gun control advocates predicted. However, this fall in violent crime has nothing to do with the increase in the American public’s ability to defend itself against violent criminals with handguns. And the reason we know that this is true, is because…because…because we say so.”

That would not be persuasive at all. Well, that’s what rhetoric is for if you are dishonest: if your argument is so weak that everyone would be able to tell it is stupid if you actually made it openly, then you try to sneak it by using rhetoric and counting on having a not-very-bright subscriber base, something that the Guardian has the luxury of knowing is, in its particular case, a sure thing. So they don’t say, “The fall in violent crime has nothing to do with the success in our opponent’s use of handguns as a tactic to reduce violent crime, and it is totally a coincidence that exactly what they predicted would happen, has actually happened.” Instead they imply it by employing the “Even as…” structure.

And thus the fact that exactly the result the gun lobby predicted has come about precisely as the American public has adopted specifically the strategy the gun lobby suggested, is proof to the Guardian’s readers that gun lobbyists are way stupider than the Guardian’s readers.


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