Are Guns Analogous to Cars

Case O' Guns

Case O’ Guns (Photo credit: Gregory Wild-Smith)

One common strategy in the various gun debates is to compare guns and other dangerous things, such as cars. Interestingly, both those who favor and those who oppose increased limitations make use of this comparison.

Since this is an age of micro-communication, the comparison is often made rapidly and without adequate development. However, it does seem useful to expand a bit on the comparison and present some properly developed arguments.

An analogical argument is an argument in which one concludes that two things are alike in a certain respect because they are alike in other respects. Formally, an argument by analogy looks like this:

  • Premise 1: X and Y have properties P,Q,R.
  • Premise 2: X has property Z.
  • Conclusion: Y has property Z.


The first premise establishes the analogy by showing that the things (X and Y) in question are similar in certain respects (properties P, Q, R, etc.).  The second premise establishes that X has an additional quality, Z. The conclusion asserts that Y has property or feature Z as well. Since this is an inductive argument, the truth of the premises is supposed to make the conclusion likely to be true rather than certainly true.

A Škoda Superb II car. Français : Une automobi...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The strength (quality) of an analogical argument depends on three factors. First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the better the argument. Third, it must be determined whether X and Y have relevant dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. Now the basics of the argument by analogy have been presented, I can proceed to the main attraction—comparing guns and cars.

Those who favor increased limitations on guns can avail themselves of an analogy between guns and cars that involves the fact that driving is highly regulated. To be specific, the argument for more restrictions on guns could be framed as follows:



  • Premise 1: Cars and guns are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: The operation of a car is extensively regulated by law and requires that the operator be properly trained and licensed.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the operation of a gun should be extensively regulated by law and require that the operator be properly trained and licensed.

Since this is a very brief argument, the specific regulations, licensing and so on would need to be properly specified in a very extensive case for more extensively regulating guns. Despite its concise presentation, the argument does seem appealing. After all, if I cannot drive my truck around without having a license and insurance, it would seem to make sense that (for similar reasons) I should not be able to have a gun without being properly licensed and insured. At the core of the justification is, of course, the fact that both guns and cars are machines that can cause considerable damage either by accident or intent.

Despite the appeal of this comparison, there are differences between cars and guns that could break the analogy. The most obvious is, at least in the United States, that gun ownership is taken to be a legal and moral right, whereas driving is regarded as a privilege. Intuitively, restricting a right would require stronger justification than restricting a privilege.

Interestingly, the analogy can be accepted but it could be claimed that it does not justify more limitations on guns. After all, the regulation of cars covers the operation of the car in public—that is, on roads where there are other people. If I wish to drive my truck around only on my own land, then I do not require a license and the regulations governing this are rather limited.

In the case of guns, a person who wishes to bring a gun into public places generally needs a concealed weapon permit (which requires training and an extensive background check). Hunting, even on private land, also requires a license (which requires proof of training). A person can, however, travel to a legitimate shooting range with her gun without a license—but the gun must be properly stored (typically in a case). A person can also have a weapon in her dwelling (with some exceptions) and even fire it on her property, provided that the discharge of firearms is not restricted there (which is most often the case anywhere but out in the country).

Because of this, it could be concluded that the gun laws are already comparable to the laws governing cars and hence there is no need to increase the restrictions on guns. This could, of course be countered by arguing that guns are different from cars in ways that would warrant more extensive regulations. However, this would obviously involve abandoning the argument by analogy that compared cars and guns.

As noted above, it is also possible to draw a comparison between cars and guns aimed at showing that there should not be severe restrictions on gun ownership.


  • Premise 1: Guns and cars are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: Private ownership of guns should be severely restricted.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted.


Obviously enough, those taking a pro-gun position would take this analogy to lead to what they would hope most would regard as an absurdity or at least unacceptable, namely that the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted. Behind the argument is, of course, the principle that what justifies severely restricting ownership of a dangerous machine is its capacity to cause harm intentionally or accidentally. By this principle, if gun ownership should be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm, then car ownership should also be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm. Guns and cars both have causal roles in the harms caused intentionally or accidentally by people (and cars also contribute extensively to pollution and climate change making them potentially more damaging than guns).

Just as those who favor severe restrictions on guns tend to claim that the police can provide the protection citizens require, it could be claimed that public transport would provide the transportation that citizens require. Obviously enough, someone who favors severe restrictions on cars and is in favor of public transportation might regard this argument as reasonable rather than a reduction to absurdity.

This analogy can be countered by pointing out differences between guns and cars. One obvious difference is that guns are designed to cause harm while cars are designed to transport people. Cars are lethal weapons—but unintentionally so. However, it is not clear that this difference is relevant to the matter of regulation. After all, the fact that a car is not designed to kill people does not make those killed by cars any less dead. What seems to matter is the impact of the machine and not its intended function.

This can be countered by contending that guns do not have a legitimate use in civilian hands that would justify tolerating the harms involving guns. In contrast, the value of cars warrants tolerating the harms and deaths involving cars. This case can be made and would involve assessing the value of guns and cars relative to the harms done by allowing people to privately own them. That is, how many deaths it is acceptable to pay for private ownership of cars versus private ownership of guns. If cars are worth the cost and guns are not, then the analogy would break, thus allowing private ownership of guns to be severely restricted while allowing far less restriction on the private ownership of cars.

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  1. The really obvious difference is that cars have a functional purpose, as do e.g. knives, bottles, etc, whereas guns seem to me to be only for shooting animals / people.

  2. “This analogy can be countered by pointing out differences between guns and cars. One obvious difference is that guns are designed to cause harm while cars are designed to transport people. Cars are lethal weapons—but unintentionally so. However, it is not clear that this difference is relevant to the matter of regulation. After all, the fact that a car is not designed to kill people does not make those killed by cars any less dead. What seems to matter is the impact of the machine and not its intended function.”
    I disagree with this reasoning, and I believe the analogy is weak. First, I do not think that replacing cars with anything potentially lethal will hold the argument. Knives could be lethal; medicine could be lethal if improperly used; electricity could be lethal; stairs could be lethal; etc. But the difference is in the purpose or main use and the consequences of that use.
    As I stated in a previous comment, if you take into account usage, I am fairly certain that guns are more lethal than cars, knives and medicines (by the way the regulations on potentially lethal medicine are significantly higher than gun regulations).
    Like the majority of the population,I drive my car everyday to work. If I determine the number of deaths caused by cars per hour driven; I can bet you that number will be very small. But if I divide the number of deaths by gun usage; I am not so certain that ratio will be so small. Therefore, due to its purpose guns are inherent more dangerous than cars, so their regulation should be significantly different.
    Let’s compare apples with a different kind of apples; let’s say poison. Should the commercializtion of poison be heavily regulated? I believe it is. I do not think you can buy poison as easily as guns.
    I believe the problem with guns regulation is based on two things: historic, the second amendment and its interpretation by different americans, and economic, the USA is the main seller of guns both for the internal and International market. Therefore, there are a lot of invested interests in keeping a good but deadly business.
    Selling poison is neither that lucrative nor that easy.

    Thanks Mike I always enjoy your posts

  3. @Fury

    Sam Harris addressed this in his “Riddle of the Gun” article. One functional purpose of guns is to provide self-defense, which is a legitimate purpose. That alone is reason enough to give citizens the right to guns, even if this means that more people will die from gun violence, for the same reason that the purpose of transportation is reason enough to allow citizens to drive even though it leads to more deaths. Also, guns are just fun. In the same way that having a swimming pool in your back yard increases your and your kids’ risk of death, having a gun increases your and your kids’ risk of death, but the tradeoff is living life to the full by having more fun.

  4. One element of this discussion is the matter of function. People who oppose the availability of weapons often claim that the device is designed to kill. Despite this, and the fact that in the United States there are more guns than cars, cars kill more people than guns kill. In my own discussions on guns this has led me to conclude the prevailing function of guns is not killing.

    What we find in an information rich society is that almost anything can be weaponized. Candy bars and ammonia can be made into a weapon. Information alone can be weaponized if properly (or improperly) used. That goes to the heart of this discussion. People of a given set of political persuasions appear to me to be utilizing the seemingly insidious threat of a pervasive sort of tool as a psychological weapon against people who have a different set of political persuasions. The discussion is designed to keep anxieties high- “This danger is among you!!!”- like the supposed Japanese spies we were encouraged to fear in W.W.II.

    Therein the rationale for drawing an analogy between guns and cars is made clear. Cars are killing us, despite the purpose for which they have been made, at a rate higher than guns. Of those killed by guns, though, fully half are suicide and more than half of the remainder are either the work of law enforcement or are the result of citizens engaging in self-defense. Drawing this analogy is a way of answering the political weaponization of fear about the availability of guns.

  5. Lee;
    “Cars are killing us, despite the purpose for which they have been made, at a rate higher than guns”

    Does evidence support this claim?
    In the USA there were 32367 deaths caused by cars. The number of cars in the USA is roughly similar to its population 311,591,917 by 2009. Roughly the average conmute in the USA is ~20., so we can say in average every american uses his car 30 minutes a day.

    The number of gun deaths in the USA is 16,259, and approximatedly 270,000,000 americans own a gun. I do not think gun owners use a gun 30 minutes a day, everyday.

    The numbers indicate that guns are more lethal than cars, therefore requiere stricter regulation. Moreover, certain types of guns or ammunition are significantly more lethal than others; those requiere stricter regulations.

    People do not drive F-1 cars at 300 miles/hour to work. It does not make sense, like owning asault weapons with high capacity magazines.

  6. The car enables things, e.g. visiting the bank, buying food, going to a restaurant, seeing the doctor, working. Owning a gun would enable nothing much I do and nobody I know personally has one either. We don’t seem to miss them, nor swords.

  7. “Use” is an interesting concept. Atomic weapons have been “used” only twice, over a span of four days, more than sixty years ago. Nonetheless the rate of deaths in wars between great powers fell from more than four million per year on average (1900-1945) to less than one million per year (1945-present). The presence of the device in and of itself constitutes a “use”.

  8. Mike,

    1) “First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument.”

    Why? If Z is independent of all the other properties the number of other common properties may have no bearing on Z for Y.

    2) “Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the better the argument.”

    OK, maybe, depending on specifics.

    3) “The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument.”

    This is no better that (1).

    “the more relevant they are” – If you knew that you wouldn’t need the analogue.

    So really I see arguments from analogy as very misleading and easy to get wrong. And as such they are often used really inappropriately:

    1) Human artefacts (X) and life (Y) are complex (P).
    2) Human artefacts (X) are designed by ‘intelligent agents’ (Z).
    3) Therefore, life (Y) is designed by (an) intelligent agent(s).

    Note that (3) has additional unreasonable content in that if at all useful should lead us to suppose there are multiple gods, but I guess more nonsense allows theists to deduce or induce a single God.

    One closer to the car v gun example:
    1) A 1-ton car (X) and 10-ton train (Y) have wheels (P), and engine (Q) and exhaust (R)
    2) A 1-ton car (X) has the property (Z) of travelling well on roads.
    3) A 10-ton train (Y) as the property (Z) of travelling well on roads.

    And try the same with a car (X) and a double-decker bus (Y) and a low brideg (Z).

    Or, the car v gun:
    1) A gun (X) and a car (Y) are manufactured (P) using lots of metal (R).
    2) A gun (X) is ‘easy to carry into school to kill people’ (Z).
    3) A car (Y) is ‘easy to carry into school to kill people’ (Z).

    Arguments from analogy are hopelessly unreliable, and easy to add and subtract premises and properties willy-nilly. That’s why both sides of the gun argument can use them as they please. Note that there are clear errors in each of these. But the argument from analogy does not protect against these errors at all. Surely the structure of arguments is supposed to lend some persuasive power, such as the structures of he various deductive syllogisms.

    So, why on earth are you giving these arguments the time of day and not just dismissing them in this way?

    And they aren’t even the form of inductive argument that does have have persuasive power.

    Induction works best as simple induction from specific to the general, where there is only one subject type (X throughout, and no Y), and where there is only one property being considered (Z):

    1) The X I’ve seen so far have property Z
    2) All X probably have property Z

    The persuasiveness of this argument is determined by the number of particulars and the scope of the investigation of the particulars

    So, this works quite well

    1) The swans I’ve seen so far, wherever I’ve travelled, and all those reported to me by travellers, have all been white. [many in number and wide in scope]
    2) All swans are probably white.

    As wrong as we know the outcome of this argument is, it is still a good inductive argument that can still be adapted as a result of empirical results:

    1) The swans I’ve seen so far and have been reported in Europe have all been white.
    2) There are places in the world where there are black swans, but only a few places.
    3) But all swans in Europe, that have not been imported or bred from imported non-white swans, are probably white.

    Here the number and scope of the induction is still good, and the counter examples are limited.

    This is the type of inductive argument that can be adapted as a result of changing theories and results in science:

    1) Newton’s laws hold everywhere we’ve tested them. (stated pre-1900)
    2) Newton’s laws probably hold everywhere in the universe.

    After Einstein:

    1) Newton’s laws hold everywhere we’ve tested them at well below light speed.
    2) As we approach light speed Relativity has to be taken into account.
    3) But, at low speeds Newton’s laws probably hold everywhere in the universe to some degree of approximation.

    So, even in the face of ‘the problem of induction’ it’s still pretty useful, whereas the argument from analogy is not really an argument. Unless I go to a zoo, or to some great estate into which non-white swans have been imported, the swans I see in Europe will probably be white. And Newton’s laws get us to the moon.

    About the best analogy can do is, like thought experiments, provide an easy to understand analogue of some less familiar topic. But the point is that some other argument must do the actual persuasive work. So, in quantum physics the maths and the experimental results do the hard work of arguing the case for a quantum interpretation of the world. The analogues often provided, of the wave-particle duality, are really only models to aid understanding. They demonstrate, prove, argue for nothing.

  9. What if you simply empirically see that the US is a failing state (cf Rome), imposing ever more draconian laws and you have a weapon to protect yourself.
    The Swiss do it rather well.

  10. For the United States:

    Gun Ownership:
    0.8 guns/person (2007)

    Vehicle Ownership:
    0.8 cars/person (2010)

    Gun Deaths:
    10/(100,000 people)gun – deaths (2010)
    3.6/(100,000 people) – homicide

    Vehicle Deaths:
    12/(100,000 people) traffic deaths (2009)
    15/(100,000 vehicles)

    Given the similarity of the first two figures on ownership the second pair are remarkably similar too and are already normalised by the first two. There will be some changes required to account for different years and the details of what is being measured and how.

    But, the gun related death rate is heavily biased towards suicide rather than homicide. In the case of suicides I don’t think it would be fair to load these in, since the gun is probably a weapon of convenience, since the suicide might well have gone ahead anyway.

    I suppose then the question is how many of the vehicle deaths were homicide by vehicle? I haven’t had time to look further for the US, but here’s some stats from Canada: Cars don’t appear on the list, so if used at all I guess they come under other methods.

    JJM raised the issue of usage, which these stats don’t address at all. When a car is being driven it is being used. I suppose the case could be made that when a gun is being carried on the person it is being used, ready for protection; but other than that a gun is used when it is fired. Can you compare miles driven to bullets discharged? Or hours of driving to hours of shooting? Or passengers per journey to deaths per bullet?

    Cars have what might be considered a legitimate use (putting climate change to one side). They have utility that is morally neutral, as far as morality can be determined. Whereas guns are intended to harm; and although some small arms might be considered entirely defensive but lacking the intent to kill (if you push the point), semi-automatics and large calibre guns have no purpose but to kill. And last time I checked killing was generally considered to be morally dubious. But I think travisrm89 makes fair points – guns are fun, and I think it quite legitimate to think in terms of inanimate targets than people – which of course is the point of both archery and shooting in the Olympics.

    Despite what looks like a low rate of homicide, it’s still in the order of 100,000 US deaths per year from guns. Is that enough to warrant concern?

    Given the considerable Libertarian feeling in the United States I would guess that not too many tears would be shed for criminal-on-criminal gun deaths. If it’s not in your neighbourhood then it tends not to be a problem. Concerned parents in dangerous communities might think differently. Then there are the few tragic incidents where responsible gun owners unintentionally lose control of their responsibility and leave firearms around for young kids to harm themselves. But all these incidents barely make one day’s worth of news, if at all.

    But the general outrage, and the popularity of the topic on blogs, such as the stream of posts here, arises only when cases like Sand Hook occur. So, is it the case that gun control is only an issue when unhinged young men gun down students at schools, high schools and colleges? Is that the real issue? Together science and politics is currently up to spotting and fixing the unhinged people and preventing their specific access to firearms – unless gun control made it much tougher to obtain guns.

    Some more stats: school shootings. Two links here, because the US gets its own page:

    As much as I would be opposed to gun ownership in the population adam’s point about Switzerland seems comparable to some of the sentiments expressed by US gun owners. And JJM’s fun with guns is fair. And in terms of what might be considered deaths we don’t want (yes, we don’t want any gun deaths, but we really, really don’t want mass shootings, particularly in schools, it seems), the statistics don’t offer me much support, other than shootings in schools. And many city schools do have security available on the gates.

    In all reality the US is not going to give up firearms. That debate seems lost, and I would go along grudgingly with Sam Harris on that point. So perhaps political gun control does need to focus on making ownership and access dependent on more stringent examination of the owner. Can you psyche test for purchases over the internet? If quiet young men are building an arsenal in their mother’s basement can that be spotted to ring alarm bells?

    There’s some interesting work on ‘big data’, where the statisticians don’t try to figure out cause and effect but just run masses of data through various models and see what pops out. Amazon and Google do this, to prompt advertising, or to provide translations. If you can get it here’s a quick intro from the BBC: Mathematical Modelling: If the next big thing in gun control was the collection of precise statistics on purchases the data itself might be able to flag up sales over time that simply raise alarm bells, to which local law enforcement can become aware. But then of course we’re treading on the toes of other sacred cows of American liberty.

  11. I think, on the whole, that the initial post is correct. That is to say both cars and guns have benefits and consequences, whether the consequences outweigh the benefits is left as an exercise for the reader (qed). 🙂 (And I’d add that “self defence” against someone with a gun goes away when nobody is allowed to have guns.)

  12. Well… if we want to have a tightly bound analogy, then ‘we’ must add an insurance requirement. How would that work?

    Let us suppose by statute that any human life is worth at least $2 million (indexed to state some lottery). A gun owner, then, would have to carry insurance against causing injury or death to an innocent victim. How much? I says $2 million for each bullet or cartridge that the gun can hold. So a clip of ten would need $20 million of insurance coverage.

    This proposal, if implemented, would involve the almighty insurance industry. That industry will want to assess risk for any particular potential gun owner. Hence costs will slide without friction from government to industry where a profit margin can added. Pretty neat, eh?

  13. “…at least in the United States, that gun ownership is taken to be a legal and moral right, whereas driving is regarded as a privilege. Intuitively, restricting a right would require stronger justification than restricting a privilege.”

    I do not see this as a compelling argument. Not because I don’t think there’s such things as rights or anything like that. But because the idea of Guns being a right, and cars being a mere privilege is based merely on the fact that guns were prominent when the country was founded. Obviously, cars were not.

    I can’t say whether private car ownership would have been considered a right were they prominent then, and it is for that reason, I think the comparison fails. And it becomes rather uninformative to continue to talk about the difference.

  14. Are guns and cars different? Of course. But it is clear from the distribution of both guns and cars that for neither is the legally protected purpose killing people. The limits we place on both of them are built around the tacit acceptance of that fact.

  15. My initial reaction to the title of this writing was, “What about intent”?

    But for purposes of this argument it seems necessary to negate intent altogether since intent is not a measurable, empirical action; only the action itself is.

    For instance a friend of mine pointed me to an article (which I cannot for the life of me find now) that stated in certain countries, gun ownership is illegal because they consider owning a gun a premeditation to crime. With respect to cars, one could argue the same way; perhaps some sicko gets his jollies by running people down with a vehicle. There is really no way to know what the intention of a person is until they have already acted.

    So now the car and the gun are analogous in many respects. But what about other available objects whose purpose is that other than harm or murder? What about plastic grocery bags, household cleaners, etc. The intent with which these items was created was clearly not for the purpose of harming or killing someone else, yet injury and death occur due both to a lack of care, and with purpose. Can we now include these items in the analogy? These are in fact readily (more easily) available objects, that if either used by small children, or ill-intentioned adults can have the same outcome. We can really say this about a great many objects that are readily available.

    I guess the question is – where do we draw the line? I think most of us can rationalize the things we want the most by drawing such comparisons.

    For me, drawing such parallels seems like a bunch of smoke and mirrors – a way to rationalize our behavior so that we may better rest at night.

    ‘I know that 15 round magazines can do more damage than a 5, or 10-round magazine, but look! Baby Froo Froo died because her head was trapped in a plastic shopping bag! If babies die in shopping bags, then we should be able to keep our assault weapons!’

    We have compared and contrasted cars and guns.Great! The issue of gun control is still in the reception area waiting to be seen.

  16. Michael Cohen, You make the statement- “I guess the question is – where do we draw the line? I think most of us can rationalize the things we want the most by drawing such comparisons.”

    I disagree. The question really is “What is the real purpose of X?” The analogy is drawn because we accept great danger for the accomplishment of some purposes. If plastic shopping bags caused 30,000 deaths per year we would find their purpose too trivial to sustain the marginal value of their function over other means of accomplishing the same function.

    People who claim we should get rid of guns almost universally claim their purpose is to kill. The real purpose clearly is not to kill. Any single weapon could cause thousands of deaths were it really being used for the purpose of killing. The human population would be very much smaller than it is.

    What this means is we need to get past the psychology of polemics. We should examine what the real purpose(s) of firearms is (are). How does that real purpose differ in the people who abuse them by actually killing with them? Additionally, though, we should examine what the real purposes of seeking to deny firearms to the general population are.

    Might those purposes also entail undisclosed intentions and potential dangers?

  17. Lee,

    “The real purpose clearly is not to kill. Any single weapon could cause thousands of deaths were it really being used for the purpose of killing.”

    How can we know this? If a person goes to buy a gun to take his / her revenge on someone that hurt their family, then the purpose of that gun is to kill. When Christopher Dorner grabbed his gun and drove out to Riverside, CA with it, he had the intent to kill people; the gun’s purpose was to kill.

    While the original intent of a gun may not have been to kill, I find it difficult to believe that when it was created, they thought “oh this would make a really nice party favor”, or “wow, projecting small balls of lead at hundreds of miles an hour will really impress people”. It’s intent (would seem to be at least to me), is to inflict the maximum amount of damage, with the minimal amount of effort. We can even go so far as to ask, “damage what?”. Perhaps pesky fence posts and other intrusive inanimate objects”? I find this also hard to believe.

    Since I was not present at its inception, I cannot know for certain what the purpose of a gun is. I personally do not believe that we should get rid of guns. I believe that people have the right to defend themselves, and lets face it; the best defense against someone with a gun, is typically with a gun. I believe in the Constitution, and the rights it guarantees its citizens.

    I also believe in getting things done. Yes assessment of danger is necessary in order to act. Is the comparison of guns to cars a helpful assessment of the dangers of guns? Are we closer to a resolution after analogizing it?

  18. Michael,
    When Ted Bundy killed young women he used bats. The bats were designed to be capable of transferring a large amount of kinetic energy from a source to another object- a quite violent process when you think about it. That capacity clearly was adaptable to doing damage to human beings.

    If I see a person carrying a bat in a disgruntled crowd my contextual guess would not be that the person intends to play baseball. The same would have been true if I had seen a man carrying a baseball bat in a womens dormitory after midnight in 1972. On the other hand, the purpose of a bat in a sporting goods section of a WalMart store seems more likely to be- what?

    “Purpose” is a remarkable concept. We may design tools to be capable of accomplishing certain tasks, but the innovative capacity of a potential user is what actually provides a purpose. A claw hammer can be used to drive nails but it can also be re-purposed for shaping clay or for fracturing a skull. I have accidentally used one to reduce the bone in a finger to small granules.

    In part the analogizing of cars and guns functions as a joke. I define humor as either a truth that tells a lie or a lie that tells a truth. Both cars and guns have purposes we consider important enough to protect, so the joke is to recognize the fact the two tools can both be used in ways that accomplish great harm in about equal measure, though their apparent design capacity to do harm is so vastly different.

  19. At it’s most basic level an automobile is a mechanical device to move from one place to another.

    At it’s most basic level a firearm is a ranged (or long distance) hole punch.

    That’s it. Nothing more.

    The safe and socially acceptable, or violent and evil use of either item depends on choices made by human beings and nothing else. Arguing that either item has some inherent intent seems pointless.

    Then again if you left either item sitting in a field for 20 years, one would rust and the other would eventually leak several types of poisonous chemicals into the soil causing contamination so maybe one is inherently more destructive than the other.

  20. Dale, the point of discussing purpose is to deal with the nature of the debate, in which the mythology of “purpose” has been a key factor. I agree with you about the inherent nature of the tools.

    Clearly even in philosophical discussions it is often difficult to remove the encroachment of social constraints on thought patterns so that the various critical elements of the issue at hand may be dealt with singly and in turn.

    Long-distance hole punch…
    I like that very much.

  21. Not to want to seem sober at this hour (in the best traditions of Socrates) a lot of this debate is coloured by an agenda. From the POV of someone who lives in a culture of “no guns”, it is comparable to arguing that people should be allowed to have freely-roaming tigers as pets on the basis that they don’t often kill strangers, and anyway we have cars too and they also kill. The debate should be whether it is valid to treat tigers and cars differently, as both can be seen as somewhat dangerous.

  22. The car-gun analogy is ridiculous, no matter which side you’re arguing from. QED.

  23. “. I do not think you can buy poison as easily as guns”

    No sir, it requires no waiting period or background check to purchase poisons. It is possible to go to your local hardware store and purchase all kinds of nasty toxic things.

  24. Tigers are not inanimate objects. If you have them roaming free and fail to feed them they eat your children. Guns are totally inanimate objects, as something approaching 300 million weapons in the United States alone prove every year.
    And I buy poison several times a year.

  25. There are practical reasons for controling guns rather than private motor vehicle ownership.

    Cars do a lot of damage: there are auto accidents; they contribute to global warming and air pollution; they make it easier for lots of people not to exercise (that is, not walk or use a bicycle to get around), thus increasing rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases; the massive use of private cars makes our cities uglier as trees are cut down to make space for wider streets and parking lots.

    However, our cities (and not only in the U.S.) have been designed around private automobile ownership and use. Many people live too far from their areas of work or shopping areas to get around on a bicycle. It would take a tremendous, very costly investment in redesigning cities and suburbans to make it possible to live in many of them without owning a motor car.

    Now, I don’t see that restrictions on the use of guns would call for any such costly redesign of our societies. It would not be expensive to hire more police officers to respond more quickly to emergencies or to make it possible for people to get low cost alarm systems and surveillance cameras.

    Thus, given the costs involved, it is easy to control guns, thus, decreasing fatalities and injuries, and very difficult to control private car use.

  26. Swallerstein, your comment begs the question of whether there are, in the United States, more legally obtained guns available in neighborhoods with the highest rates of gun violence. You seem to assume that mere availability of guns equates directly to gun violence. I don’t believe you can really draw that parallel.

  27. Lee Jamison:

    The fact is that with the exception of Switzerland, developed countries with easy access to legal guns have high homicide rates.

    Now it may be that in the U.S., which has easy access to legal guns, there is such a culture of violence that without legal guns, people would kill each other with baseball bats and golf clubs at exactly the same rate as they now do with guns.

    I might argue that even if one more homicide occurs as a result of easy legal access to guns,
    which could be a person one knows, then there should be no easy legal access to guns.

    Perhaps we should be studying the secret of Switzerland, how the Swiss have managed to keep their nation orderly and peaceful.

    The Swiss have not engaged in any wars in who- knows-how-many-years, while the U.S. has been engaged in more wars than I can count.

    It may be that U.S. militarism makes the general culture in the U.S. more violent or it may be that a general culture of violence produces militarism.

    Ban guns or at least learn from the Swiss.

    Could it be the chocolate?

  28. How about the liberal argument: I can own whatever I want and you need a damn good reason to use the force of the state to remove it from me?

    Now, there may be good reasons to do so for guns (and not for cars) but none of these reasons are used when it comes to the idiotic laws being proposed in the US at present.

    Incidentally, I whole-heartedly support greater regulation* of who can and cannot drive (and own a gun for that matter) and would require rather stringent tests to be passed before a permit was granted.

    * “Well-regulated militia”, lest we forget…

  29. Excerpt below is from

    Comment after the excerpt.

    Pro-Gun Voices in Congress Are Open to Bullet Capacity Limits
    WASHINGTON — Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, is haunted by many things that emerged from the investigation of the December mass shooting at a Newtown elementary school. Among them is the nagging question of what prompted the gunman, Adam Lanza, to put down his assault rifle after killing 20 children and pick up the pistol he used to end his own life.

    “We do know that historically in these instances, amateurs have trouble switching magazines,” Mr. Murphy said, referring to the high-capacity ammunition feeding device used by Mr. Lanza to shoot scores of bullets in seconds. “I believe, and many of the parents there believe, that if Lanza had to switch cartridges nine times versus two times there would likely still be little boys and girls alive in Newtown today.”

    It is that conviction that has helped put fresh scrutiny on the size of magazines as Congress debates new gun laws.

    While influential lawmakers in both parties view a proposed ban on assault weapons as politically toxic, lawmakers seem increasingly open to a ban on high-capacity magazines, like the 15- and 30-round devices that have been used in shooting rampages from Aurora, Colo., to Tucson, where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, to Newtown.

    Constitutional lawyers, including many conservatives, generally believe that limiting magazine size falls well within the boundaries of recent Supreme Court decisions on gun rights, and evidence suggests that a ban on large magazines would have reduced the number of those killed in mass shootings.

    A growing number of lawmakers say they see a distinct difference between limits on magazine sizes, which they would support, and an assault weapons ban, which they would not. “I see them as separate,” said Senator Angus King Jr., independent of Maine. “It’s the difference between appearance and functionality. High-capacity magazines have contributed to a lot of these tragedies.”

    Even Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader who has long stood with the National Rifle Association and remains firmly against an assault weapons ban, has shown receptiveness to a magazine size limit for civilian gun owners. “I think it is something we ought to discuss,” he said.

    But the issue also gives pause to many lawmakers, particularly Senate Democrats up for re-election in states that generally support gun rights. They seem torn over whether a restriction on ammunition erodes the rights of law-abiding gun owners, as its opponent insist, or is merely a mild annoyance for those owners in the name of public safety.

    “I’m ready to step off the status quo on guns,” said Senator Mark R. Warner, Democrat of Virginia. “But I’ve got to work this one through in my mind.”


    Comment: What is to think through, Senator? Do you really think gun hardware that makes it harder to kill twenty children by limiting deaths to only…

    You, Senator Mark R. Warner, pick a number and say it aloud. Please to say it loud enough for the Furies in Hades to hear your opinion as to how many children it would be acceptable for a gunman like Adam Lanza to kill.

  30. Boreas, It appears to have escaped you notice that it was not acceptable for Adam Lanza to kill any children. In fact, it was not legal for him to kill any children. Connecticut also has safe gun storage laws which may have been violated in the Lanza household.

  31. @LJ,
    It did escape my notice. O shoot, curses to purgatory!

    Being rational, this argument occurs to me: It was acceptable in USA Connecticut for Adam Lanza to buy the weapons that he used to assault a great mass of very young children. Therefore killing children is an acceptable risk of gun ownership in USA Connecticut.

    USA? I can figure the most part of that — ‘ugly, stupid’, eh? What’s the ‘A’ stand for?

  32. There is a way to dramatically reduce, not eliminate entirely, but significantly lower the the amount of gun deaths. And that way is to remove guns. Whether that’s fair, or punishing the entire class for the disruptions of one student is irrelevant. It’s still true.

    There are ways to reduce gun violence numbers that don’t involve the complete removal. i.e. stricter gun regulations etc. But they would not be as effective. Although I wont deny it is possible they will be, I think its quite unlikely.

    So what it comes down to, then, is, the people who refuse to surrender their gun rights/privelages/whatever believe that those rights are more important than reducing gun violence. A lot of these same people also believe their “right to bare arms” is more important than even compromising in a way that simply would regulate guns more effectively.

    The same argument could be made for privately owned cars, if you like. People who own cars believe that their right/privilege/whatever to own their own vehicle is more important than reducing automotive based deaths.

  33. Very interesting discussion. Some very well thought out logical arguments – some real idiots (their agenda’s were obvious) – but Lee Jamison wins.

  34. Rational Hoplite

    Here are some possibly not-irrelevant observations to throw into the problem-space:

    1. Distinguish between ‘weapons’ and ‘firearms’. In my state, the following things – for purposes of criminal prosecution – have been judicially-countenanced as ‘weapons’, in aggravated-assault cases since the 1930’s:
    a. riding crops
    b. dogs (two cases on the books, two different breeds/varieties)
    c. lighted cigarettes
    d. the sidewalk

    The statement ‘X is a weapon’ is true stipulatively, and we suggest that any normatively-relevant class ‘Weapon’ is always more or less ad hoc — viz., fleshing-out the “telos” of a weapon isn’t as easy as one thinks. (Cf Barsalou’s work on ad hoc categories.)

    2. Allow that not every firearm is a weapon.
    Now, we won’t clog up this gem of a thread with the full argument for this; but here’s the quick and dirty version:

    proposition: all firearms are designed to do one thing, and one thing only: effectively, efficiently, and safely discharge a projectile in the direction chosen by the operator.

    Assume – in arguendo, at least for the short term – that the specific provenance of a firearm and its complementary round (these are, after all, two parts of a system, a system completed by the operator) is irrelevant (which it might not be).

    What we find is that a firearm is a member of the class ‘tool’, since a tool is any object or implement – purpose-made, repurposed, or field-expedient – that extends in some way the force and/or the character of the force of the user. (Again, we’ll keep this bare-bones, and not work through rocks, hammers, pointy-things, thrown- or launched-things, etc. We note obiter that it is interesting that the very word ‘problem’ seems to come from the Greek “pro ballein” — to throw forward [?], or, ballei — to push.)

    3. This might tame a bit enthusiasm for arguments to the effect that firearms are not “made to kill”, but to launch small pieces of metal (often in connection with an intent on the part of someone to cause harm, injury, loss, or death — but not necessarily). Our point is simpler — indeed, naive.

    The firearms in our safe are, at the moment, firearms — they should not be saddled with class-membership (weapons), not unless we are willing to say that all dogs, lighted-cigarettes, riding crops, and stretches of sidewalk are in fact [potential?] ‘weapons’. The handguns in our safe are, for sure, potential weapons; but so is our Yorkie, and (in our state) the bit of pavement upon which he, from time to time, relieves himself while I smoke my lighted-cigarette.

    4. In contrast, one can understand the point and purpose of the 9mm now securely in a holster on our hip only if we bow to everyday-language and concede that it is in fact carried as a ‘defensive weapon’ (and not a paperweight, fashion accessory, or political statement — although we do not rule out the last two.) But let us make the concession honestly, and allow that baseball bats, heavy torches (six-cell ‘MagLites’), and empty Chardonnay bottles can, in an instant, be re-purposed as ‘weapons’. When off our hip, unloaded, and back in the safe — voila, the handgun again becomes just a firearm. Both intent and “reasonable prospect” of possible deployment matter more than *telos*; and the law seems very willing to agree.

    5. We propose that one giant step forward will be made when the community (both inside and outside the Beltway) begins taking seriously this distinction — one which, in case-law throughout the realm, demonstrates clearly that anything can, for purposes of criminal prosecution (etc.) be judicially countenanced as a ‘weapon’. We suggest also that participants in the discussion cease immediately to use the phrase “assault weapon”, for it is meaningless. (If a semi-automatic rile is owned, possessed, maintained, carried, brandished, and deployed to defend from an assault, is that what makes it an “assault rifle”? And if, in Massachusetts, a German Shepherd can, for purposes of criminal prosecution [assault], be a contemplated as ‘weapon’, are five German Shepherds on a single leash a “large-capacity assault weapon”?)

    6. This is a poor, aenemic sketch, for sure; but in conclusion, how about this: Why is it ‘morally interesting’ to consider the limits of justification for firearm-carriage by civilians for purely defensive purposes, but (in the context of the current national debate, at least — and we use the term ‘debate’ with reluctance) — recreational-killing (viz., hunting) is given a bipartisan pass? As a non-hunter who carries for rational and reasonable defense of self and others, we are often bemused that the firearms most suitable for use by those who stalk and intentionally kill non-human animals for amusement are less likely to incur the vengeful gaze of the utilitarian risk-manager, than the firearms preferred by those who hope never to need to use them, but prefer (on humanist/virtue-ethics grounds) to be a community-based challenge to the reality of dangerous malefactors and unpredictable predation by non-sane persons.

    Enjoying the thread, tho’ we regret being late to it.

    Apologies, too, for all this digital ink.

    Correspondence with philosophers interested in this topic: very welcomed.

  35. Weapons and firearms are, as you note, not the same. After all, a sword is a weapon but not a firearm. I’d say that all firearms are (by definition) weapons. There are things that are like firearms (like track starter pistols) that are not weapons.

    I’d say that recreational hunting is given a pass mainly for practical political grounds. Going after hunting in America would tend to lead to a person not being elected.

  36. Rational Hoplite

    [NOTE: This began as a simple rejoinder. It is no longer simple. Readers are advised and cautioned in advance. Apologies, RH]

    Indeed — now let’s work-out how and *why* it is, or may be (or: may not be) that all firearms are by definition weapons.

    I presume that one way to begin is to start with

    1. Any W is a weapon if W was contemplated, designed, manufactured (marketed? made available to consumers?) as
    1.1 a device, implement, contrivance (&c.) which was intended by it’s inventor (or: manufacturer, in case there’s a relevance difference in here)…
    1.2 …to enable the foreseen user or member of a foreseen class of potential users of said-device (&c.)…
    1.3 (a) to cause damage, harm, or injury;
    (b) to *threaten* the causation of damage, harm, injury, or death; or,
    (c) to kill.

    ((The knuckle-prints of the hamfisted authors are all over this graceless extemporization.))

    I’m going to try to run these through the cognitive mill, and see where it leads us; but note the following: (I) this is not, of course, the only way to begin to determine what “makes” any W a weapon/member of the class {weapons}; and (II), even here, choosing between (a), (a) and (b), and (c) exposes us to some possible embarrassments.

    To wit: There are some modern waterfowl and turkey shotguns which were designed, contemplated in-design, manufactured, marketed, and retailed with a view to allowing operators of a specific class (hunters) effectively and efficiently to kill game-birds — not ‘damage’ or ‘injure’ them, or ‘threaten’ them, but to full-stop kill them. These shotguns are markedly different from those favoured by law enforcement and military personnel, and those who wish to have access to them for personal defense.

    So: LEOs, soldiers, and (some) homeowners aspire to acquire, possess, etc., these “combat shotguns” or “riot shotguns”… in order (like the bird hunter) to kill? Not so fast.

    With respect to law enforcement, the purpose of the strategic deployment of a (so-called) combat-style shotgun would be: effectively and efficiently to bring to an end a dangerous state of affairs (which state of affairs is either illegal or the dangerous consequences/sequelae of illegal activity) by the use or threat of force, where it is foreseeable that the actual “use” of force may result in the death of anyone fired-upon intentionally by the LEO with that shotgun. A nightmarish sentence, aye.

    But here’s the rub: LEO’s can’t simply carry (or shoot) intending “to kill”. The functional and design properties of their chosen firearms maximize the LEO operator’s effectiveness in (ahem) “extreme-hazard resolution”; but the mantra both for duty-officers and EDC civilians is: we are justified in shooting at another human being if and only if this is the only (or: the most rational) way to protect one’s life (or: the lives of those threatened or at hazard by the behaviour of a dangerous malefactor). Intent to kill, however, must be taken out of the equation. The LEO shoots to stop an active-shooter from harming, or further harming; the civilian sheepdog (CS) shoots to prevent from being shot or stabbed (or: shot at again or stabbed again). Both shoot (lawfully) in order to bring an efficient end to a situation which, in the circumstance, is most effectively contained by shooting; neither may shoot with the intent to kill, even where intentional firearm-carriage by either LEO or CS
    is done foreseeing clearly that deployment and use of the firearm might result in the death of the chosen-target.

    Again – and this is incomplete, off the cuff, and possibly naive – this seems to imply that a “goose gun” is designed to kill (but tellingly: it is not, from a functional or marketing perspective, intended to be used to kill humans), while (excluding military personnel) the most that can be said for, say, a pump-action “riot gun” is that it was in fact designed (&c.)
    – for “lawful use”,…
    – which “lawful use” might require the operator him- or herself to foresee the possibility that deployment *could* result in the death of another human being.

    But we are not obliged to accept the conclusion that the firearm was designed (&c.) to kill anyone or anything — unlike the gooose-gun or turkey-gun.

    I think this might nudge us towards the following provisional conclusion(s):

    – (i) Any W is a weapon if it was in fact used intentionally or sub-intentionally (ie., the malefactor was not compis mentis) to cause actually or to threaten manifestly the causation of damage, injury, or death — *irrespective of the design/manufacturing intent behind the object or device*;
    – (ii) Any W is a weapon if it was designed, manufactured (&c.) to be used by a class of operators who will intend at some point to use the device or object to cause death — Zeus forbid Mossberg ever contemplated turkey guns that were supposed to wound or injure only!;
    – (iii) Any W is a weapon if it was designed (&c.) to be used by a class of operators who may intend at some point to use the device or object to threaten but not cause intentionally injury or death, though the device or object may in virtue of its functional capabilties (and the raison d’etre for its carriage) suggest that it may in fact be used in such a way that injury or death results foreseeably from the actions of the operator.


    I think, at very least, it is very credible to consider:

    (1) No civilian may intentionally kill another civilian;
    (2) All civilians may in extremis act so as to protect themselves from harm, injury, or death if these are clearly threatened by an unlawful assault, and the defensive measures are in the circumstances reasonable. [A civilian cannot hit back if a police officer authors a lawful-assault upon him — say, in the context of making an arrest; so, we must provide that the rational/reasonable defense is in response to an unlawful assault.] The defensive response may result in the injury or death the malefactor (viz., the targeted author of the threat of immanent harm), but the death of the malefactor cannot be (strictly) intended. (We can shoot to bring an end to an assault that clearly and immanently hazards our own demise, and our shooting may kill; but we may not *shoot to kill*. The turkey hunter , on the other hand, cannot *not* “shoot to kill” — not without running afoul of the law.)

    Since offensive intentional killing (of human beings) is illegal, and since even defensive intentional killing (of human beings) is also illegal, then, no firearm made available to the public (or to police officers?) is an item that is made available to civilians for the purpose of facilitating the killing of human beings — even if there are some kinds of firearms that *are* designed, marketed (&c.) to civilians specifically to enable them to intentionally cause death — namely, the deaths of game animals.

    I propose that marking-off the boundaries of ‘weapon’ is a very worthwhile enterprise. At the moment, I remain attracted to the idea that the community (legislative, legal, and at-large) is best-served by the ‘ad hoc’ approach to the question “What is a weapon?”, in the context of criminal prosecution. (So: Civilians cannot and should not have access to surface-to-air rockets with explosive warheads – not because these are weapons – but because they are particularly hazardous items. Not all hazardous items are common-sensical ‘weapons’, but common-sense seems to jump at the premise “Any *in se* hazardous item would likely make a better weapon than any common-sensically non-hazardous item.)

    As (perhaps) “uniquely potentially dangerous things”, there should be policies that discriminate between lawful and unlawful access, possession, carriage, use (&c.) of firearms. But I think that if we drop the weapon-speak altogether, (1) we get a much better lock on what really matters with respect to questions of lawful access, possession, &c. — an eye ever to public safety; while (2) we “de-charm” firearms — drain them a little, perhaps, of their allure.

    Impossible? Probably. But from a philosophical perspective, I do believe that “If X is a true firearm [e.g., not a starter’s pistol], then W is de facto a weapon” might obscure from view many of the most interesting points — as well as those most needy of examination and analysis as we work towards answers to tough policy/public safety questions.

  37. Sorting out what should count as a weapon is problematic. After all, people can weaponize a huge range of objects, including thinks like frozen kangaroo tails (really). Many things that would serve very well as weapons (axes, knifes, crowbars, chainsaws, nail guns, etc.) also serve legitimate purposes.

  38. holy crap, i am so used to FB rants of absolute horrible intelligence, that i think i am having problems even processing the well formed arguments in this thread. where the hell am i?

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