In addition to the pandemic, 2020 was marked by “the deadliest gun violence in decades.” 2021 is on track to be worse, with the Fourth of July weekend setting a record for 2021 mass shootings over a weekend. There were over 400 shootings that killed at least 150 people during that time. Those on the left, broadly construed, profess to want to address this problem. Those on the right, broadly construed, offer thoughts and prayers after each mass shooting and then obstruct the left.
While the right tries to present things in terms of an inviolable constitutional right and profess to love such rights, this is clearly a bad faith position. After all, the party is busy restricting voting rights and curtailing liberties and rights they dislike. As such, a true claim would be that the right favors a narrow set of rights for a narrow set of people and gun rights for white people is a major intersection of these sets. To pre-empt the usual ad hominem and straw man attacks, my backstory has given me positive feelings towards guns. From a philosophical standpoint, I have also argued in favor of weapon rights as part of the right to self-defense. This justification does, of course, run up against another of my views in political philosophy. Stealing from Locke and Hobbes, I think that we give up some of our rights when we enter civil society and one can make a good case that this can include the right to possess certain weapons. Somewhat ironically, the people who are mistreated by the political and economic systems would have the best claim to posses and use weapons against those who would harm them. This view is generally the exact opposite of what is pushed by the right. A white couple “protecting” themselves from peaceful protestors legally walking by their property are presented by some as heroes. Minorities who seek to arm themselves are seen in a rather different light. As such, when the right tries to block attempts to address gun violence by appeals to rights, they are generally acting in bad faith: they are not principled defenders of rights, they are working to defend specific rights for specific people. But on to the focus of this essay.
When laws are proposed to address gun violence, one stock tactic of the right is to bring up Chicago. This city is infamous for its gun violence. The Chicago Tribune has a web page, updated weekly, that provides daily totals of shooting victims in the city. It even has an interactive map that allows people to search for shootings. One cannot deny that the city has a problem with gun violence.
As one would expect, there have been efforts to address this violence by passing various gun control laws. While Illinois does not have the strictest gun laws in the United States (California seems to be stricter), the laws are stricter than in almost all other states. And yet, as noted above, gun violence is still a serious problem. From this, folks on the right often infer that gun laws do not work. On the face of it, their logic would seem good:
Premise 1: If gun control laws worked, then Chicago would have less gun violence.
Premise 2: Chicago does not have less gun violence.
Conclusion: Gun control laws do not work.
Thus, it is no surprise that the “Chicago Card” is regularly played to “refute” efforts to address gun violence by new laws. Unfortunately, this gambit is a cheat: while the logic seems good, a little consideration shows that it has serious flaws. That this is the case can be shown by the following analogy.
Suppose that you live in an apartment complex and would prefer to not die in a fire. So, you install a smoke detector, you buy a fire extinguisher, you don’t allow open flames in your apartment, you do not store oily rags next to your stove and so on for all the sensible things to do to avoid death by fire. But then your apartment burns and you die in the fire. Using the logic of the right, this is how people should reason:
Premise 1: If fire prevention practices and rules worked, then you would not have died in the fire.
Premise 2: You died in the fire.
Conclusion: Fire prevention practices and rules do not work.
But this seems problematic. Intuitively, these practices and rules would seem to work. So, what went wrong? One possibility is, of course, possibility: things can always go wrong. No sensible person claims that taking precautions against fire will always work. Likewise, the same can happen with gun laws. But, of course, Chicago would be like a case where fires just keep occurring—so the idea that it is just bad luck would go out the window. So, we need to look more at the cause of the fires.
Going back to your apartment building, suppose that your immediate neighbors also took the same precautions as you, but their apartments were also consumed by fire. If the investigation stopped there, one might conclude that precautions do not matter—so having rules about fire safety are pointless. But suppose that the investigators decided to trace the fire to its starting point, and they find the fire began in apartments whose inhabitants took few precautions against fires and some, in fact, engaged in dangerous behavior like leaving burning candles unattended. In this case, the inference would not be that fire prevention and practice do not work. Rather, it would be that to have the best chance of working, then everyone needs to follow them.
Obviously, Chicago is like the apartment where fire safety is practiced. Other states around Illinois are like the apartments without good safety practices. So, just as a fire is more likely to start in those other apartments and spread, guns are likely to come into Chicago from states that have less restrictive rules. As such, Chicago’s gun violence does not prove that restrictions do not work. Rather, it shows that a lack of restrictions in other states can negate restrictions in one state. As such, the Chicago argument is either a bad faith argument or an argument made in ignorance.
In closing, it might be true that laws would not meaningfully reduce gun violence but pointing to Chicago no more proves that then pointing to a burned out apartment of a person who was careful about fire proves that fire safety would not meaningfully reduce fire deaths. Now, if everyone practiced fire safety and fire deaths not diminished, then we could conclude that fire safety was useless. Likewise, if all states had restrictive gun laws that were enforced and gun deaths never diminished, then we could conclude they were useless. But this is not the case.