Gun Control Debate: Why Can't Americans Talk About Guns Like Adults?


Few topics in American politics are as divisive as gun rights. When the Senate next month commences an unofficial ending to the national saga of Sandy Hook by voting on the bills that were drafted in the tragedy’s wake, a package of moderate proposals will pass and the aggressive ones will not. For another few months, until the next massacre, the debate will go to sleep once more as a stalemate. And as soon as the last casing hits the ground this next time, out will come the organizations and the acronyms, the families and the YouTube pundits, and once again we will consider the place of firearms in American life.

So vast is the difference between how zealots on both sides discuss guns, one might wonder if they were talking about the same thing. The answer, I believe, is no.

Every party in the gun debate can agree on at least one point: a gun is an inanimate object. But what exactly is an object? Philosophers have long wrestled with this very question. If we recast the question of why differing parties so strongly disagree on the most fundamental tenets of what a gun even is, we might get a better insight into the divide that separates them in the larger political debate. Since this has been a longstanding question in philosophy, it’s worthwhile to apply some philosophical answers to the puzzle of how different people can see so disparately understand inanimate objects such as guns.

One of the most elegant inquiries into how we should understand objects comes from Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Among many such cleavages, Aristotle saw an object as a combination of distinct "substance" and "accidents"; the former is what a thing is, the latter merely characteristics that the thing happens to have. For example, if you drive past a house you once lived in, even knowing the intimate details of the interior of the house doesn’t mean that you still consider the house to be your home, which would be a "substantial" quality.

If an anti-gun crusader noticed a pistol strapped to the hip of a fellow store patron, he would literally be looking at a different object than what the carrier would see, according to Aristotle’s framework. What she may consider to be protection, or even feminist empowerment, he may see as something used to commit tragedy. The physical features of the gun don’t change, of course, but if the two were to start discussing the gun’s place in the store, they would be talking about "substantially" different objects. Elevate this interaction to the national level; is it any wonder that the two sides are unintelligible to each other?

German philosopher Martin Heidegger also offers (very long) insight into how to view an object. To him, "connective relations" are necessarily part of our understanding of a thing; how we use something is what it is to us. Heidegger’s line of thinking essentially expounds the classic pro-gun argument that anything could be made into a weapon if an assailant wanted to do so.

This theory of Heidegger’s explains the perceptive difference between a gun owner confident in his ability to control his weapon and another person who prefers not to interact with guns. The guy with extensive experience with firearms is more likely to feel that there is no such thing as an accidental discharge, only negligent discharge; the one whose conception of how to interact with a gun is formed by negative press and not experience wouldn’t be so sure. The man in the store eyeing the woman with her carry-and-prevent weapon would see that gun as something that is interacted with by shooting people, whereas she might know her gun as something she rarely takes out to the range but wears every day. She might interact with it as more of a piece of clothing than as a danger. In a Heideggerian context, we once again have proponents and detractors looking at wholly different objects.

19th century Utilitarianist John Stuart Mill also contributed to the question of objecthood by distinguishing between what he called "concrete" and "abstract" characteristics: a quality of this gun versus a quality of all guns with similar characteristics. This represents a difference not necessarily of object, but of the conceptual plane on which the object is recognized: one bird versus one flock, one weapon versus a country teeming with them.

When Senator Dianne Feinstein staged a dramatic press conference next to ten assault rifles she sought to ban, she used broad strokes to characterize not just the weapons behind her, but all the members of what she construed as a very broad taxonomy. "Weapons designed originally for the military to kill large numbers of people in close combat are replicated for civilian use ... They are sold out of trunks and backseats of automobiles in cities as well as gun shows with no questions asked." Clearly, not all AR-15s are sold out of the backs of trucks, but she intentionally created what Mill would call an "abstract" category of weapons — in this case, ones with similar cosmetic features —and made that category her object. Feinstein, of course, was speaking to people who interact with guns mostly through statistics. In that sense, a particular gun would be of little use to recognize; only an "abstract" population would be relevant.

Meanwhile, an owner of such a rifle might look to his own personal weapon and recognize it not as Feinstein’s "abstract" object, but as a "concrete" object, namely, his gun. If he opposed Feinstein’s ban, it could be because it would prevent him from more "concrete" interactions, but those interactions would have no answer for the issue when discussed on the "abstract" level.

When Sandy Hook was fully passing into the political sphere in early February, Washington Post columnist Carlos Lozada noted that with issues like these, there sometimes is no common ground. "Many political pleas for national conversations are too vague or self-serving to propel real dialogue ... Fiercely held and mutually exclusive opinions won’t magically disappear if we frame them as a feel-good conversation."

Taxation, civil rights, foreign policy — nearly every debate taken up in Washington pivots around some kind of bipartisan consensus. But not guns. The problem, it seems, has little to do with statistics or even facts. As illuminated here, essential metaphysical differences in how people merely look at guns create the radically different stances we see unable to relate to one another in Washington.