The re-emergence of the gun control debate in America has reminded me of a book I used last year in an undergraduate course on critical thinking and persuasive writing. The book, by sociologist Duncan Watts, is called Everything is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer. For an excellent and thorough review of the book, go here. Watts makes a compelling and sophisticated argument about the counter-productivity of relying on “common sense” when trying to understand or solve uncommon problems.
Too often our intuitive (a.k.a. “commonsense”) assumptions turn out to be wrong when put systematically to the test. The popular assumption of many gun rights advocates that mass shootings would be fewer and/or less destructive if more people were armed in the schools, restaurants, and other crowded venues where such horrors have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years, is passionately held and defended as being “too obvious” for rational debate.
Gun Rights Advocates often insist that “If a teacher had a gun in that school, the shooter would have been stopped before killing so many people.” This makes sense, or is commonsensical, if the assumption that one or more armed teachers or other adults present would have been able to respond with their firearm in a timely and effective matter. This scenario is “possible” and has almost certainly played out in real life somewhere at some time, but thanks to systematic study we know that it is MUCH more likely that arming civilians would be “a cure worse than the disease.”
The purveyors of “common sense” in this debate are focused too narrowly on a specific real life instance combined with their expectation of how they could or would have responded had they been on the scene last week in Connecticut armed with a gun. The context of the particular incident is accepted as clear, and more importantly for policy making purposes, generalizable. The reliability of their chosen policy prescription (i.e. armed civilians) is uncritically taken for granted. The notion that more armed civilians would make matters worse in such instances, creating unintended negative consequences, is allowed to recede into the background, obscured by the terrible images of human slaughter still very fresh on everyone’s mind.
It’s not that “unintended consequences” are unimaginable for folks advocating armed civilians; it’s that they rest their general case on the idea that in the specific horrific mass shooting incident that sparked the debate in the first place, they can’t imagine how the potential harm of armed civilians could have outweighed the “potential” benefits, or more importantly for them, the “actual” harm wrought. In other words, they are making a case for instituting a particular public policy now as a life saving measure for potential innocent civilian victims of mass shootings in the future. They are severely limiting the scope and utility of their analysis by relying on the “worst case” definition of the problem and the “best case” assumptions with regard to their preferred course of action. In the sober light of day, who can reasonably have confidence in such an approach?
Though advocates for arming teachers would surely recoil from the thought, their posture and approach mirrors that of anti-gun extremists who argue for total bans on civilian ownership of guns. Radical gun control advocates are no less confident or self-righteous than pro-gun extremists about their. They too rely on incompatible cause and effect assumptions and appeal to “commonsense” as the source of their principles and proposals, implying, of course, that those who do not share their perspective need only come to their senses.
I do not intend to imply that the political debate about gun control policy in America is animated by equally powerful extremes on both sides. The political center on gun control is skewed decisively rightward in Washington, D.C. and the political power and resources of pro-gun extremists dwarfs that of their anti-gun counterparts. In addition, the perception (and reality) of the Constitution’s 2nd Amendment stands as an insurmountable legal, political, and even cultural obstacle to the ambitions of anti-gun extremists while providing powerful political cover for the extremist arguments and agitation efforts of pro-gun extremists in America.