Guns Don’t Kill People; Your Slogan Kills People

Gun rights advocates are absolutely correct: guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But let’s consider the phrase.

The first word in this well-worn slogan seems obvious: “guns.” But what exactly do we mean by this? Well, “guns” refers to multiple kinds of firearms: handguns (revolvers, pistols, etc.), break-action shotguns, pump-action shotguns, lever-action shotguns, bolt-action rifles, semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic carbines, semi-automatic rifles or carbines with large-capacity, detachable magazines, and so forth. It’s not worth listing all of the different types, because the point being made is very simple. None of these things kill people. People kill people with them.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

In a technical sense, bullets kill people. For that reason, we don’t really need the second part of the saying (“people kill people”)—it’s superfluous noise that distracts us from the fact that guns can’t do anything, or help people do anything, or help people do anything much more quickly and decisively, with more permanent and devastating damage than, say, a steak knife. No, guns cannot do a thing at all. They are really utterly innocent bystanders in the deaths of bystanders. And since bullets, too, are pretty useless on their own, we can’t really blame them either, even if they are, narrowly speaking, the immediate cause of death. Naturally, that raises the question of why even say “people kill people,” since it’s not needed? Let’s look at the phrase again:

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

To answer our question, we have figure out what the various references to “people” mean. It’s clear that the first and third mentions refer to the same thing—the people being killed, whether by guns (no) or by people (yes). Here, “people” means persons from all walks of life: co-workers, movie-goers, high school and college students, church-goers, and children, to name a few. Those are all people. They are all being killed. They are all being killed by something, guns or people, one way or another—and no reasonable person can dispute that. These killings sadden us, and it’s natural to wonder why they had to happen. But we already know that guns are not to blame. So who is doing the killing?

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

Ah, the second mention of “people.” Here we begin to get to the crux of the matter—who is killing whom—but the answer is complicated. In many cases, the people doing the killing are the same ones being killed: people committing suicide. In fact, the majority of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides. Therefore, to be accurate, we could re-word the second part of the saying as “people kill themselves and other people” (even though we’ve already established that only the first part of the slogan is necessary). In fact, if we wanted to be perfectly precise, we would say that “people kill themselves and other people with bullets that come out of guns.” But that still begs the question about who is doing the killing.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

In some of the high-profile massacres we’ve seen, it’s typically someone with a history of mental illness or other disturbances. There’s nothing to be done about this, however, as this is entirely in the realm of health care policy. Since these disturbed individuals had difficulty operating in society and connecting to others, there was nothing we could have done to stop them from getting guns, such as passing in-person firearms training, or having them talk to people. Instead, we did the right thing by allowing them free access to guns while working on their problems, which they were fully responsible for. This follows from the legal principle that we all deserve unfettered rights, even when proven incapable of exercising them judiciously. Similarly, since criminals can get guns whenever it strikes their fancy, we shouldn’t bother checking the backgrounds of any gun buyers. That’s clearly wasted effort. Which returns us to:

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

Beyond criminals and the mentally ill, are there any other types of people who can be said to kill others?  Are law-abiding citizens ever involved? Certainly, the many people who accidentally shoot themselves or who let their children accidentally shoot themselves are a problem, but what can anyone do about that? Charge them with some sort of crime? Absurd. No, I’m thinking of people of good faith, who love guns and hate the government. Could they be part of the “people?”

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

It seems doubtful. But let’s imagine what the profile of these other people might look like. They would see tragedy but not acknowledge it, except to focus attention on their own rights and privileges. They would advocate that all kinds of people—students, teachers, parishioners, workers—carry guns with them wherever they go, in contradiction to the fact that “people” seem to be the problem in the first place, as evidenced by the slogan.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

Let’s also presume that such people have a host of delusions. They fear the revocation of a fundamental right that has been in place for 225 years. They revolt at the mildest reforms and the simplest of policies—evidence, to them, of a pitched and slippery slope down which our society will be cast. A fear of government fevers their masculinity and infects their self-image. They imagine jackboots in suits seizing their homes and carting away their possessions. A Constitutionally protected firearm provides them enjoyment and pride, but a license offends their dignity and upends their freedom to the point of rebellion.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

They support a nihilistic creed that proclaims there is no policy that works, no American ingenuity to draw on, that can address a social problem. They possess an anarchist vision which breaches and crumbles all notions of community and solidarity, and assigns responsibility for death to those that have accepted the bullets. A fantasy world of old West saloons and high-noon shootouts parades their dreams. A yearning to prove their worth by sudden, righteous acts of violence occupies their constant view. They frame everything as all-against-all and none-for-none.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

They stand for nothing—absolutely nothing—except the proliferation of deadly weapons in our churches, stores, restaurants, and schools, without any controls whatsoever on who may own them, how they may be carried, or where they can be taken. They insist that criminals are accountable, but do nothing to strengthen the law. They furnish the tools of tragedy and ignore the resulting destruction. They are, in sum, a force for the systematic production of unnecessary and premature death.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

Those are the kinds of people we need to watch out for, and helps us answer our last question. It turns out that the slogan is correct in its entirety; people do kill people. Let’s all remember the saying, then, and repeat it again and again. Let it rattle around our chambers until it loses all force. Let it take on every meaning it deserves. Let’s add the new premise and fire the newly loaded phrase in return: Guns don’t kill people…. People kill people with guns. Bullets from guns kill people. The mentally ill kill people. Criminals with easy access to guns kill people. Guns kill people, quickly.

Doing nothing kills people.

Guns don’t kill people.

People kill people.

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