Response to NRA’s Press Conference

The NRA polarizes people. Some assume the worst from the NRA and others assume that the NRA speaks near-100% truth. Admittedly, I have been in the first group more often than not. Therefore, I made a conscious effort to watch the entire Press Conference the NRA conducted today concerning the outcry for gun control laws in the wake of the recent Elementary School tragedy. I have to confront my own prejudices like everyone.

Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre spoke about our practices of placing armed guards at banks, sporting stadiums, around national buildings, around important people and then questioned why we do not do the same for children. He pointed to the problems of violent movie and video game content and music videos. He criticized the media for their unwillingness to report about this content. He criticized politicians for their unwillingness to take what he called the “hard stands.” In the solution section of his speech, He called for congress to make the resources available to put an armed police officer in every school. Further, he pledged the NRA’s commitment to providing expertise and training. He indicated the need to look at access control, building design and adequate training. Finally, he introduced former US Congressman Asa Hutchinson as the NRA’s National Director of the National Shield Our Schools program.

Since you can read his comments verbatim, I will not try to summarize anymore. There are places where I agree with Mr. LaPierre. I have seen first hand the significant good that campus-based police officers do. They offer much more than security. Like everyone else, I wish that our police were better funded and that we could provide a police officer for every school down to the elementary schools. Second, I agree with him that gun control laws become the point of focus too quickly and too easily.

We do disagree. And in saying I disagree with him I want to also admit that I am guilty of making similar mistakes in different directions. All men are sons of Adam and brothers of Cain. Adam uttered the first lame excuse of human history by blaming someone else for his sin. His son Cain uttered the second lame excuse of human history implying he didn’t have the responsibility to be his brother’s keeper. Both of those tactics show up in the discourse around gun violence discussion along with other issues. So, by pointing these out in LaPierre’s speech I would simultaneously confess to them in my own.

LaPierre is right when he says that the NRA too easily becomes the target of the blaming. Yet, he too gives in to that temptation by blaming a host of others-media, politicians, makers of violent video games. Others, I agree with him, who share some of the responsibility for the problem. I think I would have found him more persuasive if he had admitted that the NRA has contributed to the problem. If he had admitted that the easy availability of guns, which the NRA has protected, is one among many contributing factors to gun violence, I would have found him persuasive.

The biggest disagreement I have with him concerns whether or not we are responsibility for our brothers’ and sisters’ welfare. His speech had an undercurrent, fatalistic anthropology. He repeatedly used the words “monsters” and “bad guys” as though we simply have to consign ourselves to live in world where people choose to do bad things because they are hopelessly bad people. I believe that there are some people who become hopelessly bad. And when that happens, I believe we all share part of the blame. I believe that we help form one another.  And should not consign ourselves to the inevitability of evil buy actively seek to counteract it. 

We belong in a system of responsibility for one another. He said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I cannot concur that the only way to respond to the potential for violence is armed protection against it. We should set aside the histrionics about whether we want an armed police officer responding should someone be breaking into our house. Armed protection is necessary. But just as the NRA claims that laws are insufficient so too I would say that armed protection is insufficient. It takes the transformation of hearts and minds, the development of habits of wholeness, and in a single word it takes conversion. When we admit that we ourselves have sinned because we are sinners and we make a conscious decision to turn from sin and turn toward God, we contribute to the conversion of our system. When service and witness together enable others to make that same move, we help repair our system. A good guy with a gun is necessary to stop some bad guys with guns. But the real answer is for the bad guy to enter a redemptive relationship with a good God.

There’s an analogy that the Baptist preacher and founder of Koinonia Farms, Clarence Jordan, used in talking about the impact Christ has on people. He talked about a mean dog. What the law does is chain the mean dog to a tree (he was talking about Old Testament law). What Christ does is actually change the nature of the dog. Similarly, in issues like this I think we have to come to agreement that laws by themselves are incapable of making the necessary changes. People’s violent natures must be changed. And that’s a transformation of the heart.

The Argumentative Style of a Pundit’s Column

Walter E. Williams, the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, recently provided a column for that illustrates a few of the argumentative maneuvers used by pundits today. His post on April 1, 2009 was entitled “Our Problem is Immorality.”

Manuever #1–Foolish Consistency. Williams sets up the argument with two questions, “Do you believe that it is moral and just for one person to be forcibly used to serve the purposes of another? And, if that person does not peaceably submit to being so used, do you believe that there should be the initiation of some kind of force against him? Neither question is complex and can be answered by either a yes or no.”

The premise of the argument is that there are absolute, nuance-free answers to these questions. Any attempt to qualify your answer and say “yes” in some circumstances and “no” in other circumstances is regarded as “inconsistency” and as a result suspect. In general, the answer is “No.” It is not moral to forcibly use one person to serve the purposes of another. He’s right; the most heinous example of this is slavery. Yet, I and every other law-abiding American male agreed on our eighteenth birthday that we would submit to serve the purposes of our government if need be. And those who serve in our armed forces are constrained by law to follow orders given them by their superior officers whether they agree with them or not. We have laws that require fathers to pay child support for “another” that they have helped bring into this world. Doctors and other medical professionals have professional standards that compel them to offer aid regardless of personal preferences. Remaining absolutely consistent in saying “No it’s not moral for one person to be forcibly used to serve the purpose of another” would require the elimination of selective service, military chain of command, child-support laws, and the Hippocratic oath. Four things that I personally regard as moral goods.

Williams’s arguement is focused on a more specific point about welfare and public support for “farm and business handouts, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and thousands of similar programs that account for more than two-thirds of the federal budget.” He labels these programs as “legalized theft.” He has set up a universal principle that no one would contest, implied that rigid consistency is the only intellectually honest way to approach the matter and then applied it to his specific position. But is the consistency wise? While no moral person would defend the practice of slavery, plenty of moral people would support more moderate forms of mutual submission. After all, the law requires that I stop my car at a red light so that another can cross through an intersection. This “theft” of my time and gas is made by the government on behalf of another. But as both the benefactor and beneficiary of signal lights–as well as the one time victim of someone who chose to demand exclusive control of his time and gas–I’m happy to defend the morality of red lights.

For the sake of academic honesty, “Foolish Consistency” comes from the Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” He, like Williams criticized ministers (“divines”). Of course, according to Emerson we are guilty of frequently favoring “foolish consistency.” According to Williams, we aren’t consistent enough.

Manuever #2–Unsubstantiated Use of Statistics
Notice in the above quotation that Williams claims that the programs he doesn’t like account for more than two-thirds of the federal budget. Of course the “another thousands of similar programs” gives a broad umbrella to a host of things that may bear some resemblance to farm subsidies, Medicare and Medicaid. But he does not substantiate the claim. The statistical reference “two-thirds of the federal budget” connotes an air of logical credibility. He’s an economist after all and he should know. But the evidence is simply not delineated in a logically credible way. Insufficient evidence is given to validate the statistic. It’s faux credibility.

Manuever #3–The Nth Degree
He writes, “The reason why your college professor, politician or minister cannot give a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether one person should be used to serve the purposes of another is because they are sly enough to know that either answer would be troublesome for their agenda. A yes answer would put them firmly in the position of supporting some of mankind’s most horrible injustices such as slavery. After all, what is slavery but the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another?” The legitimacy of the universal principle is strengthened by pushing the example to the nth degree–that is to the most extreme examples of the principle. So, if you do not agree with his universal principle 100% then clearly you advocate for slavery.

But even agreeing with Williams at a 85% or 90% level is unacceptable. Anything short of 100% agreement is qualifying your answer. And if you want to qualify your answer then clearly you are up to no good–you are “sly” and have an “agenda” that’s not supported by morally adhering to the principle 100%.

Manuever #4–Assigning Motives to People You don’t know.Notice in the above quotation that Williams tells his audience the internal thought process of those of us who do not want to give unqualified answers to his two, perfectly legitimate, uncomplicated questions. It’s because we’re sly. In my whole life, I’ve never been called “sly.” No one has ever given me that much credit for intricate thought. I find that the dumbest things I say, I say when I’m trying to explain why someone else does something. Particularly when I am assigning motive to action. Talk about the effect of the action, the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the action. That’s all well and good. The actions I can see. The motives I can’t. I can critique action but to critique motive requires a greater amount intimacy. Typically when I get to know people well enough to know their motives, I say things less judgmentally than Williams has chosen to say things here. That doesn’t mean I always agree with them OR that I always leave motivations unquestioned. But, I just come to discover that people are mixed bags with some fairly complicated values that pull motives in polyvalent ways.

Next time you read your favorite pundits pay close attention to how often they use the phrase, “The reason why [insert target of critique here].” This is a classic element of war rhetoric wherein the speaker will describe the targets of violent actions as irrational, immoral and godless (see the works of Robert L. Ivie on savagery metaphor and calls to arms). The effect of such assignment of motive is to characterize a group of people as worthy of elimination. In the literal call to arms, this elimination is a literal elimination through literal battle. In the culture war, the elimination is through dismissal of the insights of a particular group. So, sly ministers, sly college professors and sly politicians aren’t qualifying their answers on legitimate grounds. We are all up to no good and consequently, people need not listen to anything we have to say. Instead, in the culture war engaged by Williams, Williams clearly thinks these sly people should be eliminated. (did you notice the “nth degree” argument and “assignment of motives to a person I don’t know” I employed right there. Pretty sly of me, huh?).

Good ends suffer from poor advocacy. The number of people dependent on the government is a problem we need to examine. But we need to do so using the best of our reasoning faculties. When pundits use logical fallacies, shibboleths, ad hominem attacks and other argumentative foul balls in the way that Williams has in this article, their causes suffer. I’m certain that in most of his other writings he is intellectually rigorous and this is an anomaly.