How to think about the claim that "guns are made to kill"


A redditor recently reminded me of a comment I wrote about this a couple years ago. This is an expanded version of that comment.

A lot of debates about gun laws arrive at this intersection. Something like:

Person A: “The process of buying a gun should be like the process for getting a driver’s license.”
Person B: “Gun ownership is far more regulated than car ownership already. I’d love to have cars and guns be equally regulated. It’s important for law-abiding people to have ready access to gun ownership.”
Person A: “But cars have a lot of healthy purposes. Guns are just designed to kill.”

That assertion always troubled me. It’s narrowly true in the sense that guns are weapons, and that a weapon works by physical force. So yeah, it’s true that an effective weapon is designed to harm. But Person A’s assertion seemed to be missing some critical aspect of the issue. The obvious objection is that the point of gun ownership is for law-abiding people to exercise the freedom to own weapons — that ownership of weapons qua weapons is the point, not some unfortunate side effect of the freedom to shoot paper targets for recreation. And that law-abiding people with weapons will use those weapons morally, for purposes that benefit themselves and their community (lawful self-defense, hunting, target practice, bond-building, etc.)

But even then, I didn’t feel I’d gotten to the bottom of why Person A’s assertion troubled me. Yes, it’s wrong in the sense that it cuts out all the important nuance of the issue, but why is it wrong? If we dissect it formally, like a university logic course, what is the rational error in it?

Formally, the logical error in the statement “guns are made to kill” is called “begging the question”. It’s presented as evidence to support the claim that guns are particularly harmful, but it actually presupposes that. I.e. to say “guns are just for killing”, you’re asserting that they’re particularly dangerous and worthless. But that’s the very thing you’re trying to prove in the first place.

This would be like saying, “Skydiving is unacceptably dangerous because you’ll die if your parachutes fail.” Sounds like a solid argument! But it’s just an unsupported assertion. The first part makes a claim. The second part seems like evidence, but actually it just restates the claim in different words. Actual evidence would be, say, establishing that parachutes fail much more frequently than you thought, or that there are risks that you didn’t know about, or that skydiving isn’t fun in the first place and therefore not worth even the tiny chance of an accident. Something that speaks to the actual expected value of skydiving (probability x consequence of good outcome minus probability x consequence of bad outcome) — not just something that restates the harm whose very existence/non-existence we’re trying to establish.

Translating that to guns, “guns are made to kill” is just another way of saying that their presence is inherently malign. It simply restates the claim, but doesn’t provide evidence. Evidence would be finding, say, that they have high accident rates, or cause an increase in violent crime, or something like that (which they don’t), and that they provide no countervailing benefits (which they do).

Be careful not to sound condescending, because it’s easy to fall into that when you start pointing out formal logical flaws. But if you have a healthy rapport with someone, it can be useful to point out that “guns are made to kill” is an ancient and subtle logical fallacy, not the intelligent argument that people think it is.