This was written as a response to a syndicated column by Richard Cohen which appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. Mr. Cohen drew an analogy between ‘youthful’ drunken-driving episodes involving our current president Bush and recent school shootings. His argument — that we could and should curb shootings by restricting access to guns — has both merits and pitfalls but his analogy was wholly inapt.
I have observed, over the last few decades, a woeful decline in the quality of analogies presented in public debate — and, I would argue, a general decline in the ability of even educated people either to formulate or to evaluate analogies in any context — and it has become one of my pet peeves.
The letter was submitted to the Mercury News and published on 9 March 2001.
8 March 2001
Richard Cohen’s analogy between drunk driving and gun use makes a compelling and emotional argument in favor of restricting the availability of guns — or, rather, it would if he had allowed it to follow its logical course and been willing to accept the consequences. He equates using a car to do something dangerous — driving drunk — with using a gun to do something dangerous, and argues that just as we would take away the license of a drunk driver (take away his/her access to a car) we should “ensure they [“the troubled kid, the troubled adult”] cannot get at weapons“.
His argument falls apart in two ways. First, as a society, we do not take, and never have taken, anyone’s driver’s license because we think they may someday drive drunk; we act only after they have done so, after they have demonstrated their inability to use a car responsibly. We show such restraint not because we believe drunk driving is less dangerous the first time it happens; first-time drunks can and do kill. We show such restraint because we recognize the inherent injustice and danger in constraining freedoms on such subjective criteria as someone’s judgement about what we might do someday. In the case of guns, however, Cohen’s version of “ensuring they cannot get at weapons” is to be proactive, predicated upon some judgement of the potential for future harm rather than on a demonstration of past harm.
Worse, Cohen’s version of “ensuring they cannot get at weapons” is a general prohibition on gun ownership: “What’s a handgun for? Why should anyone have one?” “But we can do away with guns“. He equates that to a suspension of the driver’s license for someone caught driving drunk, but that is a false analogy: the true analogy would be the sweeping prohibition on car ownership for everyone. Imagine a rabid advocate of alternative transportation declaring “What’s a car for? Why should anyone have one?“, and then proposing the banning of automobiles as the solution to the dangers of drunk driving.
That is Cohen’s vision. If he, or the readers he is trying to convince, accept a ban on car ownership as a reasonable response to incidents of drunk driving, then a ban on guns must make perfect sense to them. If not, they should rethink their position on guns.
© Copyright 2001, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell