Hypocrisy by means of ad hominems, and personal attacks are what we are constantly exposed to from politicians, pro-gun and anti-gun organizations, and the media. The answer to these fallacies, while a simple concept, is a tremendously difficult notion to adhere to. What we need to strive for is philosophical consistency.That involves being thorough and fair when discussing the issues. If we are going to live in a country that has a Constitution which outlines individual rights, we must learn to respect all of those rights, whether we agree with them or not. For example, the Democratic side wants to limit and restrict the 2nd Amendment as much as possible, while the Republican side wants to limit and restrict abortion and gay marriage. Interestingly enough, it took both sides to come together and vote away our 4th Amendment rights.
The most used fallacy when both sides are debating each other is the Ad Hominem attack. Argumentum ad hominem is, “ responding to arguments by attacking a person’s character, rather than to the content of their arguments. When used inappropriately, it is a fallacy in which a claim or argument is dismissed on the basis of some irrelevant fact or supposition about the author or the person being criticized.” This can involve not only attacks against the other debater, but also attacks against their sources.
Example 1: You can’t trust anything the NRA says because they’re terrorist extremist gun humpers.
Example 2: That source is from Bloomberg. Bloomberg is a gun grabbing authoritarian, so you can’t trust anything he says.
Now it may be that whatever statement from either side says is false, but using an ad hom to justify dismissing that statement is an intellectual lazy cop out. It’s attacking the source to mask not having to respond to the actual point being made. This makes an ad hom a very weak argument not not very convincing at all. The intellectually honest and consistent way to deal with a statement from the opposing side would be to address each point being made and arguing with facts backed up by multiple sources.
Tu Quoque is a fallacy that both sides of the gun debate are guilty of using and all it does is degrade the credibility of each. Also known as, “appeal to hypocrisy[, it] is an informal logical fallacy that intends to discredit the validity of the opponent’s logical argument by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with its conclusion(s). It is a fallacy because the moral character or past actions of the opponent are generally irrelevant to the logic of the argument. It is often used as a red herring tactic and is a special case of the ad hominem fallacy, which is a category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of fact about the person presenting or supporting the claim or argument.”
Though there can be back in forth in the gun debate where one side can accuse the other of doing something and then do the same thing themselves, this most often happens after tragic events like mass shootings. Here the anti-gun side will use the event to immediately promote gun control laws while the pro gun side will use that as justification to push for pro gun laws and then both sides will accuse the other of taking advantage of the situation. It doesn’t matter that one side is correct or not, the fact that both are using a tragic event right after it takes place to push an agenda is in bad taste.
Tu Quoque also takes place in the scientific side of the debate. Recently David Hemenway released a survey where he picked a number of scientists and asked their opinion on gun control. According to Hemenway, all the scientists he asked agreed that there needed to be more gun control. In a response to this, John Lott released a survey where he picked a number of economists on their position on gun control. They overwhelmingly agreed that they thought that more gun control was a bad thing. The problem with these surveys is that both Hemenway and Lott selected a certain population they knew they could expect a given outcome from. The other problem is that the questions focused on their hand picked population’s opinion on a subject, which is not necessarily reliant on whether those opinions are derived from facts, though some may be, but on how a given responder feels. Hemenway and Lott have a long history of professional level sniping at each other and this is just an example of tu quoque in that context.
Circumstantial is another form of Ad hominem. “Ad hominem circumstantial points out that someone is in circumstances such that they are disposed to take a particular position. Ad hominem circumstantial constitutes an attack on the bias of a source. This is fallacious because a disposition to make a certain argument does not make the argument false; this overlaps with the genetic fallacy (an argument that a claim is incorrect due to its source).”
Example 1. The NRA would say that guns are good for self protection, they are mouthpieces for the gun industry and just want to sell more guns.
Example 2. Johns Hopkins Research would say that gun control laws worked, they’re mouthpieces for Michael Bloomberg who wants to ban all guns.
While it is convenient to make these assumptions, it’s not an effective argument because it doesn’t actually address the points. In the case of example 1, it’s very easy to do some internet searching to find out where the NRA’s sources of income originate from as it is publicly available. In this case, the statement is false. In the case of example 2, the researchers used a number of different methods to skew their data in a manner that forced their model to adhere to the conclusions they wanted to reach. Example 2 is an example where the statement ended up being factually correct after the fact, but logically fallacious as it is an unsupported assumption.
Guilt by association is the one of the more subtle in the family of ad hominem fallacies. “Guilt by association can sometimes also be a type of ad hominem fallacy if the argument attacks a source because of the similarity between the views of someone making an argument and other proponents of the argument.”
Example 1. If you don’t believe in Universal Background Checks, the NRA is against Universal Background Checks so you must want criminals to have easy access to guns!
Example 2. If you do believe in Universal Background Checks, Michael Bloomberg is for Universal Background Checks and wants to register and confiscate all the guns!
This is a case where a person may share a concept with a more public persona or organization and be equated with all the views of that persona or organization. The Universal Background Check issue is a hot button topic because there are many people who agree with the concept of UBC’s, but differ greatly on the specific legislation. In one case, the Manchin–Toomey UBC was pushed by the anti-gun politicians, while the pro-gun side offered the Coburn Amendment. Both were UBC’s, both were rejected by the opposing sides, but both were, technically, for Universal Background Checks.
Lastly, I would like to address the root fallacy that is the underlying thread between all forms of ad hominem. Both sides must stop personal attacks. Calling people names, demeaning, and being overly hostile to the opposition only serves to discredit the person doing it and the side they represent. If any person engaging in debate or conversation wants to be taken seriously, actually listened to, and respected by the other side, personal attacks, as tempting as they may be, must be avoided.
The key to fighting hypocrisy in the gun debate ultimately lies in being calm, honest, philosophically consistent, and cordial. The goal should be to rise up to the level of intellectual authenticity, not to drag yourself and your side into the gutter of duplicity.
(and just for fun)