Gun regulation stops gun murders: true or false?

Does gun regulation stop gun murders? The answer is both “yes” and “no”.

No, I’m not living in some kind of wacky Schroedinger universe.

No, I’m not just trying to be diplomatic and “see both sides” of the issue.

The problem is that the question itself can mean two completely different things, depending on how you read it.

To illustrate why, let’s try to translate this statement (“Gun regulation stops gun murders”) into logical notation, the kind of notation you may have learned in a high school or college mathematics class.

One interpretation of the sentence is this:

∀(x) : M(x) → G(x)

where the function M(x) means “x is a gun-related murder” and G(x) means “gun regulations stop x from happening”. In English, this could be read as: “For everything you can imagine, if that thing is a gun-related murder then that thing will be stopped by gun regulation.”

The other interpretation of the sentence is this:

∃(x) : M(x) → G(x)

using the same function letters to mean the same things. In English, this could be read as, “There exists at least one thing that you can imagine, such that if it is a gun-related murder then it is stopped by gun regulation.”

Universal QuantifierThe difference between these two interpretations, when we view them logically, is the difference in the quantifier: ∀ versus ∃.  The “universal quantifier”, ∀, means that the  statement that follows is true in ALL cases.  The “existential quantifier”, ∃, means that the statement that follows is true IN AT LEAST ONE case.

So in our example above, the sentence “gun regulation stops gun murders” can mean either “gun regulation stops ALL gun murders” or “gun regulation stops AT LEAST SOME gun murders”.

The English language doesn’t force people to be clear about which one of these is meant in the sentence. We just say “gun regulation stops gun murders”, and the sentence could mean it either in the universal sense or in the existential sense.

Usually, when conservatives say “gun regulation doesn’t stop gun murders” they mean “gun regulation will not stop ALL gun murders!”  On the other hand, when liberals say “gun regulation stops gun murders” they mean “gun regulation will stop at least SOME gun murders!”

That is why they both are correct.

 


 

This problem of the English language being wishy-washy on quantifiers isn’t restricted to just gun regulation. Think of the following statements:

Prostitution stops rape.

Money makes people happy.

The economic stimulus helped the economy.

 

In every single one of these examples, the statement is obviously true or obviously false, depending on whether you interpret it to mean “in all cases” or “there exists at least one case”.

The economic stimulus helped at least one economic indicator/factor, but did not help all economic indicators/factors. Money makes people happier in some ways, but money doesn’t make people universally happy about everything. Prostitution may prevent a few instances of rape, but it would not prevent all instances of rape.

All of these statements are both true and false, depending on which quantifier you think the speaker of the statement means: ∀ or ∃.

 


 

Of course, what is politically interesting is that people are instinctively drawn to one interpretation or the other, depending on what political axe they have to grind. Depending on the agenda of the speaker (or listener), they will think that it’s “obvious” which interpretation is the correct one.

If you are very conscientious about the dangers of rape in our society, and want to make sure that people do not minimize or misunderstand the issue, then you will say:  “Prostitution DOES NOT stop rape!”

Why? Because it is not true in the universally-quantified sense. Most rapes are not about a person wanting sex, they are about power, violence and subjugation. So prostitution would have not have any affect on the vast majority of rape scenarios.  Note: vast majority.

However, a person whose political axe-to-grind is focused on wanting to legalize prostitution might say, “Most rapes are not about sex, but even if just one rape happens to be about sex and could have been prevented by legalizing prostitution, wouldn’t that be a good thing?”  They will say, “legalizing prostitution will stop rape”.

It will stop rape in the existentially-quantified sense: “there exists”, not “for all”.

It is almost as if people will deliberately ignore the fact that the statement itself is ambiguous. Instead of trying to use more clear language, or ask what the speaker means, the will dig in their heels and assume that their own politically-motivated interpretation is the only possible or sensible interpretation.

 


 

Whether talking about gun control or rape and prostitution or economic stimulus or anything else, there are a number of debates in our current political dialogue where two sides seem to talk past one another: each side thinks the other is completely and obviously wrong, and can’t understand how the other side can be “so stupid”.

I wonder how much of that disconnect in the American dialogue can be blamed, in the end, on the problems created by the fact that the English language lets people be lazy about not specifying whether they are talking about ∀ and ∃.



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  1. Niles Chandler says:

    I think you’ve drawn a false equivalence between the two sides arguing the issue. The ‘conservatives’ in this example are putting up a straw-man argument to control the debate; the ‘liberals’ are not.

    Are ‘pro-gun’ advocates honestly misinterpreting “gun regulation would stop gun murders” to mean “it would stop ALL gun murders”? Not likely. With so many millions of guns all across the U.S., there is plainly no way that EVERY gun murder can or will be prevented. All of us who live in this society “get” that, just as we all know that there will always be some amount of conflict in the world when there are billions of people around. Everyone knows that even their opponents would have to be aware of that reality. So if I said, “My opponents actually think their proposed law would stop all human conflict forever,” it would be as ludicrous as saying, “My opponent truly believes we can keep the sun from going down at night.” You would know I was being disingenuous and demagogic, because, from experience and common sense, we know nobody would ever really think that.

    Picture a child who is caught doing something she’s been forbidden to do. You confront her on it, calmly, and her response is to yell, “Everybody hates me! Everybody hates everything I do!” A logical response (if you were in the mood to be logical) would be, “Nobody ever said that, and you know it.” Because nobody ever DID, and she DOES know it. It’s not a matter of her interpreting something differently. She never meant it literally in the first place. It’s merely a strategy she’s using to try to distract you from the real issue– in other words, her goal is to disarm you (no pun intended?). But her strategy may not be entirely a conscious one– it may be just her instincts telling her, “The reality of the situation is too unpleasant. Gotta find a way of avoiding it. He wants you to face facts. Do something to stop him, at least for a little while.”

    So it is with the gun-control issue. When ‘pro-gunners’ pretend to think their opponents are talking about “gun control stopping ALL gun murders”, they’re not trying to advance the conversation or even offer an honest point– they’re trying to change the subject. Don’t get all bogged down in “I wasn’t saying it would stop all murders”– you’ll be falling into their trap. They never thought you WERE saying that, and neither would anyone else. It’s a red herring! (Probably one that originated with some NRA “communications expert”.)

    Last week a letter to a newspaper here said that assault weapons account for only 5 percent of the 10,000 gun suicides and murders each year in the U.S., and therefore a ban on them “would do nothing to prevent future violence”. Really? The writer thinks 500 lives a year is “nothing”? No, he doesn’t. But his “would do nothing” line is not intended to be evaluated in a logical way. Nor is the suggestion that gun-control advocates are expecting to stop “ALL gun murders”. Whether consciously or not, it has but one purpose: to make people shut up.

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