Unpacking Twitter arguments, both coherent and incoherent

Following ratification of the United States Constitution (Constitution) on September 17, 1787, debate ensued over whether it sufficiently safeguarded individual liberties. James Madison, then a United States House of Representatives (House) member, responded by drafting a set of Amendments, which he presented to the House as directed in Article V. Seventeen Amendments won the necessary two-thirds vote in the House, of which 12 then won the necessary two-thirds vote in the United States Senate (Senate). These 12 Amendments were sent to state legislatures for approval on September 25, 1789. Two Amendments, one relating to the number and apportionment of House Members and one limiting the ability of Members of Congress to increase their own salaries, did not get the required three-fourths vote (a majority vote in 11 of what were then 14 state legislatures); the latter was ratified as Amendment XXVII on May 5, 1992.

On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the remaining 10 Amendments, codifying what we now know as the Bill of Rights. These Amendments are striking in their directness and simplicity; Amendment I, for example, guarantees freedom of religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly and petitioning the government for “redress of grievances” to all American citizens with just 45 words.

Well…within reason. The jury is still out (pun intended) on to what extent religious belief permits discrimination. It is illegal to yell “fire” (falsely) in a crowded public place. Libel and slander laws prevent newspapers from printing demonstrable falsehoods. Peaceable assemblies can be prevented or halted on public safety grounds. And so forth.

The most inalienable rights can be restrained in practice because a free society needs to balance individual liberties with the greater societal good. Rights bump up against each other: one’s religion may teach that homosexuality is a sin, but does that sanction denying a wedding license to two men or two women, if that is your job? Here freedom of religion (Amendment I) appears to conflict with “equal protection of the laws” (Amendment XIV, Section 1).

I chose the words “appears to conflict” because while I may wear many hats (political scientist, biostatistician, epidemiologist, film noir researcher, Phillies-phile) I am NOT a Constitutional scholar, although I do love my “pocket Constitution.”

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Having laid that predicate, though, I turn now to Amendment II: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I have no desire to re-litigate 226 years of interpretation of those 27 words, other than to question the purpose of the first and third commas (the Amendment makes much more sense without them). “Well regulated” should be hyphenated, and I would not have capitalized “State” and “Arms”…but I digress.

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I joined Twitter (please follow me at @drnoir33) in July 2017, primarily to have another venue in which to promote this blog; my first tweet (July 10, 2017) linked to this post.

As of 12:37 am EST, October 12, 2017, I have tweeted an additional 836 times, averaging 8.9 tweets per day. I have also issued 1,940 “Likes,” averaging 20 per day. Most of those tweets were expressions of my personal political views, which I have tried to avoid in this blog (with a notable exception).

Just bear with me, however, while I break my “no personal political views” rule. My goal is not to espouse a particular position, although that is a semi-unintended consequence of this discussion. Rather, I want to analyze a series of counter-arguments presented, with wildly varying degrees of coherence, to a position I took on Twitter.

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I read this column on philly.com the day after the horrific Las Vegas shooting.

Will Bunch’s cri de coeur strongly resonated with me. It, along with the ongoing inability of elected officials to prevent mass shootings (as well as chronic gun violence, a separate issue) and our increasing inability as a nation to converse rationally about guns, drew me to a radical conclusion.

At 12:32 am on October 2, 2017, I linked to Will Bunch’s column and tweeted:

It is time to repeal the 2nd Amendment. Period. Enough is enough.

My argument is that Amendment II is an anachronism (“well regulated Militias?”[1]) that prevents a long-overdue conversation about the proper place of guns (and other “arms”) in 21st century American society and how best to balance private ownership rights with the public good. Even advocates for gun control seem stymied by the absolutism of (one interpretation of) Amendment II. “But the 2nd Amendment establishes a right to own guns!” they cry in frustration and despair.

In addition, I do not understand a how a “free State” can codify the ownership of guns (whose sole purpose is to injure and kill) but still consider such requirements of the “general Welfare” (specified in the Preamble) as food, shelter and healthcare to be a privilege[2].

I do not call for Amendment II repeal frivolously. Since Bill of Rights ratification, only 17 (out of an estimated 11,669 proposed, or 0.23%) Amendments have successfully met the requirements of Article V, and none in the last 25 years. That is one new Amendment every 7.5 years.

And I gladly entertain coherent counter-arguments; I am too steeped in the epistemology of epidemiology not to consider alternative viewpoints.

That original Tweet (my own cri de coeur) has still received no “Likes” or replies, nor has it been retweeted (not atypical for my tweets). And so I tweeted some version of it 42 more times (not counting tweets I wrote defending my position) over the next 10 days.

During those 10 days I was called “Demseftist,” “slimy,” “retarded,” “communist,” “snowflake,”[3] “stupid,” “dangerous,”[4] “liberal,”[5] “nitwit,” “ignorant,” and “irredeemable.” I was told to leave the country (twice—the second time North Korea was helpfully offered as my new home). I was directed to “go eat [my] lollipop in a corner.” I was accused of “idiocy” and “whining,” for the “nonsense” I wrote. There is this gem: “Have the government clap your hands for you if you’re a statist and you know it.” And: “It doesn’t matter what you think. I’ll continue to keep my guns and buy as many as I want.”

But the single best response, referring to how difficult the repeal process would be, was: “I’m planning on flying a unicorn to mars also.”

To which I responded, “Have a nice trip. Dress warmly.”

I have not yet had a response to that.

There were strong words of support as well, but the vast majority of written responses were in opposition.

Here then, in chronological order, are the counter-arguments to my Twitter call for Amendment II repeal, along with my counter-counter-arguments. I am deliberately not sourcing or dating these responses to avoid accusations that I am simply mocking responders, although every cited thread is may be read on Twitter[6].

Argument 1: I am trampling on the Constitution.

Article V details how to amend the Constitution. Amendment XXI (1933) actually repealed Amendment XVIII (1918; prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”). Ergo, repealing an Amendment is Constitutional.

Argument 2: “The Bill of Rights is not a cafeteria…each amendment depends on the others.”

I had to research this. I summarized what I learned in the opening paragraph. Bloc ratification of the Bill of Rights was an accident of history; repealing one of the first 10 Amendments does not repeal them all.

It does, however, lead to the single best argument against my position: the slippery-slope gravity of repealing any “rights” Amendment, including (by my count) Amendments XIII (abolishing slavery), XIV (Section 1: due process/equal protection), XV (universal male suffrage), XIX (female suffrage), XXIII (District of Columbia suffrage), XXIV (abolishing poll taxes), XXVI (18-year-old suffrage).

Argument 3: “You people slimy repeal then what what’s next? Constitution was written for reason this is it.”

I have no idea what this means, or what the tweet’s author thinks the reason for writing the Constitution was.

Argument 4: “So you feel only the government should have guns, like in China and Venezuela, two countries with skyrocketing murder rates by people ‘n gov.”

Let me deal here with every variation of the “you only think the government should have guns” theme.

No, I do not think only the government should have guns. I broadly support gun ownership, but within a very strict regulatory framework that balances ownership rights with public safety, analogous to the regulatory framework which dramatically lowered the vehicular death rate.

And while the 2009 homicide rate (homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) was appallingly high in Venezuela (49/100,000, nearly 10 times the United States’ 5/100,000), it was only 1.2/100,000 in China. Even if the rate in China has increased four-fold since then, it would still be lower than that in the United States in 2009.

This is also an invalid comparison. China and Venezuela have authoritarian repressive governments lacking centuries of democratic experience. A better comparison would be democracies like Australia, which instituted gun buyback programs in 1996 and 2003, and whose 2009 homicide rate was 1.3/100,000 (down from 2.1/100,000 in 1989). The rates in comparable democracies were similarly low (and lower than that of the United States): Belgium (1.82), Canada (2.05), Denmark (1.01), Finland (2.5), France (1.31), Germany (1.86), Greece (0.85), Iceland (0), Israel (2.1), Italy (1.1), Japan (1.02), Liechtenstein (2.8), Luxembourg (1.45), Netherlands (0.93), New Zealand (1.3), Norway (0.6), Portugal (1.17), Scotland (1.79), South Korea (2.3), Spain (0.9), Sweden (0.89) and Switzerland (0.71); Northern Ireland (4.72) is an exception, though still slightly lower than the United States. 

Argument 5: We need arms to protect us from an oppressive government.

When the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified, the newly-formed United States of America had just defeated Great Britain (in part over lack of representation in policy making) and was trying to move from a collection of colonies through a loose confederation of autonomous states to a full-fledged democratic nation. Precedents were few. The French Revolution was taking place. Governments had mostly been despotic and authoritarian. So, in the context of late 18th century geopolitics, this makes some sense.

It is also true, however, that in the 226 years since the ratification of the Bill of Rights the United States has never come close to having an authoritarian government systematically and violently oppressing its inhabitants. Even the Civil War, whatever its long-term causes, was triggered when troops from the secessionist Confederate States of America fired on Fort Sumter (in the Charleston, SC harbor) on April 12, 1861.

Now, there have been times when the American government oppressed its citizens (or gave state and local government oppression a wink and a nod): the internment of the Nisei (American citizens of Japanese descent) during World War II, the movement of Native Americans onto reservations and the Jim Crow era (72.6% of the 4,742 lynchings between 1882 and 1968 had a Black victim; for more see here).

I have yet to hear an Amendment II advocate argue the Nisei would not have been interred had they been better armed, that we should have provided equal firepower to the Native American tribes[7], or that Black citizens should have defended themselves through armed insurrection.

Frankly—and deliberately setting aside my objective, data-driven voice—I find the notion that Amendment II saves us from a government that might, maybe, some day (you just never know!) turn authoritarian and oppress its citizens redolent of an almost pathological paranoia. And that is terrifying, because you cannot reason with paranoia.

Argument 6: “Guns kill like forks make people fat. If not guns, it will be a uhaul into a crowd of 20k people.”

From the terrifying to the absurd we go.

This tweet’s author essentially makes two arguments.

One, the object used in an action is distinct from the action itself.

This is nonsense. Guns were designed to kill, full stop. And there are two ways to gain weight (outside of serious illness or genetic predisposition): increased calorie consumption and decreased calorie burning. Increased calorie consumption occurs through eating. Eating often requires using a fork. Ergo, forks can make you heavier, albeit indirectly.

There is no “indirectly” with guns.

Aim. Pull trigger. Fire.

Two, there is no point trying to prevent gun violence because criminals and terrorists will just find other ways to hurt us.

This may be the most dispiriting thing I have read recently…and that is saying something in an era of Category 5+ hurricanes, out-of-control California wildfires, Mexican earthquakes, and Twitter wars between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

Imagine a prison warden, knowing a prisoner was a suicide risk, saying, “There is no point taking away the prisoner’s belt and shoe laces; (s)he will just find some other way to kill her/himself.”

Any preventive action is worth at least trying.

Argument 7: Equating gun ownership with freedom (or safety).

This is a variation of Argument 5, so I will simply repeat what I wrote on October 4: “I am an American. I do not own guns. I do not want to take guns from collectors. BUT: ‘gun ownership’ and ‘freedom’ are not the same thing.”

Call me…something…but I argue that if you were truly free, you would not feel the need for guns to protect you. And while it may be true that the Amendment II right to bear arms implies a kind of freedom, you can still be free (under all other “rights” Amendments) without it.

Argument 8. It is unrealistic/incredibly difficult/don’t bother trying.

 It is absurd not to attempt something because it might never come to pass. And as sobering (and oddly reassuring) as it is that any proposed Amendment has only a 1 in 435 chance of ratification, 27 Amendments have been ratified. An Amendment has been successfully repealed. It can happen.

I highly recommend Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, ironically pictured here with a tasty adult beverage. Reading it, I learned that forces aligned in favor of Amendment XVIII (and the authorizing Volstead Act) appeared to be unstoppable…until suddenly they were not.

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Argument 9. How are you are going to take away all those guns from people?!?

One version of this argument specifically singled out “from the South,” which sent chills up my Yankee spine (despite being raised about 33.5 miles northeast from the easternmost point of the Mason-Dixon Line).

Again, I am not calling for the abolition of guns (or “Arms”). My maternal grandfather served in the Philadelphia Police Department between 1935 and 1955, rising to the rank of Detective, and I would love to own his service revolver someday.[8] I also still want a Thompson sub-machine gun (AKA Tommy gun, AKA Chicago typewriter, AKA chopper); ammunition not necessary.

Moreover, in the same way repealing Roe v. Wade simply reverts the decision whether to criminalize abortion back to individual states, repealing Amendment II would leave it to Congress and/or the legislatures (more likely, perhaps, under Amendments IX and X) to pass any laws concerning gun ownership they choose. The idea that any American legislative body would outright ban civilian gun ownership (or any other commodity) is ludicrous.

It is a fascinating (illuminating?) quirk of the Constitution, though, that “arms” are the only “objects” specifically protected vis-à-vis private ownership.

Argument 10: “Guns have been protected since the dawn of this nation they have been valued very high.”

Poor syntax and lack of punctuation aside, this is the “because it has long been so, therefore it must be so” argument.

And there may be some truth to it…

…except, despite 265 million guns being in private hands in 2015 (half owned by just 3% of American adults, averaging 17 guns per owner), only 55 million American adults (22%) own even a single gun. And this was after a 70 million increase in guns owned between 1994 and 2015.

Apparently, guns are only valued enough to own by a relatively small minority of American adults.

Argument 11: Rights come from God, not the state, so repealing Amendment II would not actually change anything.

There are many responses (mostly from my days studying political theory), but I will limit myself to one.

I am a Jewish-raised Atheist, so appealing to God is not a valid argument for me.

But my favorite argument is this:

Argument 12: “BTW it’s your right too. Buy a gun, get training, go shooting, have fun, then come back.”

Thank you for the kind offer (seriously–no sarcasm intended), but no thank you (excepting my grandfather’s service revolver and a Thompson submachine gun with an empty ammunition drum).

Perhaps the best argument in favor of my call to repeal Amendment II is that, should it gain legislative momentum, it would spur responsible gun owners to disavow the absolutists in favor of broad compromises. I recognize that may be Pollyanna-ish thinking in this highly polarized age, but I also observe that the Right to Life movement has had great success chipping away at laws protecting abortion rights using a similar “start from the extreme position tactic.”

Until next time…

[1] Prompting this unnerving response: “I don’t know what world you exist in but militias do still exist. That’s the beauty of them they’re not regular army. Come and go at will.” He added, “Actually it was written so the people would have the tools 2 form a militia.”

[2] One example: “Healthcare is not a right. Ppl need to take responsibility for their own actions. Obama did wrong forcing healthcare on all”

[3] This person also advocated for repeal of Amendment XIX (women’s suffrage).

[4] I have never been called “dangerous” before, so I took that as a compliment.

[5] Yes, actually, but I prefer “practical progressive.”

[6] I also exclude a particularly offensive respondent who proudly (and with unapologetic misogyny)  proclaimed his phallic attachment to his firearms.

[7] Here is a truly baffling response: “The Native Americans couldn’t fight back because they started to disarm them. Research wounded knee creek massacre.” That is, arm the Native Americans so we cannot slaughter them?

[8] I would also love his badge, but that seems to have been lost.

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