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preemptive straw man

A preemptive straw man is a straw man counterargument one proposes will be made against an argument you are presenting. Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) provides an example:

... the National Rifle Association announced Friday that it wants to arm security officers at every school in the country. It pointed the finger at violent video games, the news media and lax law enforcement — not guns — as culprits in the recent rash of mass shootings.

Mr. LaPierre said his organization would finance and develop a program called the National Model School Shield Program, to work with schools to arm and train school guards, including retired police officers and volunteers.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The above was LaPierre's argument for arming schools, presented to the media at a press conference in response to the mass murder at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He didn't mention that more than 23,000 schools — about one-third of all public schools — already have armed security on staff. Here is his preemptive straw man argument:

“Now I can imagine the headlines — the shocking headlines you’ll print tomorrow,” he told more than 150 journalists at a downtown hotel several blocks from the White House. “More guns, you’ll claim, are the N.R.A.’s answer to everything,” he said. “Your implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less in our schools. But since when did the gun automatically become a bad word?”

Actually, the media didn't say guns are evil and have no place in society. Many in the media did say that certain kinds of guns--assault weapons, for example--have no place in the home, though I don't think anybody wants such weapons taken away from the military or those in law enforcement.

Nor did the media say that guns are the NRA's answer to everything. Given our history, it would be pointless to argue that guns have no place in our society and nobody, except a few pacifists I suppose, would say so. But the media did come down hard on the NRA's proposal to place armed guards in every school. The accounts that I read all came back to the same point: those making this proposal have not asked what could go wrong with this plan? The plan suffers from the optimistic bias.

The New York Times, for example, responded to LaPierre's proposal with the suggestion that an armed guard in place would just mean one more dead person:

Mr. LaPierre said the Newtown killing spree “might” have been averted if the killer had been confronted by an armed security guard. It’s far more likely that there would have been a dead armed security guard — just as there would have been even more carnage if civilians had started firing weapons in the Aurora movie theater.

The reference to the Aurora movie theater is to another single gunman committing mass murder.

Others in the mass media brought up various scenarios where things might go wrong by having an armed guard in a school. The Times also noted that there was an armed off-duty sheriff's deputy on the premises of Columbine High School in 1999 when two teens laid siege against their classmates and teachers, killing 13 and injuring many more. The deputy fired at one of the two killers while 11 of their 13 victims were still alive. He missed four times.

Anyway, nobody in the media, as far as I know, responded as LaPierre predicted. Many, however, did respond to his claim that mass murderers are somehow led to their evil deeds by the media and lax law enforcement. Blaming violent video games got some support and some opposition.

new update: 1/1/2013

I've been reading editorials and news stories about guns and gun control since I first posted this entry on Christmas eve 2012. I still haven't found anybody who has argued the way LaPierre predicted the media would react to the NRA's proposal to arm school personnel as a safety measure. Today, syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson came pretty darn close to hitting LaPierre's straw man target in the eye.

Robinson doesn't come right out and say guns are evil and have no place in society, but he comes pretty darn close. He begins his piece "Stop the Gun Madness" with some statistics from 2010. Most of the 31,076 Americans killed by guns that year were suicides, but 11,078 were homicides. Just in case you don't have an anchor for that number Robinson gives you one: "That’s almost twice the number of Americans who have been killed in a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq." I suppose that should scare us. If not, he moves on to compare the U.S. murder rate with that of Great Britain, which had 58 homicides in 2010. Why such a low number compared to the U.S.? According to Robinson, it's because Britain bans most handguns and limits gun ownership to those who can show a good reason for owning a gun. Self-defense or defending children against potential madmen is not a good reason in Britain. Robinson implies that Britain restricts gun ownership to shotguns, hunting rifles, and some target pistols. No semi-automatic weapons, no assault weapons, and, I presume, no hand-held missile launchers or privately owned nuclear weapons are allowed.

Now comes the penultimate coup de grâce. Privately owned guns make the gun owner "more vulnerable." Robinson cites a twenty-year-old study to prove his point that guns “actually pose a substantial threat to members of the household.” People who keep guns in their home are more likely to be killed by those guns than they are to save themselves from an intruder.

For the proverbial nail in the coffin or ultimate coup de grâce, Robinson offers this:

Hence the unbelievable response by NRA chief Wayne LaPierre to the Newtown killings. The solution isn’t to take assault weapons out of the hands of madmen, LaPierre argued, it’s to put armed guards in the schools so there can be a great big gunfight when the homicidal madmen show up. Never mind that armed officers at Columbine tried, and failed, to stop that massacre. Just be paranoid. Fight guns with more guns. This must be the year when America says: No more.

Got it? Now, to be fair, Robinson doesn't come right out and say let's ban all guns from private ownership. He limits his support to banning assault weapons and weapons with large-capacity magazines.

Politicians, beginning with the president, must show the courage to stand up to the gun lobby. They must do it for the children of Newtown. They must do it for all the 11,000 men, women and children who otherwise will not live to see New Year’s Day 2014.

Notice the last sentence. Now, I haven't looked at the data, but I'd be willing to bet the house that not all 11,000 people in 2010 who were homicide victims of a gunslinger were killed by an assault weapon or a "sporting rifle" with a large-capacity magazine. Is Robinson suggesting we should limit gun ownership the way Britain does? Is he suggesting guns are evil and we should ban guns altogether? I guess you can ask him. His email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com. [/new]

See also hidden persuaders.

Last updated 01-Jan-2013

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