Remembering Sandy Hook: Guns actually DO kill people
December 13, 2014
I can’t believe it’s been two years since the tragedy at Sandy Hook. I avoid imagining the horror of that day and I know with certainty that I can’t understand what it must feel like for the survivors today and every day since the senseless taking of so many lives. What I also can’t understand is that the insanity that enabled that horrific event to unfold remains unchecked. Our federal government has demonstrated its pusillanimous, limitless genuflection to the gun lobby that is so aptly embodied by the NRA.
It remains a testimony to the power of the almighty dollar that while the vast majority of Americans unambiguously support some limits on firearms, their elected representatives ignore those wishes because the financial voices of their constituents pale in comparison to the gun industry supported voice of the NRA.
To be certain, the Supreme Court has ruled that money is free speech and cannot therefore be restricted. Based on that perverse and perplexing edict, the reality is that the NRA’s voice is much more audible than the masses. I struggle to accept that philosophy is really the fabric from which the rich tapestry that is America was created. However, I know I am completely etiolated as it pertains to my ability to affect change as it relates to influencing money-driven politicians. And, to be sure, the political benefactors of such immense fiscal largess know no partisan boundaries.
Regardless of the cold reality of the situation, I cannot resist tilting at one windmill that echoes in the vernacular of the gun zealots – “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This is such a fallacious statement that it begs debunking.
The point the hackneyed slogan is trying to make is that a gun by itself will not spontaneously discharge and kill a person and that a gun is simply the vehicle by which a person kills another person. The implication is that if a gun were not available, people would still find a way to kill each other. Certainly humans tend to be a barbaric species and we’ve had no problem finding ways to kill each other before gunpowder was invented. However, the reality is that because guns make it easier to kill someone, people kill more often and with greater efficiency when they have access to a firearm.
Do guns make it more likely that one human will kill another human? Yes they do, and the basis for that reality is reflected in what is known as the “trolley dilemma” or the “trolley problem.”
The trolley problem was first described in 1967 by Philippa Foot and since that time other variants of the thought experiment have been elucidated. The trolley problem is described by two scenarios, both of which require one person to decide if it is acceptable to kill one person if it saves a group of people. In the first scenario, a trolley is moving toward a group of five people on the track. However, the track has a branch on which there is one person. The observer is standing a distance away and controls a switch that can divert the trolley down the branch thereby killing the one person standing on it but sparing the five. The question is what would you do if you controlled the switch – kill one person to save five?
In the second scenario, a trolley is heading down a track on which five people are standing, but this time there is no switch to divert the trolley. Instead, there is a footbridge over the track and the observer is standing next to another person. If the observer pushes the person from the bridge onto the track the person will be killed but the trolley will stop and therefore the five people on the track will be spared. The question is if you would push one person off the bridge to save five.
In 2007, Cushman et al. surveyed 5000 people and found that in the first scenario, the majority of people (89%) responded that they would throw the switch. In the second scenario, only 11% say they would push the person off the bridge. By a margin of eight to one people were more likely to kill one person if it was done via a mechanical device at a distance.
It’s difficult not to extend these observations to firearms and infer that the same tendency may be operative. Namely, guns are the switch that makes it easier to take a life. So yes dear NRA, guns do kill people.
 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/558/08-205/
 “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect” (1967), Oxford Review, No. 5. Included in Foot, 1977/2002 Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. http://philpapers.org/archive/FOOTPO-2.pdf
 “A Dissociation Between Moral Judgments and Justifications” Cushman et al. (2007) http://cushmanlab.fas.harvard.edu/docs/hauser&etal_2007.pdf