Early this week, I wrote an article taking the Parkland kids to task for spreading a lot of bunkum, not just about guns, but about the general state of the world—which I backed up with some facts and figures, and even some charts and graphs.
In response, I got a lot of the usual hate mail, but what struck me was how the general response was summed up in this exchange.
Logic and facts: what have they ever done for us?
The hyping of the Parkland kids is one giant appeal to emotion. The approach is to go to a school where a shooting happened and carefully select a small number of kids who are reasonably articulate and willing to go along with the full gun-control agenda. Ignore the ones who don’t. Then give these kids the backing of well-funded and well-connected advocacy groups. Fly them around the country and book them on cable TV shows. Then insist that these 17-year-olds are invested with absolute moral authority, and if anyone challenges this, scream at them for being insensitive to the victims of a horrific crime and basically hating children and wanting to see them die.
This only works on two conditions. First, it works because the media cooperates. If the NRA flew pro-Second Amendment kids around and tried to book them on news shows, the media would suddenly develop professional ethics and either turn them down or grill them about being shills for the gun lobby. But the other Parkland kids are treated as concerned citizens, and no one in the media thinks they are under any obligation to note that the kids are basically being bankrolled by Michael Bloomberg.
But the second condition is more important: this works because people want it to work. It aligns with their preconceptions and resonates with their emotions. So they assume that emotional power will sweep away all opposition.
If you are on the left, you are probably now feeling outrage that I am dismissing your advocacy of gun control as mere emotionalism. If you are on the right, you are probably feeling smugly superior to those lefties who are always so invested in their “feels.”
For the benefit of both sides, let me flip the script. Let’s say that instead of invoking the Parkland kids, I were to invoke the parents of Kate Steinle.
Remember her? She was the young woman who was killed in San Francisco by a bullet fired from a gun held by an illegal immigrant. (Prosecutors were unable to prove the shooting was not an accident, which is why he got off on only a weapons charge.) Steinle’s death couldn’t be used to make the case for gun control, because she was shot with a handgun stolen from the car of a law enforcement officer, someone whose weapon would not be banned. But the shooter was an illegal immigrant from Mexico who had been previously deported multiple times, who was released onto the streets of a “sanctuary city.” So this shooting could be used to make the case against sanctuary cities and against Mexican immigrants in general. Which is precisely what Donald Trump did.
Yet the form of the argument is exactly the same in the one case as in the other. It was an emotional appeal to the idea that if only one senseless death could be prevented by taking drastic action, then we’re required to do it—and you’re a monster who doesn’t care about human life if you raise any objections.
If you want to argue that the issues behind the Steinle case are more complex—well, I would agree with you. This one tragic case needs to be placed in the context of a whole host of other considerations: factual details about other failures by law enforcement that helped make the tragedy possible; statistics about the actual levels of violent crime among immigrants; the practicality of building a wall on our southern border; the impact of draconian enforcement measures on the rights of actual US citizens; and the value that immigrants bring to this country.
I’m just itching to drop some more charts and graphs on your heads to back up all of these objections, I really am. But that’s not the point. The point is that these are exactly the same kinds of arguments the right has been making about guns after Parkland: that guns are not driving a crime wave or an epidemic of shootings, that a ban is impractical to enforce, that it would infringe the rights of otherwise respectable and law-abiding people, and that we also have to take into account the benefits of civilian ownership of firearms, such as the thousands or hundreds of thousands of times guns are used every year in self-defense.
So if you’re mad at me for being so heartless as to bring facts and figures and statistics to bear on one of these cases—well, that’s the price you have to pay if you want facts and logic to be applied when they are more emotionally agreeable to you. This is why we always have to guard against relying on a purely emotional appeal. It’s not just that it leads to a wrong conclusion in one particular case or on one particular issue. Putting emotion over reason ruins our ability to deal with every issue.
It is also not nearly as effective as it may seem. Such appeals stir the emotions among those who are primed to believe them. They work because people want them to work. But they work only on those who want them to work. While the gun-banners are busy convincing themselves they’ve now got a winning issue for a “blue wave” in November, they don’t realize that they are also mobilizing pro-Second-Amendment voters who feel a very different set of emotions when they are accused of being child-killers and are told they should be turned into criminals.
These voters have a long track record of voting steadfastly for their interests. It’s the rational thing to do.