AS253: Eli vs Travis on Gun Control

Everyone’s favorite Christian movie critic and Atheistically Speaking master debater, Eli Bosnick, is back at it defending a strong anti-gun position against listener Travis. Atheists actually tend to be quite split on this issue, as made clear by the comments I get on both sides. So, I’m very happy to be hosting a dialogue between two atheists of different sides of the gun debate!

Before the debate starts though, I talk about a very recent news story right from my neighborhood of Sacramento. Violence broke out in the Capitol over when a small white supremacist group who had a permit to hold a rally were counter protested by an anti-fascist group. Several people were stabbed. Who is to blame? I give my take on it in the first 15 minutes before the debate.

17 thoughts on “AS253: Eli vs Travis on Gun Control”

  1. Nope. You’re not wrong. The “leftists” were wrong to harass a group—any group—who had applied for and gotten a legal permit to demonstrate. You might strongly disagree with someone, but if they play by the rules, they are as entitled to free speech as anyone. And if you physically attack someone with rocks and sticks, don’t be surprised if they defend themselves. Those who were stoning and beating anyone, for any reason, should be doing some jail time.

  2. @Dan he wasn’t arguing. Thomas (kind of rhetorically) asked if he was wrong during the episode. Uncle Ralph was just agreeing and expanding upon the opinion.

  3. Eli’s argument—total ban on firearms except for police and military—has two enormous, probably insurmountable problems.

    One is that the unabridged right to keep and bear arms is baked into the Constitution. If you think the ERA Amendment was impossible to pass, you haven’t seen anything. I cannot begin to imagine a scenario where three quarters of the states would support repealing the Second Amendment. That sounds like a thirty or forty year-long process with a two or three percent chance of success.

    The other problem is wresting approximately 270 million guns from the hands of 100 million or more gun owners. Very, very unlikely. (Did you know there are 490,000 legally owned machine guns in the US?)

    I much prefer my idea (it sounds like Sam Harris may have thought of it first) of embracing the Second Amendment rather than trying to change it, but embracing the whole of it, creating a “well regulated militia” that you must belong to in order to own firearms, but that you can only belong to after rigorous training and screening, including re-qualification every couple of years. I still think this would reduce shooting deaths by something like 90% or more.

  4. That spokesperson is representative of the left’s SJW’s (social justice warriors) as opposed to SJS’s (social justice supporters) that we’ve been speaking of. The more they are unopposed by our fellow liberals the more extreme they’ll get. I’m curious how left wing media like The young Turks will report this. I suspect they will oppose it, but will tread lightly in their opposition.

  5. I appreciate that Eli referenced the increased risk of death by suicide in homes with firearms. I think it’s tremendously important to counter the false narrative, echoed by Travis, that people who are going to kill themselves or a loved one are going to find a way, regardless of whether they own a gun. The data does not reflect this.

    Guns are involved in over half of all completed suicides and over half of homicides related to intimate partner violence in the US.

    Men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women, despite the fact that women are three times more likely to attempt suicide, because men are more likely to use highly lethal means (i.e., guns).

    While previous suicide attempts are a risk factor for death by suicide, the overwhelming majority of individuals who attempt suicide once will not make a second attempt, especially if those individuals are connected with mental health services.

    Ultimately, guns turn temporary crisis situations (e.g., suicide attempts, intimate partner violence, drunken arguments, etc.) into lethal incidents.

    While I generally agree with Eli, he made a statement I’d like to challenge. He conceded that mass shootings are rare, which I’m not sure is a true statement. I believe the point he was making is that we overestimate the risk of dying in a public mass shooting event, which is likely valid, but in terms of gun violence involving multiple victims, these events are not as rare as we tend to think.

    As I type, “Mass Shooting Tracker” reports a mass shooting incident occurred today in Woodburn Oregon (3 dead, 1 injured) and that 6 mass shooting incidents occurred yesterday across the nation. While the media tends to report more sensational events, this year, there have been 208 mass shooting incidents so far, which is worth noting, given that it’s still June.

    There have been 1,243 mass shooting incidents since January 1st, 2013.

    Additionally, I thought Eli made a great point about the need to address social and economic issues alongside establishing gun control. I’ve heard the argument that hunting subsidizes income for many families who would otherwise be unable to afford food. Similarly, I’ve heard the argument that opposing gun ownership is a privileged position held by those whose neighborhood police departments arrive when called and are unlikely to inadvertently shoot a family member while responding.

    It was helpful for me to see these not as arguments for gun ownership so much as arguments for gun ownership in the context of unaddressed social inequity. While it’s easy to overlook these concerns, particularly given that gun control will likely address some aspects of them (e.g., gun violence in low SES neighborhoods), it’s worth noting that more comprehensive solutions are necessary, and that opposition to gun control is not necessary an argument for gun ownership so much as an argument for gun ownership in our current society.

    1. Accidents bother me a lot and they are a good illustration of how firearms are in a different class than other weapons. Four year-olds don’t accidentally kill themselves or their siblings with baseball bats or even kitchen knives. And it’s not just the four year-olds. I’ve had two teenage acquaintances shot, one seriously wounded, the other killed, while fooling around with “unloaded” guns (they’re always “unloaded, just read the police reports). Yes, maybe if you’re planning to kill yourself or someone else and don’t have a gun you’ll figure some other way, but if you’re not planning anything, having a gun within reach affords you a unique opportunity to turn an idle afternoon into a permanent tragedy.

      1. That’s a good point. I’m sorry to hear about your friends.

        I remember reading that incidents of people being either killed or injured by toddlers who’ve gotten hold of a gun occur, on average, about once a week.

  6. I think the almost more interesting discussion to have is what is acceptable for a government to do to reduce risk for an individual. Is there a certain degree where its worth the loss of freedoms when it comes to any subject? For instance, if it were shown that a government could reduce child by a significant number by requiring licenses for procreation should that be done?

    There does seem to be a level of inconvenience people are not willing to deal with in order to reduce risk to individuals. Automotive accidents and deaths are almost insanely high but we haven’t taken many steps to improve the licensing process. It was almost a joke how easy it was for me to get my license and they allow pretty much any adult to teach teenagers how to drive.

    I wonder when we get to the point where we have self-driving cars that are orders of magnitude safer than human drivers, will we have similar levels of push back if they make driving manually pretty much banned?

    Travis brought up an interesting point in whether risk to oneself should be a factor in the gun control debates or whether it should just come down to how it effects other human beings. I myself feel torn between wanting personal freedoms and wanting a safer society all the time. I think the gun debate is just part of this larger issue.

    1. I know that your comment seems to focus more on the philosophical underpinnings as to whether the government should have certain powers to limit the rights of the individual, but as far as the empirical discussion is concerned, it does.

      For instance, the government does remove children from homes that are deemed unsafe, effectively removing parental rights if it is determined a child is likely to be harmed or neglected.

      As you rightly note, a certain percentage of people are all but guaranteed to be injured or die as a result of many activities we readily accept as being societally worth it. We could impose speed limits of 10 miles per hour on all major highways, which would certainly reduce traffic deaths, but we accept that the convenience we gain from being able to drive at higher speeds is worth a certain number of traffic deaths.

      As a side-note, I think it’s worth noting that operating a motor-vehicle is highly regulated beyond the driver’s test (e.g., you have to drive on roads, adhere to traffic laws, be sober-ish, your car has to pass state inspection, you can’t transport certain amounts of combustible materials, your windshield can’t be damaged, your view can’t be obstructed, you can’t use your cellphone in many states, you have to pass an eye-test, you can’t drive if you experience certain medical conditions such as seizures, you can’t build your own car unless it adheres to certain requirements, you can’t add certain lights to your car, etc.) and moreover, the companies that produce cars do not have the absurd access to immunity from prosecution that firearms manufacturers enjoy.

      I definitely think human operated vehicles will become outlawed once self-driving cars exceed a certain expectation for safety and affordability.

      I agree that there’s a worthwhile philosophical debate to be had about the extent to which laws can limit individual action in the name of public safety. However, I think it’s of paramount importance not to lose sight of the details as we discuss specific issues. As Eli noted, the Dickey amendment bans the CDC from studying the public health impact of gun violence. I don’t think we can infer useful policy without adequately measuring the scope and effect of gun violence.

      Finally, as to whether “danger to self” should be included in the discussion, I guess I wonder whether we can infer a reasonable standard of informed consent that comes along with purchasing a gun. As we heard during this debate, Travis seemed unaware of the specific amount to which gun ownership increases his risk of dying by suicide. Moreover, even after hearing the numbers, I’m not sure I would have a realistic sense of what it means to be 3-5 times more likely to die by suicide if I bought a gun. Additionally, there’s a remarkably low literacy rate regarding mental health in this country, and it’s not at all unreasonable to think that someone who is unaware of symptoms and warning signs for suicide might miss them, assuming they were present at all. I’m not saying that the risk of dying by suicide should disqualify someone from gun-ownership, just that even this aspect of the debate is complicated both as it relates to an individual’s relationship with society (e.g., people can be committed to inpatient treatment against their will if deemed to pose an immediate danger to themselves, people can be arrested for facilitating the suicidal actions of someone else, etc.) and an individual’s relation to their future self (e.g., can a reasonable person anticipate the consequences of a particular decision?).

      1. When it comes to the similarities between child raising and motor vehicles when it comes to the gun control debate my point more had to do with the preemptive things a government can do.

        For instance, with children, all the child abuse laws come about after the fact and there really aren’t many requirements beforehand to keep children safe. Like in your example with children being taken from their parents, they aren’t kept from being born in the first place by say licensing or one might call background checks.

        When it comes to vehicles yes there are many other regulations like speeding laws, but it’s not like there isn’t any laws when it comes to guns. For instance, shooting a person outside of self defense has harsh penalties, which is akin to a speeding ticket when it comes to driving.

        My point is that all of these examples barely focus on preemptive risk reduction. Cars, children and guns are freely available and really the regulations only come in after a person breaks a law, when they abuse cars, children or guns. What many people want nowadays for gun control is akin to the preemptive intervention I mentioned in my first comment when I talked about licensing reproductive rights. I’m mostly just curious if the people wanting the preemptive gun control would be willing to have it in other parts of their lives if it reduced risk.

        I am actually in favor of more strict licensing of guns in a way that makes sure they only fall into responsible hands, but I’m also trying to be consistent in my beliefs and make sure I look at risks as a whole and not treat guns as a more special case than they actually are. This may require being for more authoritarian policies in the future.

        1. I see the distinction you’re making more clearly now.

          I do feel a need to disagree slightly with your conceptualization of guns as a special case though.

          I agree that it’s not widely accepted for the government to order sterilization in an effort to prevent future births, though, I believe it has been done in legally ambiguous circumstances (e.g., 148 women in California prisons in 2010, as part of plea deals “encouraged” by courts, and in proposed legislation by Louisiana Republicans hoping to combat poverty, etc.). There are also private companies that offer sterilization services to people with substance use disorder in exchange for cash, and medical professionals are granted the right to perform sterilization services on people with intellectual disabilities, when requested by a care-giver, with court approval.

          I take your point that gun use is regulated in much the same way car use is regulated, but I’m not sure I understand your assertion that there is a distinction to be made between regulation and risk reduction. Seat-belt laws are only enforced via fines, but are a limitation designed to reduce risk and they aren’t selectively applied to individuals who have engaged in risky behaviors.

          I apologize if I’m misreading you, but it sounds like your argument is that proposed gun-control legislation would be unique in that it limits access to guns.

          In that case, there are lots of things we limit access to, either in certain quantities or completely (e.g., heroin, prescription medication, little candies with plastic toys inside, unpasteurized milk, asbestos, fissionable material, certain kinds of pornography, sex toys in some states, Four Loko, cars that don’t meet safety and emission standards, etc.). I agree with your point that some of these are ridiculous (i.e., sex toys) and some could be handled better (i.e., heroin).

          I think I understand your urge to be consistent, but I also think it’s important not to let the urge to be consistent on principle force us to ignore idiosyncratic needs. It’s usually wrong to stab people, but not if you’re a surgeon. The context is important, and guns may very well be a special case.

          1. You make some very good points and I’ll re-think some things.

            On regulation vs risk all I really meant was to question whether we could focus more on more strict licensing and training, in other words focus more on making responsible people who will not be likely to commit crimes in the first rather than focus on deterants, and see if that would have the same result as an outright ban.

            First instance, how they have different levels of licenses for different vehicles that require different levels of training. I wonder if that would be possible with guns as well. Maybe it would make no difference, we don’t really have statistics on it and its only done at a surface level with vehicals, but it would be an interesting thing to try before a ban.

            What makes me bring up this point is that I grew up in a family that most would call overly infatuated with guns, but my father had me go through much training with handling guns and to this day even with some toy guns that look real I’ll instinctively point away from any people in the room. There’s a part of me that thinks we should at least try to come up with a compromise that allows responsible people like my father to still own guns. If for instance we could come with a certification process. This also would seem to help with the practical issues with removing the millions of guns in this country that aren’t used for violence.

  7. I’ve got mixed feelings about the violence at the rally mentioned in this episode.

    Last year, I was listening to an interview with an English author who wrote about living in the Middle East and having her assumptions challenged, including those about nonviolent resistance. In many ways, nonviolent resistance is presented as morally superior by those who have attained power and maintain their position by using violence. Moreover, they whitewash stories of resistance and social change, presenting revolutionaries as moral archetypes, and highlighting the aspects of their movement that reinforce established power structures (e.g., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is celebrated by conservatives as a “peace maker” and “a man of deep faith” rather than an advocate for progressive values; Helen Keller is an “inspirational child” who proves an individual can triumph against any odds rather than a radical socialist who strove to provide support to disenfranchised individuals; Gandhi’s compassion and strength single-handedly earned a nation its freedom; etc.).

    Similarly to the discussion on trigger warnings and campus safe-spaces, I think there are reasons to pause, as individuals whose existence and safety is not so overtly threatened by white nationalist movements, before we denounce others’ reaction, based on our principles (i.e., violence is bad, silencing speech is bad, the rally was authorized by city hall, etc.).

    It’s true that, in this instance, the anti-fascists outnumbered the fascists, but focussing on those numbers without taking into context the power-structures and threat represented by white nationalist movements seems to omit relevant information. As you mentioned in the episode, there’s a cultural consensus that the nazis were wrong and neo-nazis are a sad bunch of pathetic people who latch on to something that feels powerful. I think it’s a mistake to believe that they are, as such, irrelevant. There are themes and echos of their beliefs in mainstream culture and political ideologies. I don’t expect someone reasonable to stumble upon the neo-nazi rally and say “oh, hey, maybe I should get involved in some hate-crimes,” but it’s not so ridiculous to think an otherwise reasonable person might walk away thinking “those guys are nut-jobs, but something does need to be done about all these immigrants.”

    I think you raised a compelling point, in the episode, when you noted that the anti-fascists were acting as we would expect fascists to act (i.e., using violence to silence protestors). From a distance, with the privilege of not having my identity as an American questioned by the political leader of a major party, it’s easy to denounce violent actors and suggest we let bad ideas speak for themselves. At the same time, I think it’s problematic to step back from incidents like this and make blanket claims that our side should be better than their side, specifically because it hinders our ability to rely on their side’s use of violence as evidence of their “wrongness” in our debates.

    All that said, I also agree that it’s important for our values to inform our actions, and as a progressive liberal, I don’t think it’s in accordance with my values to hit people with sticks because they want to hang out in public and say asinine/dangerous things. More selfishly, I don’t want to live in a society that tolerates violent responses to protests, because I participate in protests and don’t want to be hit with rocks for voicing my opposition to public policy. I don’t know that I endorse the sort of “all or nothing” argument that freedom of speech means nothing if we fail to protect all speech, but again, I understand the practical necessity of avoiding establishing a precedent that today’s unfavorable opinions can’t be voiced, given that my opinions might be considered unfavorable tomorrow. And, if possible, I’d rather live in a society where people aren’t dissuaded from a particular political viewpoint solely because they might be assaulted for espousing it (acknowledging that I am often less harmed than others by the consequences of that preference). Additionally, while I somewhat object to the philosophy of political action as harm reduction and contingency management, I accept that there’s an argument to be made that a larger audience of fascist-sympathizers/republican voters may be emboldened by this violence.

    Overall, I guess I’m having trouble connecting to the sense of shock and outrage you seem to be expressing in the episode.

  8. I want to highlight something I think was overlooked in in the discussion on the risk of suicide being elevated by gun ownership.

    Eli noted that “keeping a firearm in the home increases the risk of suicide by a factor of 3 to 5 and increases the risk of suicide with a firearm by a factor of 17”, and Travis appeared to more or less accept this, with his argument being that, as Eli put it, “if people want to kill themselves with guns, they have a right [to do so]”. Travis stated, numerous times, that the fact that owning a gun increases your risk of committing suicide should not be an argument in favour of restricting gun ownership, since it is the individual’s choice to commit suicide – and he drew an analogy with smoking cigarettes to illustrate his point.

    Here’s my problem with Travis’ argument. The research that Eli pointed to – from the page cited by Eli, I found the Kellermann study ( and the Weibe study ( do support these numbers (Kellermann finds a five-fold increase in risk; Weibe a little over three).

    What the research does not, so far as I can see, address is ownership of the gun. The conclusion of the Kellermann study explicitly states “[r]eady availability of firearms is associated with an increased risk of suicide in the home”; Weibe concludes that “[h]aving a gun at home is a risk factor for adults to … commit suicide with a firearm”; and even the quoted statistic refers to the risk associated with “keeping a firearm in the home”. In no case is ownership referred to or addressed! Nowhere in the full articles could I find any consideration as to who owned the gun that was used – all that they considered was whether or not guns were kept in the home.

    Therefore, unless there are more detailed studies out there, it is not reasonable to argue that buying a gun only increases the purchaser’s risk of suicide – all we can conclude from this data is that having a gun in the house increases the risk that someone in the house may commit suicide, whether that gun belongs to the victim, their father, sister, babysitter or whoever. My decision to purchase a gun would result in an increased risk that my wife or child would commit suicide, in addition to increasing my own risk. Now, it’s possible this isn’t true – maybe it is only the purchaser who is at increased risk; equally, though, perhaps the purchaser is NOT at increased risk and the numbers are dominated by people committing suicide with their dad’s gun. To me, neither of those scenarios are particularly plausible, but the data available from those studies is equally consistent with both (as well as the more neutral “everyone in the house is at greater risk”).

    Based on that, I think arguments to the effect that the purchaser can make an informed decision to accept the increased risk of suicide (perhaps a warning label like cigarettes, as Travis suggested), and that this risk should therefore not be considered when talking about gun control, falls flat on its face because the increase in risk does not apply only to the purchaser – it applies to everyone with whom they live.

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