Willful Hermeneutical Ignorance about AR-15s

by Tim Sommers

“If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” I can’t find the origin of this unfortunate slogan, but it’s been around – and oft repeated – at least since the 1970s. “To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.” That’s Wayne Lapierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, the day after the Parkland Shooting. The trouble with slogans and bad arguments like these is that it takes much less time to make them than it does to break them. The point of outlawing guns is to make it the case that outlaws and bad guys won’t have as many guns. But Sam Harris, prominent “rationalist”, denies that “restrictions would make it difficult for bad people to acquire guns illegally.”  (Compare, restrictions on bank robbery or speeding don’t make it any more difficult for people to rob banks or speed.) Sometimes, you get a more neutral argument along the same lines. “Maybe, having a lot of guns around will lead to more violence. On the other hand, maybe, having more guns around will prevent more violence than it causes. We can’t know.”

But this is not an unknown. It’s known. More guns cause more homicides. More guns cause more suicides. It’s a simple equation. More guns = more death. There are hundreds of studies (done in just about every which way), asking whether or not increasing the availability of firearms contributes to more suicides and more homicides. It does. At this point, it’s like asking whether evolution is real, whether smoking causes cancer, or whether the increase in the level of certain gases in the atmosphere is causing global temperatures to trend upward. The answers are yes, yes, yes, and yes. These are all things we do, in fact, know.

This is important. Guns are now the leading cause of death among teenagers. And children. How can people not know that more guns lead to more deaths?

Maybe, they know, but they think there’s a basic right to own a gun that overrides any amount of harm guns cause. However, despite SCOTUS’ preposterous ruling in The District of Columbia v Heller*, there is no basic right to own a gun – any more than there’s a basic right to own a microwave oven or a car. Owning a gun is not metaphysically the right kind of thing to be a basic right. And if you think gun rights follow from other rights, say a right to self-defense, then you admit that gun possession is not in and of itself a basic right. If gun possession, by hypothesis, merely supports the right to self-defense, then the availability of guns is not required as a basic right, liberty, or freedom, but instead depends on various factual claims about how guns support self-defense. Or don’t; e.g., one study showed that “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

Maybe, people don’t want to know. Congress barred funding for researching gun violence for twenty-years after a CDC funded study published in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that “Rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide.” If you work for the NRA, or depend on the NRA for campaign financing, or just really love your lightweight, gas-operated Colt R-15 semi-automatic rifle with the an add-on high-capacity magazine (the gun of choice for school shooters), then you don’t want to know about the on-going disaster of too many guns.

Is there another helpful way of describing this kind of wanting not to know? There’s a concept that philosophers have recently applied to cases involving marginalized knowers that might be useful here – willful hermeneutical ignorance.

Willful hermeneutical ignorance is a form of, what philosopher Miranda Fricker calls, “epistemic injustice.” Epistemic means relating to knowledge. The idea is that there are injustices that are distinctly aimed at us as knowers. For example, ignoring, or not taking seriously, people’s statements solely because of their gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or the like. Fricker calls this “testimonial injustice.”

It helps to compare epistemic injustice to “virtue epistemology”. The idea of virtue epistemology is that we ought to organize our understanding of knowledge around reliable and laudable intellectual virtues like curiosity, carefulness, honesty, courage, etc. But notice honesty and courage are not just intellectually important, most people would say they are morally important, even required. We can’t easily separate epistemological virtues, or injustices, into their ethical and epistemic components. Epistemic virtues are the positive place where epistemology meets morality, epistemic injustice the negative.

In any case, a second type of epistemic injustice that Fricker recognizes is “hermeneutical,” that is, interpretive epistemic injustice. It occurs “when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.” Consider, sexual harassment. There was literally no word for it before 1975, no legal context to put it into until Catharine MacKinnon started developing one in the 1980s. It wasn’t just hard to talk about sexual harassment before certain words and concepts were available. It was all easier for people to dismiss it. And may have been more difficult for women to express how they felt wronged until it was part of a widely understood interpretative framework. It’s not that woman did not understand that, and how, they were wronged by sexual harassment until it was called that. It’s more that they were, as Fricker said, “at an unfair disadvantage” until there was an accepted framework to appeal to in relating their experiences.

Philosopher Gaile Pohlaus, Jr. thinks we need to take this concept of hermeneutical epistemic injustice further. She argues that there’s an epistemic injustice which she calls willful hermeneutical ignorance, where the interpretative tools are, and have been, ready to hand for a while, but the willfully ignorant simply refuse to see them. I could understand your experience. I just don’t want to.

It’s important, I think, to treat the arguments of gun violence apologists, at this point, as epistemic injustices. First, we need to emphasize that they are not just wrong, but they are doing wrong by asserting knowable falsehoods about guns and gun availability. Secondly, it’s important so see how advocates for the wide-spread availability of guns constantly deploy their willful ignorance as a defense. They either don’t know the relevant facts that are readily available or they believe things that, even the slightest investigation of, would reveal to be straight-forwardly false. When confronted with this, they plead nonculpable ignorance. It’s also hermeneutical because they claim to only understand one kind of experience of guns: their experience of themselves, as an individual, under threat, whose gun is their only source of protection against ruthless criminals and the tyrannical government. How victims of gun violence interpret their experience of guns must always be left out. They get thoughts and prayers, but not voice. Witness the relentless attacks on the survivors of the Parkland shootings for taking positions on guns.

Here’s the best example I have ever seen of how this debate goes with willfully, hermeneutically ignorant gun advocates. The guy being interviewed in this clip is attending the NRA convention. One would expect him to be more knowledgeable on the subject of guns than the average person. One would be wrong. First the man puts out a falsehood so outrageous and obvious that there’s just no excuse for it. He says more people are killed with hammers every year than with guns. (And more crimes are committed with hammers, too. For example, it’s a cliché on so many cop shows, how many armed robberies are committed with hammers). The interviewer rightly says that over 10,000 people are killed each year with guns, less than 500 hundred with hammers and other blunt objects. (He could also mention the 20,000 suicides each year with guns against the relatively small number of people who beat themselves to death with a hammer.) But without missing a beat the man goes to “The Second Amendment is still my right and it’s still important to me.” Great. It’s important to you. What about what’s important to everyone else? Like not having their children murdered.

*Here’s the text of the Second Amendment. “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.” To see how Scalia in Heller, despite supposedly being an originalist, has to distort the Second Amendment to arrive at an individualized right to own a gun, consider that even if the amendment didn’t explicitly address itself to a well-regulated militia, it explicitly delineates its own purpose thus: the security of a free state. Not your security or self-defense. Certainly not your right to arm yourself against the state. Rather, it’s purpose is to assure armed militias – like the National Guard – are at ready to defend the state – not to defend against it. (This was, at least in part, because the founders thought a standing army was a bad idea.) Leaving that aside, how deeply entrenched is this explicit recognition of a right barring state and federal governments from regulating guns? It goes all the way back to 2008. Unfortunately, it’s about to get worse not better.

P.S. Of course, there’s more to the story. For example, willful ignorance interacts with straight-up lying and with the carefully cultivated cynicism about politics developed over the last 40 years in a quite conscious way by the right wing “news” media (but embraced by some on the left). That was the real promise of Bernie Sanders (and first-term Obama). Not the specifics of their policy proposals, just the hope that politics could still do something, that things could change for the better. Instead, we have this. Almost 40% of Conservatives believe that mass shootings are “Unfortunately something we have to accept as part of a free Society” – even though they only happen here and only started being widespread since 1999.