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3 Ways To Elevate The Debate About Guns

A man signs a banner against guns as mourners pay tribute at a memorial on Feb. 25 for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Miami Herald
TNS via Getty Images
A man signs a banner against guns as mourners pay tribute at a memorial on Feb. 25 for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

Since the tragic shooting in Parkland, Fla., students have been pressing lawmakers for greater gun control, bringing with their appeals a maturity beyond their years.

That maturity is something we could use: Debates about gun legislation have been tense and intractable, betraying only modest engagement with opposing points of view.

Along with the passion stirred by recent events, we need some clear thinking to achieve that engagement and move debates forward. With that goal in mind, here are three prescriptions for better thinking: ways to move beyond butting heads and towards agreement on solutions.

Differentiate ends from means. At a CNN town hall held last week in Florida, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel challenged President Donald Trump's suggestion to arm teachers, explaining: "I don't believe teachers should be armed. I believe teachers should teach."

Trump and Israel do not necessarily disagree about the end that they hope to achieve: safety in schools. What they disagree about here is the means to achieving that end. Recognizing this can be a first step towards establishing common ground, and a first step towards asking the right questions. If we can agree on a given end, we can ask about different approaches to achieving that end, and we can evaluate the relative merits of each approach. Will arming teachers in fact increase children's safety in schools? Will banning assault weapons do so more effectively? What's the evidence each way?

Differentiate facts from values. A second important distinction is between facts and values. In debates about gun control, there are plenty of facts to consider. How many people are killed each year with different kinds of firearms? How do policy differences across states or across countries affect the rates and manifestations of gun violence? These are factual questions with factual answers, whether or not we always know what those answers, in fact, are.

But the debate isn't only, or even mostly, about facts. It's also about values. How strongly do you value children's safety in schools, and how does that trade off against the value of having access to guns for self defense, or the value of engaging in activities like recreational hunting? How strongly do you value the autonomy of individuals, and restrictions on federal control, when it comes to making decisions about firearms?

It's important to differentiate facts from values because advocates for different perspectives can easily speak past one another when they seem to be arguing about facts but, in fact, disagree about values. A gun-rights supporter might dismiss evidence about lower rates of mass shootings in countries with different gun laws, not because she has a legitimate critique of the factual evidence, but because she's animated by concerns about autonomy and the role of government. A supporter of greater gun control might reject evidence concerning the use of guns for self defense, not because he has good reason to doubt the evidence, but because he regards the potential harm from misusing guns as the greater evil.

If we can clearly differentiate factual disagreements from disagreements about values, we can begin to engage in a more meaningful way. To illustrate this, consider once again the disagreement between President Trump and Sheriff Israel. We'll suppose that they've agreed on an end — safety in schools — and on a subsequent question: By what means can this best be achieved?

If Trump advocates arming teachers because he claims it will reduce harm to schoolchildren, he has appealed to a factual matter, and it should be evaluated accordingly. What's the evidence that arming teachers will achieve this end at all, let alone more effectively than alternatives? If Trump rejects an alternative — such as banning all assault weapons — because he values the right to bear arms or restrictions on federal authority, he has appealed to a value, and the criteria for evaluation are no longer strictly factual. Instead, we should ask whether this is a value we should hold. Is it more or less important than the other values in play, such as the value of training and rewarding teachers for their abilities as educators, rather than guards?

By parsing out facts and values, we can make progress in evaluating the merits of different means to common ends.

For factual questions, consider the (social) science. Once we're clear about which disagreements are factual, and which a matter of values, we can proceed with evaluation. For matters that are factual — and only those matters that are factual — the relevant authority is science.

Science can't be the whole story because scientific evidence, on its own, will not answer questions about policy. Policy depends on facts, but also on values. Analyses of the effects of gun policy changes will not — on their own — tell us how much we should value children's safety. Studies of how to treat mental illness will not — on their own — tell us how much to value freedom from governmental control.

But science is our best tool for evaluating factual claims. This means that when a disagreement is factual, we should look at the evidence and consult relevant experts, be they social scientists who study the effects of gun control policies, psychologists who study mental illness, or ballistics specialists who can evaluate the characteristics of different types of firearms.

Understanding the authority of science also means that, when it comes to factual claims, intuitions and gut feelings won't cut it — whichever side of the political aisle they come from. If someone claims that arming teachers will deter mass shooters because it just seems like it should, or that more stringent background checks will prevent killers from obtaining guns because it just makes sense that it would, you should demand the evidence and arguments.

In a moving post on Facebook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School's 11th-grade class president, Jaclyn Corin, reminded readers that the student activists are just kids: "KIDS working to prevent this from happening again."

Now it's time for the rest of us to be grown ups.

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Tania Lombrozo
Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.
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