Constitutional rights must not be subjected to emotional reasoning.
By rule, our local paper, the Park Record, only allows submissions of letters to the editor or guest editorials from a single author but once every 30 days, therefore, I cannot respond to a letter directed toward a guest editorial a couple of weeks ago.
It is the policy of the Park Record to identify the roles of public officials, and my position as the Chair of the Summit County GOP is one such position. I did not want to be identified, certainly not because I wished to remain anonymous, but because I knew, based on information and belief, such an identification had an extremely high likelihood of prejudicing my argument.
I want to use these successive letters and editorials to illustrate the difference between qualitative (based in emotion and opinion) and quantitative (based in fact and data) arguments as well as to cement the point about emotional reasoning mentioned in my editorial. I think the exchanges between Jerry Heck (April 22), Lynne and Ed Rutan (April 27), myself (April 29) and finally, Mary Dillion (May 8), are worth remarks, and since I cannot respond in the paper, I will respond and I truly hope Ms. Dillon sees the response contained herein.
Beginning with Mr. Heck’s editorial, he advanced the point that gun rights are unrestricted. Of course, the Rutans responded by noting that even as traditionalist a justice as Anton Scalia, while noting the Constitution unequivocally protects the right to keep and bear arms, said that right is subject to restrictions.
The fact is Mr. Heck was correct. Mr. Heck made a qualitative argument. It does not matter what Scalia or Ruth Bader Ginsberg – or anyone for that matter – says about the Second Amendment, the language in the Constitution is clear, unambiguous, and final, stating the right to keep and bear arms “shall not be infringed.” That is a binary, qualitative statement – the Second Amendment either cannot be infringed or it can. Our various judicial and governmental bodies applied a qualitative standard to the Second Amendment by banning and restricting some forms of weapons while allowing others they deemed to be less problematic. No matter how we may feel about that, pro or con, none of that changes the explicit prohibition in the Constitution about what the government may NOT do.
As noted, the Rutans replied with a qualitative argument that used the typical emotional generalizations. I want to be precise, so I will directly quote from their editorial. They began by asserting Utah was witnessing “a crisis of death and injuries from gun violence” – using the term “gun violence” twice before stating deep into their editorial that “Suicide and domestic violence predominate.” They continued, stating “…the rate of gun deaths increased by almost 40% from 2008 to 2018.” Referring to this as a “horrific increase”. Their denouement was this: “We prefer the ballot to the gun.”
Before I wrote my response, I did a little research. First, I polled about 20 friends (albeit unscientifically) who span the political spectrum, careful to choose a 50/50 mix of left leaning and right leaning. I asked them all the same question: “What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say, ‘gun violence’?” As it turns out, there was no need to be careful about sample construction because every single person, 100% of the sample, said one of three things – mass shootings, gang related shootings (Chicago weekends was a favorite) and murder. Suicide and domestic violence were never mentioned.
Note the Rutan’s use of intentionally inflammatory and generalized phrases – “crisis of death and injuries”, “gun violence”, “horrific increase”. All words that invoke an emotional response.
Then I went to IBIS, the health database maintained by the state of Utah to find out about this 40% increase and what percentage of those deaths were suicides. I reported those results in my editorial, and here I quote directly: “According to the CDC’s database (updated in 2020), Utah firearm related deaths in 2019 totaled 394 or 0.0123% of our population. According to Utah’s Public Health Indicator Based Information System (IBIS), 329 of those deaths were suicides. While suicide by firearm has declined from 87% of total firearm deaths in 2010 to 84% in 2019 and we recognize that each is a horrific family tragedy, the fact remains that suicides represent, by far, the greatest number of firearm-related fatalities in our state.
Some simple math reveals in 2019, 65 people in Utah (0.00203%), perished in non-suicide related violence involving a firearm. That is undeniably up 35% from a total of 42 in 2010, but a 25-person fatality increase as 1) Utah’s population increased from 2.775 million to 3.205 million and 2) violent crime increased 3.9% (according to FBI database) during that same period, puts that increase into perspective.”
The data simply does not support the use of any of the words and phrases used by the Rutans. As I noted, firearms related deaths were 0.0123% of our population in 2019. More people died from accidental poisonings than by firearms. The data also reveals the fact that not only are “suicides and domestic violence predominate, but suicides are also the vast majority of all firearms related fatalities at 83.5%. The state does not segregate those related to domestic violence, but all other deaths – accidental and intentional amounted 65 people out of a state population of around 3.2 million people. A 40% increase sounds like crisis territory, but an increase of 25 people out of 3.2 million people (0.00078% of the population) indicates that the 40% number was used due to its emotional impact.
And in the end, their “We prefer the ballot to the gun” retort was a non sequitur as Mr. Heck never asserted a preference for the gun versus the ballot – their use of the phase was simply another appeal to the reader’s emotion.
In response to my statements of fact, Mary Dillon, a resident of Deer Valley, returned to a qualitative argument and dismissed my arguments by saying the following:
“Mr. Smith began his guest editorial with what I read as an unsubtle slam, describing the Rutans as ‘react(ing) emotionally to subjects difficult for them to emotionally process.’ He went on to describe suicide dismissively as not worthy of being included in gun-related statistics. Suicide occurs more often than not because of easy access to a gun. No, suicide is not comparable to ‘drunken people in pickups engaging in episodes of Wild West gunplay in the streets’ – but the result is the same, albeit less colorful than the image Mr. Smith presents. I strongly support the Rutan’s unemotional, rational, well informed argument.”
So let me break this down.
First, I never slammed the Rutans in any way. My statement about emotionally processing had everything to do with appeals to emotion they used in their editorial. Far from dismissing suicide or stating suicides were “not worthy” of being included, I stated, “While I would never argue that a suicide is not a violent death, self-inflicted harm is not the same as violence resulting from a street shooting, a murder or armed robbery” and “Suicide deserves our focus, not stripping firearms from law-abiding citizens because some of our citizens choose a firearm as a means to a terrible end.” As to her comment about my “Wild West” image, that was a direct result of the informal polling mentioned earlier.
Before writing my editorial, for background on the availability of guns and their influence on suicide, I researched a Harvard publication titled “Guns and Suicide: The Hidden Toll” and found that in almost every case, these suicides had two things in common, impulse and a pre-diagnosed mental illness. While firearms related suicide attempts are the most successful, in the totality of suicide attempts in America, drug overdoses, most often with prescription drugs, far outweigh firearms as the method of choice. Attempts by drug overdose often fail or intervention happens in time to prevent the death.
Ms. Dillon also uses the phrase “easy access to guns”, leaving the impression that one can just grab a gun as easy as dropping in for a mocha latte at Starbucks. In almost every case, the data shows that a legally obtained firearm was used in the suicide, some being legally purchased by the suicide victim themselves, but the majority were borrowed or stolen from a friend or relative. How is that “easy access” either controlled by some law or the responsibility of any lawful gun owner who secures their weapons?
As a factual matter, Ms. Dillon’s statements are contradicted by the public record and her assertion the Rutan’s argument is “unemotional, rational, well informed” is refuted by the Rutan’s own published words; therefore, I conclude Ms. Dillon was prejudiced by the fact I was identified as a Republican party official.
There rarely is ever a non-emotional argument from people who oppose the private ownership of firearms, and that is even more prevalent coming from people who have lost loved ones to suicide via firearm.
One thing that seemed clear from the Harvard study mentioned earlier is that there is a significant amount of survivor’s guilt experienced by those closest to the victims who were left behind. These people search for someone or something to blame. In this study, Emily Frazier, the wife of Ryan Frazier – a 21-year-old University of Vermont junior and suicide victim from South Burlington, Vermont stated:
“There’s a gas station maybe a five-minute drive away from us, and the gas station sells guns. I didn’t realize places like that existed. Ryan just walked in and bought a handgun. We had gotten into an argument—which we hardly ever did—and he left. The next morning, the police knocked on my door. A construction crew had found him dead in his car at an abandoned railroad station.”
I did the research and from the Harvard publication and other related articles, I pieced together the location and identity of the “gas station” mentioned in the quote. There is a Conoco station as part of the business, but a separate business is a sporting goods store and federally licensed gun dealer that, by all official accounts, performed all the requisite background checks required by both the state of Vermont and the federal government.
By reading more of the Harvard publication, you find that Ryan Frasier had been suffering depression and nightmares resulting from the trauma of being molested by a priest. His wife went to the sporting goods store and confronted the management:
“I asked him about the process for selling a gun and if they ever screened people for mental illness. Then I said, “My husband bought a gun here and shot himself.” The owner said just a couple of words. I couldn’t read his emotion. I don’t know if he was uninterested or shocked. He didn’t say he was sorry.”
If a wife or close relative, someone who intimately knows an individual, cannot stop a loved one from obtaining a weapon with the intent to commit suicide, how is a business owner, someone who has no history with the purchaser, supposed to determine if that person is mentally ill?
This is emotional blame shifting of the first degree.
I am sorry for every suicide and every family that has experienced that pain has my heartfelt sympathy but when we make emotional decisions about constitutional rights, we need to realize that leads to banning of everything.
Qualitative arguments are never about whether something is or is not, they are always about degrees. When I think of them, I am reminded of the oft mentioned Lord Beaverbrook anecdote (sometimes ascribed to Winston Churchill):
“They are telling this of Lord Beaverbrook and a visiting Yankee actress. In a game of hypothetical questions, Beaverbrook asked the lady: ‘Would you live with a stranger if he paid you one million pounds?’ She said she would. ‘And if be paid you five pounds?’ The irate lady fumed: ‘Five pounds. What do you think I am?’ Beaverbrook replied: ‘We’ve already established that. Now we are trying to determine the degree.”
To preserve our rights and freedoms, the quantitative argument must win out over the qualitative one. Rights do not exist in degrees.