The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 9, 2013

Commentary: Guns not the cause of Sandy Hook shootings

By Mark Durm
For The News Courier

— Editor’s note: The following column was submitted by Dr. Mark Durm, a professor of psychology at Athens State University. Part two will be published next week.

For many years I have heard the argument that “guns do not kill people, people kill people.”

That is true, BUT guns “contribute” to killing people. In other words, one cannot say that guns “cause” the death of people just as one cannot say that cigarettes “cause” lung cancer. Let me explain.

In the year 2013, with all of the advanced technology that has occurred, we know so few “true causes.” I explain to my critical thinking class at the university that I could write on one single page all the “causes” of events that are known for certain, and it probably would not take the whole page. For instance it is not correct to say the polio virus “causes” polio.

To establish “true causality” one must show that a condition, such as a gun, is both “necessary” and “sufficient” for an effect (for instance, killing a person) to occur. A necessary condition is a condition that must exist for the effect to occur. Many people have been killed without a gun present, thus a gun is not necessary.

A sufficient condition is a condition that will always produce the effect. The presence of a gun does not always produce the killing of a person. Therefore, guns do not “cause” the death of a person because they are neither necessary nor sufficient.

Likewise, cigarette smoking technically does not “cause” lung cancer. Many people have died of lung cancer and never smoked a single cigarette in their entire life. Thus, cigarette smoking is not necessary for lung cancer. Moreover, there are many people who have smoked heavily almost their entire life and never developed lung cancer. Therefore, cigarette smoking is not sufficient to “cause” lung cancer.

I mentioned above that the polio virus does not cause polio. Here is why. No one has ever had polio that did not first have the polio virus. Thus, the virus is “necessary” for polio.

However, there are people in the world who have the polio virus but have never had the disease. Therefore, the virus is not sufficient to cause polio. Even though the virus is necessary it is not sufficient to “cause” the crippling disease. What else is then required, we simply do not know. Thus, as you can see, one sheet of paper can contain most known “true causes.”

Let us say that you are driving your car and unbeknownst to you your fan belt breaks and you keep driving. Your car engine will overheat. Your broken fan belt was sufficient to produce the heated engine (will always produce the effect if you keep driving) but it is not necessary.

Other events can produce an overheated engine, such as a hole in your radiator; therefore the broken fan belt does not have to exist for an overheated engine to occur. It is sufficient, but not necessary. Again, needing only one sheet of paper for all “true causes” is evident.

Let us return to my original premise, even though guns are neither necessary nor sufficient to kill a person, their presence “contributes” to the killing of a single person or many people. Let us use common sense — if the young man who recently killed the innocent people in Connecticut had not had access to an assault weapon in his fit of rage, some of those children may not have lost their lives.

I cannot believe that if he had had only a knife, the same number of children would have died. To that point, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation, on Dec. 14 and very close in time to the Connecticut school tragedy, a man by the name of Min Yongjun entered a school in the Chinese village of Chenpeng and injured 23 people but did not kill a single person. He had only a knife.

Just as the polio virus by itself is not the cause of polio, it contributes to it. Just as cigarette smoking by itself is not the cause of lung cancer, it contributes to it. And just as guns do not by themselves cause innocent people to die, they do contribute to it.

If we as a society continue to deny this, then we as a society must accept the frequent killing of innocent people as normal.

Next week, we will look further at possible contributors to the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school. Those being mental illness, a violent video culture, and a comparative analysis of nations and guns. Until then …