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Friday, October 5, 2007

Gunman Caught at St. John's University

I found this recent headline interesting. A student with a gun was caught by a campus security guard and a student enrolled in the NYPD training program.

First, the gun could only fire one bullet at a time before reloading. This means that the student could have killed at most one or two people before getting caught. In other words, this incident really shouldn't be used to hype how dangerous guns are and how they need to be banned. If he was armed with a knife, he could have done a similar amount of harm.

Second, the policemen who caught him are being promoted as heroes. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that; it is good that they caught the gunman before anyone was injured. The problem is that the impression generated by the story is: "Two policeman were heroic and brave this time. Therefore, policemen are always heroic and brave."

This is an example of the reverse Strawman Fallacy. The Strawman Fallacy says that, to discredit an opponent, attack the weakest point of their argument. Their weakest point is false, and therefore their entire argument is discredited. Your opponent's strongest points are not discussed at all.

Similarly, the best actions of policemen are promoted loudly. Therefore, everything that policemen do is wonderful. That is also invalid reasoning. It is also invalid to look at the worst thing that policemen do, and use that as an argument against them.

In order to perform a fair analysis, you would have to statistically analyze everything that policemen do. However, when you consider that so many laws are ridiculous, the analysis starts to get out of hand. For example, I consider a policeman who arrests someone for failing to pay income taxes to be abusive. From the point of view of the policeman, he is following orders. I consider policemen who force someone to shut down a business for not following regulations to be abusive.

To do a proper analysis, you should take into account the vast number of ridiculous and unjust laws. In cases where police are abusive, by the standard of existing laws, many incidents go unreported or unpunished. Since policemen don't sell their services in a free market, there's nothing that prevents them from becoming abusive. Policemen are very good at coordinating their stories when they are under investigation for doing something improper.

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