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Gun Control: The Fact/Value Dichotomy and the Public Interest

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
August 12, 2016

Back in the 1960’s, my economics professors drilled into me the importance of the fact/value dichotomy. They were concerned with factual issues – what statements about economics could be verified or were in principle verifiable? Value issues were of less interest because there is no way for social science to verify value claims.

Value claims reflect individual preferences or may reflect metaphysical claims. Both are in principle unverifiable. Examples include: “People have a right to government subsidized health insurance” or “Marriage is between a man and woman.”

Most decisions ultimately turn on how we apply our values to the facts – as best we understand the facts. In buying a car, we gather facts about cars. But the final decision results from our valuation of those facts. We put different weights on price, size, power, mileage, safety, appearance, depreciation, reliability, etc. The huge variety of cars on the road reflects the vast differences in individual preferences that people have in just this one area.

What are some of the factual issues in the U.S. gun control debate?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there were 33,636 firearm deaths in the U.S. in 2013. Of these, 11,208 were firearm homicides and 21,175 were firearm suicides. A few firearm deaths were due to accidents and other causes. The vast majority of firearm deaths were not due to the mass shootings that receive so much publicity.

According to data published in an Oct. 5, 2015, Washington Post article, the number of guns in the U.S. may exceed the number of people in the U.S.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-to-4 in the 2008 Heller decision that the Second Amendment to the Constitution provides an individual right to bear arms unrelated to membership in a militia. But the decision included this language:

The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. 

At the federal, state and local level, there are many gun control laws still on the books after Heller.

Opponents of more gun control laws fear that a law-abiding citizen might lose the ability to buy a gun to defend himself or his or her family. They are also concerned about the convenience of buying and selling guns.

Some factual issues are not so easy to be confident about.

How effective would any particular gun control measure or set of measures be in practice? Effectiveness is a factual issue that is in principle verifiable. For example, a gun control provision could be enacted on a trial basis and the effectiveness studied.

Exactly what new restrictions on guns would the Supreme Court allow?  Would the Supreme Court allow restrictions on non-felons? We can’t be sure of this issue until the Supreme Court actually rules on a case.

Even if the facts about proposed gun control legislation were known with great precision, it is likely there would still be controversy about the proposal because of value differences people have. Suppose we knew for sure that a set of proposed gun controls would reduce firearm deaths by 2,000 per year. Proponents would be happy to sacrifice some convenience and accept some risk of being denied a gun in order to make a significant impact on gun deaths. Opponents would not value the reduction of 2,000 deaths sufficiently to override their concerns about convenience and possible loss of their Second Amendment rights.

Is there a clear-cut public interest on one side of this debate?  I would say no. There are valid public interest arguments on both sides. There is no acceptable way to compute a “net” public interest that everyone, or even most people, would agree upon. The public interest is indeterminate. And I would argue that the public interest is indeterminate for many policy issues that are debated and also down at the level of routine administrative decisions.

For example, an administrator might decide to spend taxpayer money to slightly improve customer service for his/her program or instead spend the money to slightly reduce program error rates. Both improving customer service and saving tax dollars are valid values for administrators. Either choice could be defended as being in the public interest.

I believe we should routinely make the fact/value distinction for two principle reasons: (1) we can improve decision making by clarifying the two types of issues and (2) we can lower “the temperature” surrounding controversial issues.

It’s harder to demonize the opposing side when you admit that the facts are rarely known completely and when you acknowledge that people have vastly different value preferences on every issue under the sun from buying cars to gun control. When confronted by people who insist their values are “right” and other values are “wrong,” we can ask for evidence for such claims – evidence that would be acceptable to scientists or in a courtroom.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected]

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2 Responses to Gun Control: The Fact/Value Dichotomy and the Public Interest

  1. Pingback: The Case for Value Neutrality in Public Administration | PA TIMES Online

  2. Kenneth Hunter Reply

    August 25, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Very thoughtful piece. Good work.

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