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I'm hearing the argument X doesn't do Y people do Y in quite a few guises. For instance in it's original form

guns don't kill people; people kill people

Presumably, therefore guns are OK

cars don't kill people; people kill people

Again, the inference is that fast cars are OK

And more recently on the BBC business news

Securitising debt doesn't destablise financial institutions; people destablise financial institutions

Again leading implicitly to ... these kind of financial instruments are perfectly fine so lets start using them again.

Instinctively these kind of arguments feel invalid. Can anyone perhaps use some more rigorous or formal type (logical?) analysis to demonstrate their validity/invalidity. Is that even possible?

What I am interested in is an analysis of this particular form of argument using the tools of philosophy. When it was just used by the gun lobby it just seemed like a rhetorical tool. But it's now bleeding over to other areas so I'm interested in the form of that argument and it's validity. It's almost incidental that it's gun control. As an aside there is a really good podcast about the philosophy of gun control if anyone is interested in those particular issues.

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The only thing these arguments might be able to hinge upon (and even then their efficacy will remain questionable) is agency, in particular that guns, cars, and financial institutions (?) are not agents. Otherwise they're blatantly ignoring transitivity of causation. – commando Apr 25 '14 at 15:54
I think this argument is a shorthand for a more nuanced argument: X doesn't intend to do Y, people intend to do Y. (X being an inanimate object, of course.) The mere existence of the inanimate object won't result in Y happening, without some intentional act instigated by a person. Of course, the really fun question is did Schrodinger kill his cat, or did the radioactive isotope rig do in the kitty? – Bill Horvath II Apr 25 '14 at 21:43
Please take your comments RE: gun control specifically and not argument analysis to chat. This question is about logic. – stoicfury Apr 28 '14 at 22:45
Actually : please don't remove that comment. I am interested, and it was useful. – user2808054 Apr 29 '14 at 14:10
@commando Transitivity of causation doesn't get you out of everything. Did your computer cause this web page to load? Did your enter key cause your comment to be posted? You can argue semantics around causality all day, but this isn't what people mean when they say "Guns cause deaths" and it isn't the argument that this is meant to refute. – Cruncher Apr 29 '14 at 15:55

15 Answers 15

up vote 175 down vote accepted

This line of argument is basically a strawman fallacy, which is when you construct a weaker version of your opponent's argument in order to then disprove it. In this case the weaker argument is that "guns kill people" all by themselves. No one actually believes that or argues that. Even the most committed gun control advocate acknowledges that firing a gun takes human intervention. The stronger argument being concealed by the strawman is "people with guns kill more people than do people without guns."

It's also a black or white fallacy in that it is an attempt to frame the debate as two mutually exclusive choices, when other options may exist. You'll often find these two fallacies together, where the debater creates an artificially weak version of your position, and then tries to frame it as the only alternative to his or her position.

IMPORTANT: The fact that this particular argument is fallacious does not mean we can therefore be justified in rejecting the conclusion the argument is intended to support (that in itself would be an argument from fallacy error), it just means we cannot take the argument as providing any actual support for the conclusion.

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Whether or not it's a strawman fallacy depends on what your opponent's argument is. If your opponent's argument concludes, for example, "guns are bad", then this is a perfectly rational refutation of that argument. Inanimate objects cannot be "bad" unless they somehow compel a result all by themselves. – David Schwartz Apr 25 '14 at 19:28
@David I think you might be demonstrating the same fallacy by reducing a (theoretical) complex argument to that simplistic conclusion, which is obviously not literally true. For the theoretical possibility that someone could make an argument with “guns are bad” as its (earnest, complete) conclusion your comment is valid, but in the context of actual arguments made en masse like the one in question it isn’t of much help. – Tyler James Young Apr 25 '14 at 20:32
@KyleStrand - see my comment to the original post, the truth value of the premises has no bearing on the structural weakness or strength of the argument. David Schwartz is correct, I believe, to note that this argument is less of a strawman in the case that the opponent is directly ascribing moral qualities to the firearms themselves, which I think would be uncommon but not unheard of. However, in the case of your version of the anti-gun argument, the "guns don't kill people" argument still misses it entirely. – Chris Sunami Apr 26 '14 at 0:41
+1 Excellent answer, had to join just to upvote this answer. – Fixed Point Apr 26 '14 at 7:02
@Vector "All wrong" is only your line of attack. Chris answered the question whether or not the statement in question is a good argument and quite convincingly explained why it's not. This says nothing about the validity of any particular viewpoint. It's only about the argument itself which is clearly invalid. Guns kill people when used by people and people kill people when using guns. So "guns don't kill people" is just plain wrong. Again, this says nothing about the standpoint that everybody should possess as much firepower as he wishes. – Christian Apr 27 '14 at 18:48

To complement Chris' answer I'll try to deconstruct some of the reasoning in the arguments a bit.

Suppose we claim that "guns don't kill people; people kill people." The only reasonable way to parse this into a slightly more formal statement is:

Guns are not responsible for killing people; people are responsible for killing people.

I can think of perhaps one other way to interpret the sentence, which would be:

Guns do not cause people to die; people cause people to die.

But this second formulation is patently false - if people cause people to die [using guns] (which they do), then the guns they use cause people to die via bullets, which cause people to die via massive brain damage/haemorrhaging/etc. The only way we can claim that people cause other people to die without granting that guns cause other people to die is by rejecting transitivity of causation: that "A causes B" and "B causes C" does not imply "A causes C." Certainly there are some philosophers (especially within the free will debate, e.g. Carolina Sartorio) who reject transitivity, but definitely not within this context.

Here, the only way the second statement can be true is if "PEOPLE cause GUNS" and "GUNS cause BULLETS" and "BULLETS cause DEATH" (some details left out, obviously), and from this we conclude "PEOPLE cause DEATH" but not "GUNS cause DEATH." This is a very strange thing to do - the only way we could conclude that people cause death is if we trace the process of causation through guns. Then we'd be forced to agree that guns, too, cause death. The only way out of this is some extremely arbitrary rule somehow excluding guns from being a cause of death while still being used to prove that humans cause death.

Note that it is not a valid response to leave guns out of the causal chain altogether - it is undeniable that guns cause bullets to fly into living bodies and turn them into corpses.

Thus we must return to the first interpretation, one of responsibility or agency. Simply, the argument is that guns don't kill people because they are not agents which can be held responsible for their actions. One does not charge a pistol with murder; one charges the human who used it to commit the homicide.

This is a fair enough claim, but as Chris points out it is fallacious in being used to arrive at any sort of conclusion. It indeed constructs a strawman which claims those in favour of gun control somehow hold guns responsible for murder. Of course this is not in general true - if one uses firearms murder statistics as evidence in favour of gun control, they are roughly making the claim that the humans responsible for murder have access to weapons that can easily cause death. Then, by the only reasonable reading, "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is technically true but wholly irrelevant to the argument being made by gun control advocates.

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I wouldn't go quite so far as to say the second formulation is patently false. I think there's a potential equivocation in terms of cause. Clearly a gun can be a material cause, but it cannot be a formal or final cause. – virmaior Apr 26 '14 at 1:01
"It indeed constructs a strawman which claims those in favour of gun control somehow hold guns responsible for murder" This precise verbiage is used frequently to refer to guns. "Guns responsible for high homicide rate". The bottom line is that many anti-gun lobbyists do in fact hold guns very much responsible. – Cruncher Apr 29 '14 at 15:47
This is an excellent complement to Chris' answer. Your formulation of: "Guns do not cause people to die; people cause people to die." is one of the best examples of a straw-man argument I've seen in years. Kudos. – Jerry Coffin Apr 30 '14 at 15:56

This is a black-or-white fallacy. While logically it checks out as true and is difficult to disagree with in real-time discussion; the intention is to frame the argument using an oversimplification of the context, and to the exclusion of other options. Such as excluding middle cases or alternatives.

Also called false dilemma, fallacy of false alternative or excluded middle.

Of course in this case, you could come back with:

"People with guns kill more people using guns than do people without guns."

... Until you see a chart like the one below.

Ultimately, the data wins.


  1. The black-or-white fallacy
  2. Description of like fallacies on wikipedia

enter image description here

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In my mind that data doesn't really say anything particularly useful, since it's graphing gun deaths to guns per capita. Of course there should be some correlation between gun deaths and guns per capita, because how else are you going to have gun deaths? It therefore doesn't say anything about an increase of violence with the increase of guns (or lack thereof) which is the implication of the argument. I'd also like to see proper statistical analysis of that data, rather than just a bar graph. – Kai Apr 25 '14 at 21:24
That graph doesn't make any sense. It seems to say that in the US 90 guns are owned per 100 people which means they must be counting multiple guns owned by the same person, like by collectors. It's a totally useless correlation. The graph also has 0 to do with this question which is about logical arguments, not guns. – Radiodef Apr 26 '14 at 7:56
@Radiodef I looked at that graph for about 20 seconds earlier, and couldn't put my finger on what was weird about it. You're absolutely right, and this is why any random statistics from advocacy groups should be presented with the opposition's view of the same data, if at all possible. – l0b0 Apr 26 '14 at 11:31
And of course, there's Brazil in the chart, which shows that there's quite more to the story than whatever the chart appears to be trying to communicate. – Aaron Hall Apr 26 '14 at 12:55
@Lucas To clarify what kind of statistical analysis, that graph is a very small sample set (only 11 countries), and it already has 2 very large outliers (Brazil and the US). So while it appears to the eye that there's correlation between gun deaths and gun ownership, you may find that that data shows no statistically significant correlation. – Kai Apr 28 '14 at 15:31

"Guns don't kill people; people kill people" is not an argument, it's a slogan. It may be the case that this slogan is just a way to get people to discuss the role of individual responsibility in what policies the government ought to adopt with respect to guns or something like that. Or perhaps it is just a signal that a person has some particular position that can be described in more detail if others are interested. I think interpreting it as an argument in its own right is not a good idea.

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I think I would have agreed with you if the argument stayed in the gun lobby. But it has been co-opted by other areas and advanced as a serious argument - e.g. on the BBC business news. Hence the interest in having that argument format rigorously analysed - IMHO of course – Crab Bucket Apr 28 '14 at 12:56
You have more respect for BBC business news than I do. – alanf Apr 29 '14 at 9:07
hahaha fair point. It was a rubbish interview really. This guns don't kill people type argument went entirely unchallenged – Crab Bucket Apr 29 '14 at 10:35

I think you can view the "X doesn't do A; Y does A" formulation as either

(a) a response to an equivocation meant to elucidate it


(b) an equivocation itself

Working with the classic "guns don't kill people; people kill people", we can parse this into slightly more helpful language:

Guns don't cause people to die; people cause people to die.

In this formulation, there should be an obvious equivocation. On the one hand, guns most surely are the means through which some people do die. On the other hand, guns definitely do not have intention. The solution is that there are multiple types of causes (here I'm echoing Aristotle). There are on his view material causes, efficient causes, formal causes, and final causes.

Aristotle defined the material cause as the matter through which something is effected, i.e. its the bullet going through someone's body that kills them.

The efficient cause is the agent that intends the effect. This is the intentional shooter.

The formal cause is the essence that maintains a thing as what it is (not applicable here).

The final cause is the goal towards which the action was done. The agent wanted to kill someone because they were cheating on him.

Returning to the modified quotation,

Guns are not material causes; people are FALSE (in the case that matters)

Guns are not efficient causes; people are TRUE

Guns are not final causes; people's intentions are TRUE

I take it that the point of the original statement is to deny that guns are involved in the reasons (final causes) that people die. This, however, might be non-responsive to the real claim being suggested by advocates of gun control. Gun control advocates may be making the claim instead that (1) guns can function as material means of killing = "guns kill people", (2) removing guns as a material means will make it harder to kill, therefore we should removes guns because "guns kill people."

But I'm not really sure who is committing the equivocation. I say that because the real argument of the gun control advocate is really that we need to remove things that make the material means of killing easier -- at which point their claim is only incidentally about guns. (Do they also want to ban knives? bleach? air compressors? cars? space heaters?)

Conversely, gun freedom advocates are emphasizing a model of agency -- that what we should concern ourselves with is that people are the efficient causes and have the final causes. And that eliminating one means for them to kill does not necessarily remove their ability to kill. It's a classic liberal position in relation to negative freedoms.

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"Gun" is a rather vague term, though, subject to a "slippery slope"; nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are considered (well regulated?) arms, and the Second Amendment of the USA Constitution says: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." – Cees Timmerman Apr 27 '14 at 4:14
I'm not sure how that relates in the slightest to my answer. I'm not arguing politics here; I'm explaining the slippage at work in the "X doesn't kill people; Y kills people" which makes it an equivocation and one where it is ambiguous who is equivocating. Largely this is because contemporary thought has lost a distinction in types of causality. – virmaior Apr 27 '14 at 4:15
You yourself gave an example of the slippery slope: "(Do they also want to ban knives? bleach? air compressors? cars? space heaters?)", so i added one of the pro-weapon side. – Cees Timmerman Apr 27 '14 at 4:22
Two comments. (1) I wouldn't call what I refer to a slippery slope -- for one thing I'm not arguing for a policy for other side. The purpose of my example is to point out how we might lay the source of ambiguity (i.e. equivocation) at the feet of those who say "guns kill people". I'm not claiming there's any progression nor do I expect that they want to ban several other things on the list... hence no slope, no slippery. Similarly, I'm not making any claim about rights to bear arms -- hence no arms, no slope, no slippery. Thus, (2) You seem confused as to what question I am answering. – virmaior Apr 27 '14 at 5:07
"I say that because the real argument of the gun control advocate is really that we need to remove things that make the material means of killing easier" - That logically leads to looking to ban things beyond guns, some of which absurd like space heaters. Surely that would be a slip down a slope. I'm merely suggesting the logical conclusion in the other direction, something your excellent answer did not include. – Cees Timmerman Apr 27 '14 at 5:18

To quote Eddy Izzard: Guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people. The whole thing is a sophistry: A clever but wrong argument with the intent of deceiving people.

First, it is a fact that guns do kill people. Just like leaking gas pipes, badly working brakes and so on kill people, so do guns kill people. Not very often, but often enough to make the statement "guns don't kill people" wrong. If we add cases where clumsy people with no intent of using a gun kill or hurt themselves or others by accident, that number is a lot higher. We can debate whether a gun that goes off while it is being cleaned counts as "guns kill people" or "people kill people".

Second, it is much harder for people without guns to kill people. It is not impossible, but it is easy and requires no preparation to kill someone with a gun, while most other weapons make it a lot harder. Just try hiding on top of a view tower with a hammer in your hand or a bottle of poison and start killing people. It doesn't work. With a gun, it is a lot easier.

So I change the argument to the much more correct:

Guns rarely kill people, but people with guns do quite often, and people with guns find it much easier to kill people than people without guns.

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I love this argument: that is a bad argument try these bad arguments instead! – hildred May 1 '14 at 0:07

When used in the argument in favor of gun control, the argument divides the world in a very black and white scenario: either a gun kills someone, or a person kills someone, with no gray scenarios in between. Any real life situation is not black and white, it's a complex situation full of preconditions and probabilities.

So for the argument to be used in the situation of gun control, we'd need to know what is more dangerous overall: 1) a world with guns 2) a world without guns and of course, this is also a black and white scenario, but we'd have to view these as two ends of a spectrum of gun control (no control vs absolute control).

Then we would have to decide whether it is easier in general to kill with the aid of a gun, or without the aid of a gun. We would have to oppose that also to using another inanimate aid regularly available. E.g. if it is equally easy to kill someone with a hammer, then hammers could be equated with guns, and they should follow all the same rules.

Put in a formula we would calculate P(fatalities) = P(availability) * P(effectiveness) * P(motive)

This could be done for any object, whether inanimate or animate. Of course objects don't have motive, but we could say that a tsunami e.g. has 100% motive to kill you, since it is aimed at you and cannot be stopped or avoided easily. It is also very effective, but luckily not very available.

I think the biggest flaw is the implied 'person without a gun'. Since we're used to saying something like this in an 'exclusive or' context, e.g. "I am not blind, I am deaf". In that sentence you're implicitly saying that blind people cannot be deaf. So it can be rephrased as A)"guns don't kill people, people without guns kill people". Unless it is meant as B) "guns don't kill people, people kill people with the use of guns". So the first thing in the argument is to ask the person which version they mean to communicate.

To refute: A) prove that it's easier to kill people with the use of a gun than a non-regulated item, such as a hammer B) guns are still part of both equations, so by taking out guns we take out the loss of lives. Think about gun accidents, where people clean their gun and it accidentally kills their wife. Or a child playing with a gun, and it accidentally goes off. Or a bullet ricochets and hits an innocent bystander. So in all those cases, it wasn't the intention of the person to kill, but it still happened because of the existence of guns.

To just take it one step further, and go completely reductio ad absurdum: if people kill people, then we should initiate people control instead of gun control in order to prevent killing. I think that's way more scary!!!

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I like your decomposition into probabilities. One of the major anti-gun control arguments is that everyone having gun reduces the effectiveness of guns (as people are afraid to use them), in which case, P(available AND effective) != P(available) * P(effective). The formula you is suggest is kind of neat because it can be used to show the differences in calculi employed in different arguments. – Lucas Apr 26 '14 at 3:33
"Any real life situation is not black and white" I had a completely black or white situation yesterday: I gambled and lost. Also, many cows are both black and white. – Cees Timmerman Apr 27 '14 at 4:03
This statement: "Any real life situation is not black and white" is self defeating. You are imposing a black and white statement to a real life situation (which is any of them) and saying there are no black and white real life situations. – Kirk Backus May 5 '14 at 8:55

A proper argument includes premises and a conclusion. Claims of the indicated form may be legitimate parts of a larger argument, most notably an argument that proposed regulations are poorly targeted at the problem they are supposedly intended to "solve", but does not really constitute an "argument" in and of itself. Arguments involving the use of such claims have varying degrees of validity, depending upon the causal relationships among the subjects of the claim and the regulations at issue. In most cases, a proper argument would require a claim with somewhat more detail than will fit into a soundbite, but the lack of such detail in the soundbite doesn't really mean anything. To really determine the validity of an argument, one must examine the argument itself, rather than just the "soundbite" version.

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If this was a legitimate argument, it would hold true even if 'guns' were replaced with a more virulent form of killing tool like 'cruise missile' or 'nuke'. Why do we bother trying to keep these 'weapons of mass destruction' out of the hands of the general public if it's only people that kill people not the weapons?

If drones with lethal attack capability enter the market in the same way as guns have (it's unlikely), you will probably see an increase in that type of death as it makes it that much easier to kill someone if you don't even have to put yourself at risk.

Yes, people kill people, with the most effective weapon to hand.

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I think the argument is invalid because you could (and should) add "with guns":

guns don't kill people; people with guns kill people

So here the conclusion would be to restrict guns heavily as they are heavily restricted already in most Western countries.

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your rewording implies that only with a gun can a person kill another person - which is patently false – warren Apr 30 '14 at 16:33
@warren: Thank you but I think this interpretation is as absurd as is the interpretation that guns kill people without other people using them. Of course what is meant is that it is easier for a person with a gun to kill another person than without a gun. – vonjd Apr 30 '14 at 18:44
then you should edit your answer – warren Apr 30 '14 at 19:40
Triggers don't care what pulls them. – Cees Timmerman May 2 '14 at 15:37
Without getting into a discussion about guns, there are three reasons that make your answer a bad fit for a philosophical forum: First, your conclusion is actually an argument. Second, no country I know of bans guns, many of them restrict their ownership to certain groups, though. Third, "civilized" is a value judgement not backed up by an argument. – Christoph May 11 '14 at 11:33

The argument is valid. The 'gun' is only a tool. Granted it's a tool for destroying things. And it's a common/popular tool for hurting/killing people (having been promoted by the videogame and film industries). But if you remove accessibility to that specific tool, people who want to hurt/kill people will find another tool. Maybe a more powerful one.

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This is not the same argument. You are defending "People who want to kill people will do so with or without guns." But that is not the argument described in the original post. This one is a more legitimate argument, but a less pithy soundbite. – Chris Sunami Apr 25 '14 at 19:41
Ok. Sorry I didn't see the edits to the question. But I still see the argument as valid. Given those three things it's not the instrument (guns, cars, securitized debt) that cause the problems. It's how people use (or abuse) them. Securitized debt isn't a bad thing. It's not even necessarily bad that the person selling the security doesn't disclose that a significant number of the debts are questionable, it's that people were buying them and not properly evaluating the risks (partly). As they stood they were useful instruments for certain portfolio's, if you knew and understood the risks. – Arluin Apr 25 '14 at 20:30
And I'm still wrong as I'm not providing a "formal" analysis as requested by the OP. – Arluin Apr 25 '14 at 20:37
Given X does not do Z; Y does Z I thought that since I can substitute many values for X (guns, cars, securitized debt) that the first statement was true. But then the same logic can be applied to the 2nd statement: lightning, disease, falling rocks can all be substituted for Y. Also you can falsify the 2nd statement. I'm a people, I haven't killed anybody. In fact (AFAIK) all the people I know have not killed a people. So not all Y cause Z. – Arluin Apr 25 '14 at 20:50
What are the premises, and what is the conclusion? Can one even have an argument without both? – supercat Apr 25 '14 at 20:58

Right, lets do some arguing.

X doesn't do Y people do Y

On the face of it, it does seem silly; there is something of an implication here that only people act, and everything else is static. That is obviously not true.

However, the initial statement is the 'soundbite'-form. What is really being said is:

X will not do Y to an individual without the involvement of some external person(s).

This is the form that is at the heart of the argument. And the test for its validity is will X do Y to an individual if someone external is not involved beyond setting up initial conditions.

For many inanimate objects, this is certainly true; a gun by itself will not act upon anyone, for example. Neither will chairs, knifes, beach balls, etc. In order for these objects to do anything something else must initiate the action, and the most common culprit are other people.

For animate objects, this could be false. A speeding car or a crashing wave both have the potential to do things to someone even with (maybe even especially with, in the case of a car) no one else involved.

At this point, I will acknowledge that there is some give in the 'initial condition' statement. A car at rest is an inanimate object and not likely to leap out an hurt someone, and a bullet fired from a gun has become an animate object and increadibly dangerous without anyone's intervention.

For institutiona practices and company policies, it is litterally imposible to remove the people from equation in the first place. This becomes the strawman arguement because policies without people cannot posibily be dangerous. But, policies always involve people. Someone has to implement the policies, after all.

Bottom line is that this is a bit more case-by-case than Chris or Commando have asserted. When making the argument or the counter-argument you have to have a very go idea of what the X is, how X can do Y, and whether or not X needs someone else to do Y.

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The arguments are valid, however there is some instrumentation in their use in order to divert attention and to blur the issue.

The problem comes down to a matter of intentionality.

Consider the following arguments:
1) X not <action> Y <action> Y
2) X not <action> Z, Y <action> Z

From the logical point of view they are valid, but from the point of view of the pretense of its use, we can say two things:

- Pretend to remove X as a cause 
- Pretend to assign Y as the cause 

To counterbalance the arguments one might say:
The fact that "X not <action> Y", does not exempt X as indirect cause of "<action> Y" or "<action> Z" and therefore does not invalidate a reflection on the use that Y makes of X.

In conclusion: It is not the logic of the arguments that makes feel them as not valid, but is the use people make of the arguments which can vitiate them.

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Sorry for the downvote, but I don't think this is correct. The argument is not structured as a valid formal logical deduction, and commits at least one informal logical fallacy, so calling the logic valid doesn't make sense to me. – Chris Sunami Apr 25 '14 at 16:46
@Chris. I made a mistake in my conclusion, I'm sorry. But, in relation with the validity of the arguments, the fallacies mentioned above rely precisely on the use of the language, that was the point I wanted to emphasize. – villamejia Apr 26 '14 at 2:25

Guns do not kill people insofar as they act alone. An action (typically an operator) is required. Bullets do not kill people either, they just sit there like stones.

Analysis, or breaking down all the parts and taking a view of them individually, is how I reached this conclusion.

Is "Guns don't kill people; people kill people" a good argument. Yes, insofar as good means efficacy.

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I don't think so.

When Chinese first discovered gunpowder, they used it for centuries only in the production of fireworks. Weapons needed skill to be used, and this alone probably avoided major violence.

With fire guns, any stupid ass can kill a honourable master easily. Consider the number of murders is a formula such as

n = k*p1*p2


p1 the probability that someone wants to kill somebody else p2 the probability that the person in p1 finds a weapon lethal enough (i.e. that may be used with success) k some constant

What your "argument" says is that only p1 matters. But of course the number of fire guns is directly related with p2, thus with the number of deaths.

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