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If this bumper sticker were outlawed, would only outlaws own it?

This is not a column about gun control. It's a column about logic -- or, more precisely, illogic. It concerns the crafty uses to which words can be put when entire philosophies are reduced to advertising slogans. It takes as its text the words of a still-popular bumper sticker I first saw in the Midwest a decade ago: ``If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.'' On its face, it seems a compelling epigram. Pithy in content, and almost musical in its repetitions of the words ``guns'' and ``outlaw,'' it does what a good slogan should: It captures the attention and drills home its message almost before the reader has time to think.

Moreover, it grows out of one of the nation's more intractable debates -- between those who insist that the constitutional right to bear arms should prohibit any governmental control of guns, and those who assert that weapons that have killing as their essential purpose must be regulated by an advancing society. Each side is alarmed by the nation's violent-crime rate. But while gun-controllers would fight crime by making firearms harder for criminals to get, the gun lobby sees private arsenals as a necessary defense against armed intruders.

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Fear of crime, in fact, gives this particular bumper sticker its power. Its message raises the specter of gun-toting thugs wreaking havoc among an unarmed populace. And it implies that increases in criminality will be the fault of those who try to fight lawlessness (outlaws with guns) through legal channels (by outlawing guns).

Look at it more closely, however, and its seeming logic falls to bits. There may be sound arguments against gun control. For three reasons, however, this is not one of them:

The statement is explicitly false. The word ``only'' implies that, if guns were outlawed, nobody would have legal access to them -- not even law-enforcement officers. But that is not what ``outlawed'' means: We ``outlaw'' speeding, but still allow policemen and firemen to exceed the limit. If guns were outlawed, in fact, the three groups that now possess guns (law-abiding citizens, outlaws, and the police) would be reduced to two, not ``only'' one. But the falsehood is instructive: It hints at both a distrust of law-enforcement institutions and a desire for self-appointed vigilantism that underlie the message.

The statement is misleading. The energies of the gun-control groups seem largely to be directed at registering firearms -- both to control access and to make certain kinds of snub-nosed ``Saturday night specials'' entirely illegal -- rather than completely outlawing them. Here again the motor-vehicle analogy is useful. Although we license cars in most places, we do outlaw them in some small island communities -- and the public is generally pretty clear on the distinctions. Once more, the intentional confusion of the message is revealing: It seems to be based on a distrust of the legislative process and a fear that government, given a foot in the door, will turn today's permit into tomorrow's outright ban.

The statement is sophistical. What if it read, ``If murder is outlawed, only outlaws will be murderers''? That is essentially true. So should we not outlaw murder, in order to avoid murderous outlaws? Hardly -- although, if we perversely chose to do so, we could wipe out crime entirely by simply redefining criminal activity as legal. The reader of this bumper sticker is seesawed by a shift of tone, arising from the artful play of double meanings: To outlaw (verb) carries positive connotations of justice, discipline, and restraint, while outlaw (noun) brings up images of banditry and Wild West terrorism. In fact, any number of other subjects (drugs, arson, auto theft, and so forth) can be plugged into this structure, with similarly unsound results.

As Americans take to their cars this summer, they will be reading one another's bumper stickers by the millions. Some are hilarious, others sentimental, still others sober and sincere. A few, like this one, are downright manipulative, packaging their apparently simple appeal with subtle cunning. A bit of logic will help distinguish among them.

A Monday column