Opinion

The gun lobby's biggest weakness

There are simply no good arguments against gun control

You can feel it in the air: the gun lobby's fear and the unstated realization on the part of its cheerleaders in the right-wing media and conservative commentariat that this time things could well be different, this time the momentum may lie on the other side, this time public opinion just might be slipping away from them.

In the wake of the devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida, there have been protests around the country, not to mention the unprecedented CNN town hall at which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) faced fierce and unrelenting criticism from an overwhelmingly hostile crowd, and the parade of businesses cutting ties with a suddenly unpopular NRA.

And now there's the ambitious gun control bill introduced in the House earlier this week by Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island. With the Republicans holding all the power in Washington, it doesn't have a chance of passage. But it looks like exactly what a sizeable chunk of the American electorate would like to see enacted: an amped-up reboot of the assault weapons ban of 1994, restricting the sale, transfer, production, and importation of a range of semi-automatic pistols and rifles.

That bill faces near-certain defeat now, but it's the wave of the future. The number of gun-owning households is at a 30-year low, with rates of ownership the lowest among the young and fully four out of five of millennials prepared to declare that the U.S. has a problem with mass shootings. As we saw within the past generation with the very rapid shift toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, dramatic change can happen incredibly quickly when age becomes a significant variable in explaining where people come down on a polarized social issue. (With every passing day, those in favor of sticking with the status quo are replaced with those favoring reform.)

But we can expect a political sea-change over gun control for more than demographic reasons. There's also the fact that the right's arguments on guns are extremely weak — the kind of thing you hear from those who've spent too much time talking exclusively to people who share the same highly questionable premises and assumptions. Let's go through them:

Bad argument 1: Banning guns won't work. We saw this with the original assault weapons ban. Shootings continued, while the constitutional rights of the American people were curtailed.

Why it's wrong: Since when do we judge policy changes by the impossibly high standard of eradicating the problem? Laws against stealing haven't eliminated theft. Laws against tax evasion haven't stopped tax cheats. Laws against murder haven't ended homicide. Likewise, the original assault weapons ban didn't stop mass shootings, but the number of mass shooting incidents and their lethality did decline during the years it was in effect. (It's sophistry for pro-gun conservatives to suggest the ban failed because it didn't produce a decline in all gun violence, which it was never intended to do.) The idea is to save lives — not all lives, but some lives. In any other area of public policy, this would be a perfectly sensible measure of evaluation. But for some reason, when it comes to mass shootings, nothing less than a miracle is considered sufficient.

Bad argument 2: School shootings are rare. In a nation of 320 million people, this just isn't that big of a problem, despite the awfulness of what happened in Parkland, and in Sandy Hook five years ago.

Why it's wrong: Yes, in a country as large as ours, school shootings are indeed pretty rare. But mass shootings in general are not. At all. (School shootings are a subset of this much broader category.) Why is it that we're expected simply to shrug our shoulders in response? Many of those saying or implying that we have no choice but to accept frequent gun massacres as the price of our freedom are the same people who've favored anti-terrorism policies that since 9/11 have cost the country trillions of dollars, required the restriction of civil liberties in numerous areas, and resulted in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and the maiming of many more.

By all means, let's treat acts of terrorism — deadly violence undertaken for a political purpose — more severely than random acts of sociopathological barbarism. But does it really make sense to treat them as completely different? Why respond to one as an existential threat to the nation and the other as the public policy equivalent of an earthquake or tornado — unpreventable acts of nature that we must impotently endure? It makes no rational sense.

Bad argument 3: Gun ownership is a constitutional right, and constitutional rights are absolute and inalienable. Any attempt to restrict this right transgresses the Second Amendment and so must be fought tooth and nail.

Why it's wrong: This objection would be a lot more compelling if purchasing or possessing fully automatic firearms (so-called "machine guns"), rocket launchers, and other high-powered weapons of war weren't already severely restricted. Those restrictions mean that the "right to bear arms" isn't absolute and inalienable but is in fact contingent on balancing that right against the requirements of the common good.

Such considerations shape every right, even the most fundamental. The right to life, for example, can be curtailed when punishing criminals for capital crimes and when conscripting citizens for military duty, which can result in death. The right to property likewise gets curtailed every time a tax is levied. The U.S. is currently undergoing a change in how it judges the proper scope of the right to bear arms. That doesn't mean the right itself will be revoked. But it does mean that the number and types of guns available to purchase legally is likely to get smaller over time. Those who oppose such restrictions are free to make their case, of course. But their arguments will be more persuasive if they make them in pragmatic terms, acknowledging the very real trade-offs and costs involved in keeping the country armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weaponry.

There are many other bad arguments floating around. (My colleague Ryan Cooper recently dismantled another — the delusional claim that privately stockpiled guns are a bulwark against the imposition of state tyranny.) The point is that when arguments are this weak, they're exceedingly likely to be defeated. It's just a question of how long it takes for them to lose.

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