The Gun Lobby’s Dumbest Argument

Do we expect that anti-pollution laws will end all pollution? Of course not. And neither, argues Michael Tomasky, should we expect that gun laws will prevent all violence. This absurd argument shouldn’t be taken seriously.

04.12.13 4:45 AM ET

As the Senate gets set to show that you can fight the National Rifle Association, let’s consider what has to be the worst reason ever put forward by anyone to oppose anything in the entire history of the human race: that the actions under consideration “won’t prevent” future tragedies or “wouldn’t have prevented” such-and-such sociopath from unloading hundreds of rounds into the bodies of children. Gun nuts invoke this argument as if it’s some kind of clincher, a discussion-ender. It’s anything but. It shows total ignorance about the reasons that we make laws in the first place. It demands that gun legislation meet a standard of performance that laws in no other arena of public policy are ever held to. It keeps gun-control forces constantly on the defensive because the people who cynically spout this nonsense in public know that many well-meaning but naive folks will buy it. It’s stupid, but for these reasons it is surely more evil than stupid, and it must be stopped.

Let’s take my objections one by one. Why do we make laws? Well, of course, there is an element of prevention in all policymaking. We passed clean-air and clean-water laws in the 1970s in no small part to try to prevent selfish corporations and others from befouling the air and water. But did anyone think that the passage of such laws would prevent all pollution? Despite the kind of palaver politicians unload on us when a major bill is passed, obviously no sentient person thought any such thing. People are people, some of them are chiselers and sociopaths, and if giving a few hundred poor children asthma is going to increase their bottom line by 1 percent, they’ll do it.

Still, we made the laws. Why? For two other reasons. One, to have a ready statutory means by which to punish the chiselers and sociopaths. And two, to make a statement as a society about what sort of society we are. As it happens, we passed the Clean Water Act of 1972 in part simply to say: whatever sort of society we are, we aren’t one in which we will watch as our rivers catch fire and not try to do anything about it.

We do try to do something about it. Yet even so, and here is my second point, no one thinks laws against pollution will prevent all pollution. Similarly, no one supposes that laws against armed robbery will prevent all armed robbery. No one expects that laws against tax evasion will stop the selfish and the stingy from hiring their selfish and stingy lawyers to identify for them various selfish and stingy new ways around the laws. We do not presume man’s perfectibility. And yet somehow, gun laws are supposed to meet the standard of being able to prevent all future massacres and are criticized as total failures if they don’t? Absurd.

This gets to point three, in which we reach the very heart of the gun lobby’s cynicism and grandiose moral corruption. Of course, it’s our desire that new laws might prevent tragedies. People don’t want to see another Newtown. Admittedly, gun-control advocates are guilty of speaking in these kinds of tropes. It’s a natural human urge among well-meaning people to want to prevent the deaths of children. But what the gun lobby does is that it takes this wholly decent desire and twists it into an excuse to permit the carnage to continue. Adam Lanza would have passed a background check, they say; therefore, make no changes in law. And sadly, many of those well-meaning people will buy this. It’s an argument that’s very hard for gun-control forces to win.

Well, maybe Lanza would have passed a check. But maybe some future Lanza will not. And in any case the problem is hardly that the changes the Senate might pass try to do too much. They do far too little. The fact that bans on extended magazines and unlimited purchases of ammunition aren’t even under serious consideration here is staggering and revolting. No sportsman or hunter needs 6,000 rounds of ammunition and high-capacity drum magazines (take a gander at these here yet that is exactly what Aurora killer James Holmes had.

And here is the final sick irony. Say Congress actually passes what’s under consideration. Then eight months from now there’s another mass shooting. See, the NRA will sneer? Didn’t prevent it. Yet it’s the NRA that works every day in Washington to make sure Congress can’t even consider things like magazine and ammunition bans that might be more effective. Imagine a doctor who gave a man with cancer a few antibiotics and then sneered, “See, told you; didn’t work.” This is what the NRA does.

It would be nice if we could pass laws that would prevent any massacre from happening again. But we can’t. And we shouldn’t even be having a debate on those phony and stacked terms. The debate we should be having, and that some are trying to have, goes like this: we’re sick and tired of burying these children and other innocent people, and we have to express our values as a society here, doing whatever we can hopefully to prevent future carnage, but even failing that, we need to give ourselves readier means to make sure future offenders—not just the butchers, but the people who illegally arm them—are prosecuted as fully as possible.

What people really mean when they mount the prevention horse is do nothing. Oh, now they’ve come up with arming the teachers, but the NRA “plan” to do that is just an excuse so they had something to say after Newtown. In a way they, too, are expressing their values. But their values are that their virtually limitless conception of their “rights” is more important than all these dead bodies. They’ve merely figured out that the prevention canard is the least morally objectionable way for them to express that. The rest of us need to talk about how morally objectionable it is.