As the pressure continues to build for congressional action on gun violence in the wake of the Orlando massacre, the gun control debate will continue, in Congress and elsewhere. The opponents of proposals like universal background checks and closing the “terror gap” are deploying their well-worn bumper sticker arguments, with a superficial appeal that too often wins the day, in defiance of logic and evidence. Here are the three worst arguments against stronger gun laws and why Congress should reject them out of hand.
Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People
This is the granddaddy of them all, a brilliantly clever way of conveying two related ideas: (1) because guns themselves are morally neutral objects that become a problem only when used by dangerous people, it makes sense only to focus on punishing bad people who use guns, rather than regulating guns themselves; and (2) even if dangerous people can’t get guns, they will simply use other weapons to inflict death and injury. In short, there is no gun problem; there is only a people problem.
Would we find this reasoning persuasive in other contexts involving dangerous products? Consider automobiles, for example. A car also is pretty innocuous sitting in a driveway, until it comes into contact with a driver who may be untrained or reckless. Yet our public policy toward preventing auto injuries is not confined to punishing careless or reckless drivers following a tragedy. We think it equally important to have a licensing system in place to prevent untrained and potentially high-risk people from driving in the first place. Similarly, we should have laws in place to prevent dangerous people from having guns—at the very least, required background checks for all gun sales.
Yes, it is true that dangerous people could turn to other weapons if denied access to guns. But this is a false equivalence. Research shows that attacks with guns are five times more likely to be lethal than attacks with knives, for example. Does anyone really believe that the Orlando shooter could have killed 49 people and injured 53 others with a knife or baseball bat? Guns don’t kill people, but people with guns kill people, far more effectively and efficiently than with other weapons.
Criminals Don’t Obey Gun Laws, Only Law-Abiding Citizens Do
This is the futility argument. According to the National Rifle Association and its allies, since gun laws are directed at criminals, who of course pay no attention to any laws (that’s why they’re called criminals), gun control can’t possibly be effective, except in making it harder for law-abiding citizens to have guns to defend themselves.
First, the argument is transparently circular. Of course, as to individuals who are willing to disobey gun laws, the laws are futile by definition. But what about the possibility that there are potentially violent individuals who are deterred from carrying guns by the illegality of doing so? Surely compliance with a law cannot be determined merely by looking at the instances of when the law is violated. If it could, we would regard all our criminal laws as ultimately futile because all of them are frequently violated. Should we repeal our laws against homicide because murderers don’t obey them?
It turns out that there is substantial evidence that many criminals may refrain from gun carrying because of gun control laws. In one survey, incarcerated felons who had not carried weapons during the commission of their crimes were asked why they decided against being armed. Fifty-nine percent chose the response “Against the law.”
In addition, the argument proceeds from a false premise, i.e., that the effectiveness of gun control laws depends on compliance by criminals. Take the Brady Act, for instance. It requires licensed gun dealers to submit the gun purchaser’s name for a background check and to refuse the sale if the check reveals a disqualifying record. If the dealer is willing to obey the law, the criminal’s preferred source of guns will be denied him. “Terror gap” legislation simply adds persons on the “no-fly” list and other suspected terrorists to the categories of persons who will be denied purchases from licensed dealers. The effectiveness of such background checks do not depend on the willingness of criminals and suspected terrorists to obey the law.
Of course, it is possible that dangerous gun buyers will turn to other sources for their guns, but that is a reason to extend mandatory background checks to all gun sales, not just sales by licensed dealers. There may be some gun sellers who will ignore the law, but we don’t consider other laws to be ineffective simply because compliance is not universal. The point is that gun control laws can reduce access to guns by criminals and terrorists without compliance with those laws by criminals and terrorists.
Any Gun Control Is a Slippery Slope to Confiscation
This canard is particularly important to the gun lobby because, since even most NRA members actually support modest measures like background checks, it is strategically critical for the NRA to argue that such reforms should be defeated because they will lead ultimately to more radical measures that the gun-owning public strongly opposes.
The slippery slope argument would have validity if it were difficult to logically distinguish the proposal at the top of the slope (say, universal background checks) from the feared proposal at the bottom of the slope, i.e., a complete ban on gun ownership. But of course support for a proposal like universal background checks, closing the “terror gap,” and even licensing of gun owners and registration of guns does not logically entail support for a broad gun ban. The slippery slope is more like a flight of stairs, in which it is quite possible for make a valid argument for taking the first step, e.g., universal background checks, which would still allow law-abiding citizens to own guns, without logically committing oneself to several steps down, e.g., a gun ban, under which even law-abiding citizens would be barred from gun ownership.
Even as a historical matter, there is no basis to believe that enacting some gun regulation leads inevitably to broad gun bans. Take the idea of registering guns like we register cars. Gun partisans have an intense fear of registration because they regard it as a slippery slope to confiscation; once the government knows who owns the guns, it will be nicely positioned to confiscate them. But the State of Pennsylvania, for example, has maintained a database of persons who lawfully purchased handguns since 1931, and there is no reason to believe that the authorities are likely to start knocking on the doors of Pennsylvania gun owners, demanding surrender of their guns.
The fact is that the slippery slope argument is, at its core, nothing but uninformed speculation. There is, however, a steep social cost to that speculation if we allow it to block enactment of sensible policies, like universal background checks, that help to prevent dangerous people from getting guns. If Congress had been persuaded by the slippery slope argument during the Brady Bill debate, since 1994 we would have allowed more than two million legally prohibited gun buyers to buy guns over-the-counter that were, instead, blocked by Brady background checks.
How many more Americans must needlessly perish before we insist that our gun policies be based on reason and evidence, not on the bumper sticker logic of the gun lobby?
Dennis A. Henigan is the author of “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People,” And Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control (Beacon Press 2016) on sale now in e-book and in print July 26. He is the director of legal and policy analysis at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and formerly vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.