The NRA’s famed slippery slope argument is entirely valid. Nobody seems to have noticed, however, that the slope is tilted in the opposite direction. Give the gun lobby a millimeter, and they’ll slide a mile. If they could dig a hole in the Second Amendment and stuff shoulder-launched missiles into it, they would never give up their cherished right to own them. And we would keep slipping back into citizen-missile territory every time we tried to climb out of the pit to ban them.
The slippery slope has in fact never been tipped in the direction that the gun lobby would like you to believe. When gun fanatics lose the tiniest bit of ground in the argument over Second Amendment rights, they never find themselves sliding any further. Ever. No weapons ban has ever snowballed into anything remotely like the “gun grabbing” that the NRA predicts with calculated dread. Quite the opposite.
It is worth looking at the most rigorous attempt to implement a series of gun reforms in the United States. That would be the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. If anything should have set gun laws into that catastrophic slide towards mass prohibition, it would have been this.
The NRA of course announced to its members with great lamentation that this was now guaranteed to happen. When Bill Clinton proposed the ban, he met with full-on war, and when he succeeded in passing the ban, he met with full-on vengeance.
The fight to achieve the assault weapons ban was clever, even if it provided the country with poorly-crafted legislation:
Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging White House senior adviser, engineered the main strategy: shove provisions favored by conservatives (more death penalty and prisons) and those fancied by liberals (gun control and rehabilitation programs) into a single package, and the $25 billion-plus bill would have a shot of success. Meanwhile, Clinton draped himself in cops. “At every event he had touting the bill and the assault weapons ban, he had at least 40 cops,” a former Clinton Justice Department official recalls. “And he was pro-death penalty.”
The ban itself was largely impotent, because it was riddled with loopholes. Gun zealots now use this to argue that weapons bans simply do not work, but that is not the lesson at all, as Australia discovered: bans work only if they are comprehensive and intelligent.
Clinton spent much of his political capital on this flawed legislation — a law that had no appreciable affect upon the average gun owner — and still the National Rifle Association howled. They’d hardly lost their vise-grip on the nation: the Federal Assault Weapons Ban “passed by a two-vote margin in the Democrat-controlled House.” Still, the NRA behaved as if America had turned its back on the Second Amendment and shoved patriots onto a polished and greased slide. Soon guns would be confiscated by jackbooted feds with soul-stealing warrants.
Passing the ban gave the NRA what they needed to create mass hysteria among their members and unprecedented pressure upon legislators. The gun lobby ginned up Republicans with just this sort of rhetoric, leading to a monumental GOP victory in the midterms: Republicans “gained 54 seats and control of the House for the first time in 40 years.”
Clinton blamed the midterm debacle on this hard-won but ultimately weak ban. The Democrats have been gun-shy ever since. And we should not sugarcoat this: they do have much to fear. If Congress has the backbone to pass meaningful legislation after Sandy Hook, then the next federal election is going to be a precarious business.
In fact, the only way to stave off a similar debacle will be a strategy along the lines of the one that I have proposed here, or the very similar one that Gabby Giffords is promoting: an equal and opposite counter-lobby, funded to the same obscene degree as the NRA, and prepared to support the campaign of any candidate with the courage to stand up to the gun lobby.
The most remarkable result of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, however, was not Democratic apprehension: it was the terror that seized gun zealots, and that holds them captive even now.
These people are spooked by any mention of a ban. Ever since I began writing this series, I’ve been transformed into a looming sasquatch: the worst kind of hunched and hairy bogeyman. Consider my favorite tweet from a gun lover to his brethren: “Agree that assault weapons ban does nothing, disagree with policy solution. Fear him.”
Fear me? These people have semiautomatics, and I don’t own so much as a Super Soaker.
I know: the pen is mightier than the sword. Still, I doubt that even my manly, rugged iPad could stop a determined bullet.
I’m not even a very credible gun grabber. I have championed the Australian Model, which has allowed responsible gun owners in Oz to keep their weapons, and has not — sorry — caused anyone’s gun rights to slide anywhere. It is well-written legislation that does precisely what it was designed to do; it has not grown into anything more than this, and it does not show any signs of doing so.
I’m just not a very scary guy, but because I’ve proposed sensible laws, I inspire this quasi-biblical tweet: an exhortation to fear me. It really is worse than irrational. Physician, fear thyself — and stop projecting. You might as well fear the first-graders slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Ah, but these people do fear those six- and seven-year-olds. Gun partisans do not mourn these children: they worry that the massacre might bring back the terrifying, tyrannical days of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
The 1994 ban has indeed generated chronic and truly useful neurosis, which has been exploited with characteristic skill by the NRA. All of this despite the comical shoddiness of the legislation.
While the term “assault weapons” dates back at least to 1943, the Clinton-era ban refined this term to produce an almost useless definition: the law determined that scary-looking guns were assault weapons. “Anti-gun people and organizations used the term to describe anything that even remotely looked like a military-style weapon. Senator Howard Metzenbaum even described them as ‘ominous.'”
Ponder this. You’re a gun manufacturer, and you’ve been told by legislators that your uglier weapons — literally, ugly to look at — are now illegal. What do you do? The answer is obvious: make the same weapons, but give them a makeover.
After the ban, and this badly-written definition, guns could in fact be given a nice face-lift in a way that rendered them legal, but hardly affected them functionally. A gun was permitted to have only one of the following features, for instance: “an adjustable stock, pistol grip, bayonet mount, grenade launcher, or a flash suppressor.” Criminals, believe me, were perfectly happy to have semiautomatics without grenade launchers. They did not even use bayonets all that often.
Flash suppressors are the visual equivalent of a silencer, however, and are indeed useful if you are involved in a midnight murder that requires a degree of cover: sparks might tip off the neighbors. So you would have to do without an adjustable stock or a pistol grip if you required one of those. Hey, you’d live. (Your victim, not so much.)
Hence the ban resulted in all sorts of guns that were cosmetically a bit less ominous, and in essence pretty much the same. Many of these were named for the ban, to remind gun owners just how much they were suffering.
The NRA wept and wailed. Take away our bayonet mounts, and the next thing you’ll want are shotguns, handguns, slingshots.
None of this happened. The ban was not extended to cover any further weapons.
The legislation did limit the size of magazines to 10 rounds, a reasonable provision, but finally not that helpful.
In fact, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was of such minimal use — and caused so much grief to legislators involved — that politicians a few years later did not want to go anywhere near it.
The 1994 law had a “sunset clause,” meaning that it had to be renewed in 2004 or it would evaporate, and 2004 just happened to be four years into the trigger-happy Bush administration, and three years after 9/11. Every citizen was nervous about perceived national weakness, and every politician was nervous about the massive political hit taken by the Democrats after the ban was passed. Hence there was no impetus on either side of the aisle to extend the legislation, and the 1994 law died a quiet and ignominious death.
So much for the slippery slope.
There is no other way to interpret this: our inclined plane is tilted in precisely the opposite direction from the one the NRA would have you believe. The almost impossible business is climbing up the slope towards gun control.
This remains, however, an extremely good metaphor. Ever tried to ascend an iced hill? You get one or two steps up, and then you have to hold your breath and balance — absolutely still — in order to maintain the little bit of ground you’ve achieved. There is no question of going any further. Simply staying where you are requires immense concentration.
It is natural at this point to give up. You sure ain’t going anywhere, so what’s the purpose of clinging to your sorry accomplishment? And so it goes: we slide back down the slope into a silly, maximalist reading of the Second Amendment.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 is captured almost perfectly by this simile. No doubt the NRA took note of this and studied it, before flipping it to produce their perfect lie: oh, those slopes are horribly slippery, and they tilt disastrously towards gun grabbing and tyranny.
Don’t fool yourself: the gun lobby is willing to give up precisely nothing. They do not negotiate. This disingenuous conceit — this slippery fiction — allows them to justify the most extreme form of intransigence. Note how it works: “If we give up even a nanometer of gun rights, that’s it: we’re on an infernal toboggan, sliding into that hell where all guns are banned. Hence? We give them nada.”
It is an apparently reasonable argument, and it serves to crank up the jittery will of paranoid extremists.
The NRA feeds its members on a steady diet of fear. Responsible gun owners don’t swallow this: most of them have long favored practical gun control; they are important allies in this battle. Yes, many belong to the NRA, but they do not buy into the gun-grabber paranoia. The NRA plays, therefore, to the members that do: the armed and timid. If you can manipulate these people so that they always feel cornered, then they will always behave like cornered rats. That is how you make the terrified truly dangerous.
Hence, the NRA has good reason to favor this slippery metaphor. It is elegant propaganda: simple, scary and targeted: nobody wants to occupy dangerously tilted terrain, especially if they’re already off-kilter. Never mind that it is sane, decent citizens who stand on this carefully snake-oiled slope, and who slide — every single time — into the hell that is Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and Aurora, and Sandy Hook.