I have often thought that you could teach an entire Introductory Logic course by demonstrating the repeated fallacies of "gun rights" advocates as they struggle to oppose common sense restrictions on firearms.
One of my favorite "gun rights" fallacies was on display at this week's hearing on guns and terrorists before the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). The hearing featured testimony by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly decrying two indefensible loopholes in our gun laws that make a mockery of our war on terror.
First, although we can block those on the terrorist watch list from getting on airplanes, suspected terrorist activity is not itself a sufficient reason under current law to prevent them from buying guns from licensed dealers (the "terror gap"). Second, even if we could block suspected terrorists (and other violent people) from buying guns from licensed dealers, they could evade Brady Law background checks entirely by resorting to private sellers at gun shows (the "gun show loophole"). The subject acquires new urgency following the revelation that the Times Square car bomb suspect had a Kel-Tec assault rifle in the car he drove to the airport, no doubt ready for use if he had been intercepted in transit.
After testimony revealing the shocking fact that during a six-year period through February of this year, individuals on the terrorist watch list had been allowed to buy guns over-the-counter 1,119 times, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) explained his opposition to closing the terror gap:
"Senator Lieberman, Joe, we're talking about a Second Amendment right. And some of the people pushing this idea [closing the terror gap] are also pushing the idea of banning handguns. And I don't think banning handguns makes me safer, because every criminal who wants a gun seems to be able to get one."
So, as I understand it, Senator Graham's argument goes like this:
Some people who support closing the terror gap also support banning handguns.
I don't support banning handguns.
Therefore, I don't support closing the terror gap.
Does this argument make sense to anyone but Senator Graham? Even if it is true that some who support preventing terrorists from buying guns also would like to ban handguns, it is certainly logically possible to support the former without supporting the latter. In fact, a recent survey by Republican messaging maven Frank Luntz shows that 82% of self-identified NRA members support "prohibiting persons on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns" even though it would be surprising to find much support in that group for banning handguns. In short, the fact that "some people are pushing the idea of banning handguns" will never be a good reason to oppose barring suspected terrorists from buying guns.
As Senator Lieberman all-too-patiently pointed out in the hearing, no one was talking about banning handguns. The exchange between the two Senators illustrates a longtime reality of the gun debate: opponents of stricter gun laws need the debate to be about banning guns. Since gun owners - and even NRA members - support proposals like closing the terror gap, they must be convinced that the debate is not really about closing the terror gap or other reasonable reforms, but about banning guns generally. If someone proposes modest changes like closing the terror gap and the gun show loophole, the prescribed response is clear - change the subject.
Yesterday's hearing also illustrates that the "banning guns" misdirection strategy is so important to the opponents of gun control that it continues to be used even after Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller establishing that it would violate the Second Amendment for Congress to ban handguns. Senator Graham mentioned the Supreme Court's ruling, yet didn't seem to understand that the Heller ruling makes handgun bans even more irrelevant to issues like the terror gap. In the words of Justice Scalia's majority opinion, handgun bans are now "off the table" as a policy option. Ironically, the same Supreme Court ruling that gave the gun lobby the reading of the Second Amendment it had long sought also promises to weaken its ability to use the fear of a general gun ban to whip its members into a frenzy against gun regulation generally. Senator Graham also showed no awareness of the language in Heller extending the right to have guns only to "law-abiding, responsible" individuals, leaving ample constitutional room for policies to deny guns to those planning terrorist attacks on our citizens.
We can only hope that the fatal fallacies of the gun lobby and its allies in Congress will become so apparent that reason will start to light the darkness in the gun debate. Who among us is willing to die for a non sequitur?
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).