Gun Control Debate 2013: Republicans' "Slippery Slope" Arguments Show An Ignorance Of History


In light of the recent ricin attacks on Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, it is time for us to acknowledge an unavoidable reality:

When the slippery slope fallacy is applied to politics, the consequences can be dangerous.

As defined by the Nizkor Project (an organization dedicated to debunking Holocaust denial), a slippery slope argument is "a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question." Although the ricin attacks were motivated by opposition to gun control, this fallacy has also made multiple appearances in conservatives' and libertarians' violent rhetoric toward President Obama, especially in Tea Party protests to his economic proposals. When right-wingers claim that progressive policies on economic development and gun control will lead to tyranny, they assume that America once used to be laissez-faire on matters involving firearms and the free market. Consequently, the thinking goes, any encroachment into these realms by the federal government sets an ominous precedent that will inevitably encourage the state to seize more and more power, with the ultimate result being a slippery slope toward authoritarianism.

It is essential to note that this reasoning does not stand up to historical scrutiny. When it comes to economic policy, one need only look at some of our greatest early presidents to see that the federal government has long experimented with state intervention in the free market. George Washington chartered the First National Bank, created the federal post office, and enforced the government's right to levy unpopular taxes by suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, saw no contradiction between his small-government principles and championing generous federal subsidies for public-school education, the promotion of the arts and science, and job-creating infrastructure developments such as road and canal construction. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, passed America's original income tax (and first progressive income tax) and used federal money to build the transcontinental railroad and create land-grant colleges (the forebears to state universities). Even the Constitution itself was created in part as a way of redressing the weaknesses of America's first governing charter, the Articles of Confederation. Unlike its predecessor, the Constitution empowered the federal government to levy and collect taxes, pass commercial regulations, and coin and regulate the value of money, with James Madison later writing that "the rejection or not adopting of [additional] particular propositions" was never intended to imply that those powers were automatically proscribed.

While the aforementioned measures all constituted unprecedented government involvement in the economy when they were first proposed or put in place, this isn't to say that federal economic power has always expanded. Federal policy has existed on a pendulum, swinging between the extremes of collectivist oppression on the one hand and pro-plutocratic anarchy on the other without wedging into one or the other in the process.

Similarly, our nation has long been fiercely divided over whether the Founding Fathers intended for the Second Amendment to make firearm ownership an individual or political right. In the 19th century, those who favored individualist interpretations could cite the 1822 Kentucky case of Bliss v. Commonwealth, which decided that "the right of citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State must be preserved entire," while supporters of the contrary view looked to the 1842 Arkansas case of State v. Buzzard, which claimed "that the words 'a well regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free State,' and the words 'common defense' clearly show" that "the people, neither individually nor collectively, have the right to keep and bear arms." Today advocates from both sides have comparably disparate judicial precedents, from the United States v. Miller (1939) ruling that unless a weapon was owned in a way that "has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument," to District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010),which argue that while "the Second Amendment right is not unlimited," it "protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia."

This history isn't simply important in its own right. When conservatives and libertarians argue against the practical merits of economic progressivism and gun control, they provide a valuable service to our democratic polity. So long as hyperbolic illogic persists, however, acts of violence like last week's ricin attacks will continue to threaten our freedom. America needs, and deserves, better.