Bright lines or blurred lines? Universal background checks and the NRA slippery slope argument.

Author:Pfau, Michael William


Among the most radical disjunctions between public opinion and public policy is the gulf between the 90% (Quinnipiac 2014) of Americans who support "universal background checks" for purchasing a firearm, and the U.S. Congress which has consistently refused to pass such a measure despite President Obama's aggressive advocacy of "universal background checks" in the wake of a string of mass shootings that reached a tragic climax in the murder of elementary school children in Newtown Connecticut. Such political resistance is typically explained as a result of the enormous power of the National Rifle Association (hereafter NRA), and the "larger strategy that the NRA has employed for nearly a decade: Cast all increased regulation of guns as a step on the slippery slope to the Second Amendment Armageddon" (Scherer 2013b). Although the "Obama administration has repeatedly says [sic] it opposed registration and confiscation," this pledge "has not stopped Republicans in Congress from repeatedly raising the specter of registration and confiscation. Mitch McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, has called expanded background checks a 'thinly veiled national gun registration scheme'" (Scherer 2013a). As such, the slippery slope argument (hereafter SSA) is not only at the core of NRA rhetorical efforts, but is partially or wholly responsible for the political deadlock surrounding the universal background checks issue.

However, according to constitutional law scholar Adam Winkler, the NRA's SSA is both a symptom and a product of the polarization on the gun control issue, in which the extremes of the gun control debate have created a climate of discourse in which sensible and moderate gun control measures are difficult to pass: "... the debate is dominated by more strident groups: one set on getting rid of the guns, the other determined to stop guns from being restricted in even modest ways" (Winkler 2013, 11). The NRA vehemently opposes even the most modest gun control measures as a step along the slippery slope toward civilian disarmament in part due to the extreme stance taken by opposing gun control organizations, politicians, and reformers. These groups have advanced relatively moderate and incremental measures (that they feel are most likely to find acceptance) as simply a first step toward their eventual goal of reducing or even eliminating firearms in civilian society (Winkler 2013, 10-11, 19). From this perspective, the NRA's SSA is more than just an obstruction in the way of reasonable firearm regulations; it is the creation of a larger historical dynamic established by the interaction between the two extremes of the gun control controversy.

This essay takes as its task analyzing and evaluating the SSA primarily as presented by the NRA's spokesperson Wayne LaPierre. This task is enabled by the vast scholarly literature that has formed around understanding the slippery slope fallacy. Initially, the study deploys SSA scholarship as an interpretive vocabulary that allows us to understand how the NRA SSA works. Next, the essay turns to the much more difficult task of evaluating the argument, a task enabled both by the SSA critical vocabulary as well as by a dialogic approach that considers the NRA SSA within the larger context of President Obama's public discourses on the issue. Finally, the study considers how analysis and evaluation of the NRA SSA can contribute toward moving beyond the extremes in the interest of reconstituting a moderate "center" that could serve as a foundation for cooperation and political progress on policies like universal background checks.

Understanding the SSA

In some respects, referring to a "slippery slope argument" may be a contradiction in terms since the slippery slope has traditionally been treated as a fallacy (Walton 2015, 305). From this perspective, the SSA "possesses the somewhat undignified status of 'wrong but persuasive'" (Corner, Hahn, and Oaksford 2011, 133); and is properly a "rhetorical device" that plays on fears and prejudices rather than appealing to traditional standards of evidence (Lafollette 2005, 489-490). However, a number of scholars--most notably Douglas Walton--have undertaken to establish that the slippery slope is not always a fallacious form of reasoning (Govier 1982; Walton 1992, 2015). While Walton recognizes that the complex future-oriented nature of the argument and its association with highly emotional topics and issues has led many to assume that the SSA is a fallacy, he insists that SSAs "are in principle reasonable arguments, or can be, because they are a species of argument from negative consequences" that "can be reasonable in some cases of intelligent deliberation" (Walton 2015, 304).

Douglas Walton's work has done a great deal to synthesize SSA scholarship, ultimately concluding that a SSA has several basic characteristics:

First, there must be a framework of deliberation in which one agent is advising another on a choice of action. Second, there must be a sequence of actions leading from the action to be chosen to an ultimate outcome. Third, there must be a gray area in the middle region of the sequence in which the agent will lose control. Fourth, once the agent has lost control ... she will be impelled along the sequence leading to an ultimate catastrophic outcome. (Walton 2015, 304)

The sequence of events is moved forward by "drivers," which are catalysts, "factors that help to propel the argument and series of consequences along the sequence, making it progressively harder for the agent to resist continuing to move ahead." Drivers are ultimately responsible for propelling the agent into the "gray zone" (VanderBurg 1991,45) or "gray area" (Walton 2015, 297) in which respondents lose control over the progress of events. According to Walton, it is the gray area that makes the slippery slope slippery, by taking control of events out of the hands of the respondents of the argument (2015, 297, 304).

Having identified the basic characteristic of the SSA, Walton proceeds to consider a number of evaluative "critical questions" appropriate to evaluating this argumentation scheme: "one of the most important critical questions is whether there is a bright line that can be placed into the gray zone to stop the slippery slope from moving forward" (Walton 2015, 302). The notion of a "bright line" will become important when considering the question of evaluating the SSA.

While previous scholarship has deployed a pragma-dialectical approach to determine that several major NRA arguments are fallacious (Duerringer and Justus 2016), to date scholarly case studies on SSAs in particular have revolved around other issues like abortion and euthanasia (Lindsay 1974; Trianosky 1978; Dore 1989; Jones 2011). This essay will utilize Walton's synthesis of SSA literature, and the associated critical vocabulary of gray zones, drivers, bright lines, etc., as a means of describing and evaluating the logical and persuasive operations animating the NRA SSA.

Analyzing the NRA SSA

Given the propensity of the NRA to rely upon the SSA (Scherer 2013a; Winkler 2013, 8; Lunceford 2015, 339), it is no surprise that this has been their response to pushes for gun control during the second term of the Obama Administration. Within academic discourses, the SSA connotes a suspicion that it is a form of fallacious reasoning and manipulative rhetoric, but a number of gun rights discourses utilize this term unapologetically to describe the strategy of their opponents. An editorial in Forbes invoked the reality of the slippery slope in its title "The Slippery Slope of Gun Control: Time to Stand on Firm Ground" (Bell 2013). According to another source, the slippery slope is a deliberate strategy of the gun control movement in California:

The California slippery slope of anti-freedom legislation ... has been a model for the rest of the nation. This is the ceaseless, incremental strategy of the California gun-control movement. ... here in the Golden State, the Golden Rule of gun control has always been to swipe freedoms one small step at a time. Over, and over, and over again. (Michel 2013)

This paper's analysis of the NRA SSA will focus upon the discourses of NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, and consider them from the perspective of the SSA critical vocabulary.

Some preliminary NRA "drivers": of interest groups and conspiracies

The nature of the drivers and the gray area as they appear in NRA discourses is sometimes only implicitly suggested. The enthymematic nature of these arguments requires attention to inter-textual contexts that reveal the assumptions behind the SSA (Walton 2015, 282-283). Indeed within NRA discourses are several potential mechanisms and processes that correspond to what Walton has described as the drivers, or catalysts, that propel the SSA along the sequence from one step to another (2015, 288). A review of recent NRA discourses reveals that two preliminary drivers frame the political arena in a manner that accounts for progression along the slippery slope.

The official publication of the NRA, American Rifleman, reveals a persistent strand of discourses that focus on warning NRA members about the various interest groups, politicians, and other powerful individuals who are advocating for strict gun control. When referencing the spectrum of actors, director of the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, Chris Cox refers to "our opponents" as an "anti-gun axis" (Cox 2008a, 112; Cox 2009b, 62; Cox 2009a, 66). While Cox's discourses frequently express alarm about an allegedly endangered second amendment, he presents the issue straightforwardly as one of interest group politics: "There is no need to wonder whether there are secret plans to ban guns outright because there's nothing secret about the anti-gun agenda. It's right on the Brady Campaign website" (Cox 2009a, 66).

In addition to focusing on interest groups, NRA...

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