There’s a fundamental flaw in the “slippery slope” argument from both the left and the right.
Whenever the discussion comes up about banning late-term abortion — even the “partial-birth” procedure, in which a doctor sucks the fetus’s brain out of its skull, sometimes while partly through the mother’s birth canal — liberals shriek, declaring that women will be forced into back alleys to perform their own abortions with coat hangers.
And on the conservative side, whenever calls rise to ban “assault weapons” — like the popular AR-15-style rifles used by both the El Paso and Dayton shooters over the weekend, which can fire 45 rounds or more per minute — gun advocates immediately claim the government will soon be knocking on their doors demanding their coon-hunting rifles.
So, both “slippery slope” arguments are specious — and they know it. But hey, that’s never stopped such pointless rhetoric from the bloviators on both sides of the aisle.
With the two mass shootings over the weekend, which left more than 30 people dead and dozens more wounded, all the talk of late is about “assault weapons.” But that’s a made-up political term. More to the point is whether a weapon is automatic (hold the trigger to fire repeated rounds) or semi-automatic (each trigger pull fires a round and chambers another).
“Assault weapons” were banned in 1994, but that ban expired in 2004. In 2012, attempting to renew the ban, former Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, cited FBI statistics to claim that “assault weapons” had been used in 385 murders since the ban expired. But that number meant little. In 2011, for example, there were 8,583 total gun murders in the United States, of which so-called assault weapons accounted for just 0.6%, AssaultWeapon.info reported.
But sometimes — times like now, for instance — the “slippery slope” argument is pointless. The mood of the nation has been swinging over the past several years, throughout the annual mass shootings, and in a 2018 poll by Quinnipiac, 67% of those surveyed supported a ban on “assault weapons.” (And by the way, to most Americans, an “assault weapon” is the kind of rifles mass murderers use — regardless of the textbook definition).
Take the shooter in Dayton. He used a semi-automatic AM-15 (based on the AR-15) set up in a pistol configuration with a shortened barrel and equipped with a 100-round drum magazine. He was shot by police in just 24 seconds but still killed nine people and wounded 14 others. In 24 seconds.
And then there’s this: In half of the nation’s most deadly mass shootings in modern history — Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, San Bernardino in 2015, Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs church in 2017, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 — AR-15 or similar rifles were used (add El Paso and Dayton to those numbers).
However, there’s the Second Amendment, which says “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
But it’s important to remember how things were when the founders passed the Bill of Rights. In 1791, the typical musket had a one-round magazine capacity, could fire three rounds per minute (in the hands of a skilled shooter) and had a range of about 50 yards. AR-15-style weapons, on the other hand, can be modified to hold up to 250 rounds, are capable of firing up 60 or more rounds a minute (again, in skilled hands), and are accurate up to 600 yards.
America’s mood now on guns is similar to the period right before “partial birth abortion” was banned. In 2003, shortly before Congress approved the ban, an ABC poll found that 62% of those surveyed said it should be illegal.
Which brings us to President Trump.
He missed a major opportunity this week to make the right move on guns. Perhaps beholden to the National Rifle Association, Mr. Trump in his statement from the White House didn’t mention “assault weapons” at all. He blamed lapses in mental health care, blamed violent video games, and said law enforcement must do a better job identifying the “red flags” of potential mass shooters.
The last “assault weapons” ban was mostly ineffectual. But that just gave Mr. Trump a prime opportunity to help craft clear and concise legislation to address the problem. Instead, he did nothing.
With “partial-birth abortion,” Americans moved hard in opposition, back in the early 2000s. A majority still support abortion, just not like that. And they finally rejected that “slippery slope” argument: Banning what’s officially known as “intact dilation and extraction” won’t send women into back alleys, they decided.
And America is clearly moving toward some sort of restraint on the guns Americans can own. No, banning “assault weapons” won’t cost gun owners their coon-hunting rifles.
But Mr. Trump missed the boat — and that may sway some of those pragmatic independents come Nov. 3, 2020. Forget the slippery slope.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.
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