An online kerfuffle about a surreptitiously obtained Department of Justice memorandum illustrates the rhetorical effectiveness of the National Rifle Association and the complicated, peculiar nature of the gun-control debate.
Earlier this month, the NRA ferreted out an internal Justice memo (PDF) in which a leading Obama administration crime researcher mused about the limited potential effects of the president’s main proposals to “ban” so-called assault weapons and large ammunition magazines and make the existing criminal background check system more comprehensive. (The highlighting in this copy appears to come courtesy of the NRA.)
Refusing to reveal its investigative sources or methods, the NRA posted the memo here. On that website, you can also view an online commercial referring to the document and running in Republican-leaning states where Democrats are defending Senate seats next year. By pressuring those Red State Democrats to back away from supporting the White House, the NRA hopes to scuttle most or all of the administration’s gun-control program.
As the Senate Judiciary Committee moves haltingly toward producing legislation intended to appeal to those same moderate Democrats and at least a few Republicans, the NRA argues in its ad that the Justice memo shows that the administration believes its proposals won’t work unless coupled with national gun registration and even confiscation—more aggressive steps that neither the White House nor congressional Democratic leaders have backed. Indeed, even the most ardent gun-control advocates know that, barring some unforeseen development, registration and confiscation are politically impossible.
The author of the nine-page Jan. 4 memo, a Ph.D. researcher named Greg Ridgeway, serves as the deputy director of the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the Justice Department. In an introduction, he accurately describes the document as “a cursory summary of select initiatives to reduce firearm violence.”
Ridgeway, who is staying underground, offered a number of matter-of-fact observations, all of which seem sound to me. Making background checks more comprehensive, he observed, could help reduce certain illegal sales at weekend gun shows, but might also create an incentive for criminals to rely more heavily on “straw purchasers,” who have clean records. Banning the manufacture and sale of certain military-style semiautomatic rifles and large ammo magazines could have some marginal effect in the future, but would do little to cut crime in the short term because the proposed “bans” would not affect the existing arsenal of millions of such weapons already in private hands. Even eliminating assault weapons altogether wouldn’t have much impact on overall gun homicide rates, the memo stated, because the military-style rifles aren’t used in a large proportion of crimes.
The administration has tried to back away from the Ridgeway paper, calling it an unfinished survey of research that does not represent official policy.
That kind of wishy-washy statement by an unnamed spokesman does very little to address the NRA’s hyperbolic claim that the memo “makes clear” that the White House proposals are precursors to more restrictive legislation requiring registration and confiscation. The NRA specializes in the slippery-slope argument: resist all gun control on the theory that the liberals’ real goal is to take away your firearms. This reasoning has no basis in fact, yet it gains power from the very modesty of the proposals Obama has pushed.
As the memo points out, the president’s agenda amounts to marginal rule-tinkering, which would do very little to affect violent crime rates. (As an aside: Those crime rates are declining for complicated, poorly understood reasons that have nothing to do with gun-control laws.) In a bizarre twist entirely typical of the radioactive gun debate, the NRA wants to block the administration’s relatively tame proposals based on the conspiratorial notion that they must be harbingers of vastly more draconian moves. That the White House says it would never dare to support registration or confiscation only confirms the conspiracy.
The Newtown (Conn.) elementary school massacre reignited the gun-control issue. Whether it will result in any meaningful changes will depend in large part on whether President Obama can convince fellow Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns why it’s worth taking politically costly steps that his own experts concede won’t accomplish much.