Last Thursday the Washington Post published an impassioned appeal from Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) imploring Americans to ban guns. You might think that hearing a senator from Illinois sing the praises of gun control laws to the rest of the country would border on high satire if only it weren’t so tragic a subject.
You’d probably be right, but you wouldn’t know from Duckworth’s editorial: she spends 700 words roping her audience into the agonizing realities of the problem and suggesting her detractors have been bought off. She expends zero effort to show how gun control laws are practical, effective, narrowly tailored, or apt—or that they work at all. She does not even allude to her home’s bleak but deserved reputation for gun violence even though a state-level analysis ranks Illinois as having one of the most draconian gun-control regimes in the nation.
Instead, Duckworth maligns those who disagree with her: “What I don’t understand is how some politicians can consider the National Rifle Association’s dollars more important than our kids’ lives.” This kind of accusation makes political persuasion and rational discourse impossible: bypassing every single argument, fact, narrative, and alternative course of action offered by your opponent, you make it clear that the well is poisoned. Their motive is self-interest that weighs their campaign dollars against children’s lives and finds the latter wanting.
Communicating that she considers serious arguments not worth addressing and her opponents wicked people, Duckworth makes it clear that trying to persuade her would be time wasted. A distinction recently articulated by stats maven Nate Silver comes to mind: “Some people are good at making it not worth your while to argue with them—which can be a useful skill. But I wonder how many of them operate under the delusion that they’re skilled at *persuasion*, which is a totally different and indeed somewhat opposite phenomenon.”
To be clear: Duckworth’s well poisoning can be effective at shutting up opponents and at disarming their persuasive abilities. People judge what they hear based on what they think the speaker is trying to accomplish, what they’re motivated by, and what they really want. So handing your audience that interpretive filter for everything they will ever hear from a pro-gun rights believer can taint it as disingenuous and untrustworthy. Duckworth’s kind of argument also strips her colleagues of every incentive to even participate.
Duckworth cages her language, of course, as something that applies only to “some politicians.” But of course this is disingenuous: if Duckworth’s real motive is to address the problem of children murdered by people using guns, then what’s necessary is to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the viable policy options. She chooses instead to malign proponents of the natural and constitutional right to self-defense, and considers their arguments not even worth mentioning.
But let’s consider this accusation of hers that “some politicians can consider the National Rifle Association’s dollars more important than our kids’ lives.” Perhaps Duckworth has some insight, just from being in Congress, about particular officials; if she does, she keeps silent about it and names no names. But can we analyze this accusation on the publicly known facts of the matter?
According to OpenSecrets.org, run by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, the National Rifle Association has contributed $22.6 million to political campaigns since 1990. This sounds like a lot of money until you realize it means they don’t quite break the top 100 campaign contributors. (And if we are talking about influence being sold to the highest bidder, then comparison is everything.)
For context: the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers both made the top ten, with contributions that total more than ten times what the NRA fielded. Yet there have been vanishingly few accusations that Duckworth (and the rest of the Democratic Party) might be “bought off” by public employees who, after all, are not infrequently accused of making education about “jobs for adults” rather than “learning for children.”
Here are more members of that top 100, all of whom have given more to campaigns since 1990 than the NRA did: Microsoft, Comcast, the University of California, the Walt Disney Company, Boeing, the Houston Texans, and the American Dental Association.
Duckworth also does not acknowledge the record of failure charted by Illinois, other states, and several major cities at “controlling” guns. She does not mention that government has shown it cannot enforce bans on drugs or protect lands from those with no right to be on them—all of this from a lawmaker whose party argues that because some women “would have abortions anyway” if they were illegal, then we should make them as convenient as possible.
If Duckworth’s opinion is designed to appeal to emotions while ignoring facts when discounting other options, we might expect her to give facts short shrift when she talks about the actual crisis at hand—and indeed she does. “[O]ur streets have become deadlier than war zones,” she declares, “with more Americans killed by gun violence over the past 50 years than in every war in American history combines.”
Except that “killed by gun violence” includes the ancient deception of counting suicides in that figure. Duckworth’s underlying data, from the Centers for Disease Control, report that nearly two-thirds of those “gun violence” deaths were suicides. (This is helpfully visualized, with some other analysis, on Silver’s site here.)
But Duckworth delivers this false impression of our nation’s streets like war zones then personalizes it with the imaginative line, “Imagine your own little girl or boy being forced to stare down the barrel of a semiautomatic.”
This is American political discourse at its worse: an elected official magnifying a public crisis with tortured data as an excuse to be given more power; to do so, she ignores arguments for other options and simply maligns detractors as bought-off and uncaring. All of this murky thinking and emotionally charged rhetoric is not at a campaign rally (its natural habitat) but in text written and published in a newspaper, the supposed home of rational inquiry.
All this actually betrays Democrats’ ulterior motive. As in so many other cases, Democrats have a single policy goal that they insist is the only option on the table—anyone opposing that option, they say, enjoys the problem in the first place. We see this fevered abuse of pars pro toto in the abortion argument: those in favor of the universal human right to life are said to be “against women’s health care,” no matter how long the list of components of women’s health care—Tylenol, Advil, breast cancer screenings, casts for broken bones, vaccines—that these same pro-life people favor without a second thought.
It is the same here: there is a rich conversation to be had about governmental and non-governmental ways to curb the gun violence that has historically plagued America at higher rates than elsewhere on earth. Ideas include implementing “gun violence restraining orders” that are, like the problem of gun violence, narrowly tailored; enforcing more strictly existing, already agreed upon laws like felons not being allowed to purchase firearms; allowing concealed carry on school grounds to deter and prevent future would-be mass shooters, as some Columbine survivors have proposed; talking about the statistically suggestive lack of good parenting seen in violent school shooters; arguing against the philosophical nihilism that motivates at least some such shooters.
But Democrats want one thing: to ban guns. To the extent that “we are complicit” in anything because “we keep doing nothing,” that is the reason why.