Wednesday, April 16, 2008

When Bad Slippery Slope Arguments are Good

From today's paper: a story that demonstrates why "bad slippery slope" arguments are not always bad.

Actually, to be fair, I should say that very few philosophers and students of rhetoric consider slippery slope arguments to be ATB bad. It's just that the slippery slope argument is similar enough to the continuum fallacy that "bad slippery slope" arguments are easy to make. Fair enough, I agree, so no intention to dispute that point here. It's just that in online discussion groups, I see the phrase "bad slippery slope" argument used as a synonym for "slippery slope argument" often enough that I do wonder whether the average citizen thinks there is a such a thing as a "slippery slope fallacy?"

But I digress. The article in question is about yet another Second Amendment Foe using the anniversary of the VATech massacre as a platform. In this case it's IU alumnus (alumnus!) Jeffrey Schauss organizing what he calls two "Time of Remembrance" events - one of which is on campus.

He claims the events are "non-political," but OF COURSE they're political. You hardly organize a memorial for people you don't know unless this matters to you in some way, and it's hard to see in what way this matters to anyone not directly affected unless it's out of some kind of concern for public safety. That concern can take many forms - but there are two main ones: there is my position (make guns legal on campus so that students have time to respond faster than the clearly ineffective campus police, saving lives), and there is Schauss' (ban guns because gun bans are known to be effective against psychotic students bent on massacre ... wha???). I like to think of them charitably as the "reasoned" and "emotional" positions. And any gullible instinct you may have to take Schauss at his word that he's "just remembering" and "not advocating" are laid to rest by statements like these:

"This is a community coming together to say 'We want peace, we want safety, we want to support our law enforcement,' Schauss said. 'People are interested in community safety; they're interested in making sure dangerous people don't get dangerous weapons."

Any time someone is speaking for what "the community" (whoever THEY are) wants, you know he's pushing an agenda. And it's no accident that his reading of what "the community" wants is "to support our law enforcement" and "making sure dangerous people don't get dangerous weapons." Because you see, in my case (and I assume I'm a member of the community?), both of those statements are true only with HUGE qualifications. For one thing, I don't support "our law enforcement" taking away constitutional liberties, nor do I support them enforcing a policy which leaves me essentially defenseless against attacks from the likes of Cho Seung-Hui. It's the same way I don't support law enforcement doing random searches of the property or person of people not under reasonable suspicion of lawbreaking - like, say, at seatbelt checkpoins. Effective law enforcement is a sine qua non of a free society, but it is even more so of a totalitarian society. Someone has to watch the watchers; Schauss is glossing over non-trivial issues here. Ditto that bit about "making sure dangerous people don't get dangerous weapons." Right, ideally, dangerous people wouldn't have dangerous weapons. But what a facile thing to say! While we're floating on clouds and dreaming about the way things ought to be, we might as well say we have an interest in "making sure there are no dangerous people." If taking weapons away from dangerous people makes them less effective - a point which can hardly be denied - then it is equally true that taking weapons away from law-abiding people makes them less effective. So right, to the extent that we can keep dangerous people away from dangerous weapons without compromising my right to defend myself against - you guessed it! - dangerous people, then I'm all for it. But dang if that ain't a huge qualifier!

Then there's clincher:

"When you realize that this is something gun laws might have made a difference on, it really tears at your heart," Helmke said. "We make it harder to buy Sudafed at the grocery store than to buy a gun. We make it harder to get a job at McDonald's than to buy a gun."

That's not Schauss, but rather his friend, Paul Helmke, a Brady advocate.

I could skip over the obvious - but why, when it's so much fun? "When you realize that this is something gun laws might have made a difference on..." HOW, exactly? What do gun laws do to prevent school massacres? Nada. Nothing about the restriction against guns on campus (which was in effect at the time of the massacre) stopped Cho. It's been argued that people with Cho's mental condition should be prohibited from purchasing guns - so maybe it is in this sense that Helmke means that gun laws might have prevented the massacre. Well, guess what? Current federal gun laws DO prohibit people like Cho from buying guns. In other words, neither the federal ban on gun purchases by people "adjudicated as a mental defective" nor the unconstitutional Va Tech campus ban managed to prevent this. Score exactly ZERO, NULL, NADA for gun bans, in this case, so no, Mr. Helmke, I don't feel particularly obligated to join you in your fantasy "realization" that "gun laws might have made a difference" here.

The point is his next statement. "We make it harder to buy Sudafed at the grocery store than to buy a gun. We make it harder to get a job at McDonald's than to buy a gun." Alright - let's go ahead and get the obvious out of the way. There is no constitutional right to buy Sudafed at the grocery store. Neither is there a constitutional right to get a job at McDonald's. There IS a constitutional right to own a gun. "...the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." They couldn't possibly have made it clearer.

Even so, what comes to my mind when someone points out how hard it is to buy Sudafed at the grocery store and get a job at McDonald's isn't "why isn't it harder to buy guns" so much as "why are these things difficult to begin with?" And indeed, I can't think of a good reason. Ok, granted, I can begin to see why getting a job at McDonald's is more difficult. The manager, after all, will want to make sure he's hiring worthwhile people, which does tend to necessitate checks to disqualify certain individuals. But Sudafed? WHY is it difficult to buy Sudafed? Is it difficult to buy Sudafed? ... ???

In any case, let's imagine that it is, in fact, difficult to buy Sudafed and to get a job at McDonald's because of legal regulations. You see the point. Whenever the hypothetical regulations went into effect, there was someone like me standing around saying "why do we need regulations against Sudafed? Let the government regulate this, and soon they'll be regulating more and more, because we'll have weakened the threshold as to what regulations the public finds acceptable." And there would've been others saying "Please! That's a bad slippery slope argument. Nothing about regulating Sudafed is going to lower the public tolerance for regulation."

But damned if Helmke isn't sitting here right now arguing that the fact that we tolerate (probably imaginary) regulations on Sudafed and jobs at McDonald's should lead us to tolerate regulations on gun ownership too.

There you have it, folks. Slippery slope arguments aren't always bad. Sometimes, it really is the case that people use past wedges in the door as arguments for widening the breach. If regulations on Sudafed, a substance mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, can be used as an argument for restricting a right that is enshrined in the basic law of the land for the very real concerns of self defense and resistance to tyranny, then we are in the presence of sterling proof that slippery slope scenarios sometimes really do come true. Enemies of freedom like Helmke can, do, and will again exploit small steps to argue for more draconian intrusions in the future.

These arguments have, of course, been made before. For the 109-page authoritative version, see (Volokh 2003). For the authoritative version of a bunch of opportunisitc cowards trying to sneak in restrictions on your rights and freedoms by tugging at your heartstrings through a covert political event masquerading as a vigil, be sure and check out Jeffrey Schauss and Paul Helmke at one of their two "Times of Remembrance." Maybe while you're there take the opportunity to remember all the lives guns have saved. Then please, go out, buy a gun, learn how to use it, and remember Va Tech by joining the NRA - the one organization that has done more than any other to keep you protected against people like Schauss and Helmke - and Cho.


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