Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Bright Lines or Blurred Lines? Universal Background Checks and the NRA Slippery Slope Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Bright Lines or Blurred Lines? Universal Background Checks and the NRA Slippery Slope Argument

Article excerpt


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). …

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