Well, assembled sophisticates, you’d better pull that extended arm back toward you and rescind the offer of the Martini, for I’m about to drop off society’s tightrope and out myself as one of those people naïve enough to advance a “slippery slope” argument in public. And about guns, no less.
Arguendo, let’s presume that the much-vaunted Toomey-Manchin “compromise” makes it out of the Senate unalloyed, and then that it then passes the House with nary a squeak from the right. Let’s then postulate that a majority agrees with the president that expanding background checks is a “reasonable” thing to do — redolent of “a commonsense approach” — and that those of us with the temerity to oppose it will be widely painted as “extremists.” Let’s allow, too, that, as promised, the law affords “exemptions” for in-person private transfers; that it “lets” family members lend or gift one other their firearms without inviting deleterious consequences; and that it stops happily short of imprisoning free American citizens for permitting others to shoot their guns on their land. For good measure, let’s also grant that the bill contains a couple of positive things, including that it would henceforth be legal for an American to buy a handgun outside of his state of residency providing that he underwent a background check. All in all, let’s admit that, in and of itself, this bill is not the end of the world. Does this mean that you should shrug your shoulders nonchalantly and turn to other things? Should you stay at home? Should we presume that qui tacet consentire videtur? Not on your life. Alas, there is peril ahead. Why? Because today’s “exemption” is tomorrow’s “loophole.” No sooner will the glorious presidential ink have dried on that abject page, than those provisions that were sold a few days earlier as commonsense exemptions — the product of “bipartisan compromise” and other media-tested platitudes — will become structural problems, ripe for “standardizing.” Sure, Congress wouldn’t be so gauche as to include A or B or C in their bill today. But have no doubt: Within a few weeks of the bill’s passage, the eerie progressive silence that has marked this tortured process will be broken, and when it is, legions of prominent gun controllers will take to their feet in order to argue that it makes “no sense” for there to be “exemptions” to the almost universal background-check system. They will cynically inquire as to whether keeping these loopholes open for the “industry” is more important than the lives of children, and they will profess that the existing system simply “can’t work” without them. Studies will be commissioned to demonstrate that tying off these “loose ends” is all that stands between the United States and broad sunlit uplands. And, while demonstrating not only that they don’t know the slightest thing about guns but that they don’t care that they don’t, ThinkProgress and Talking Points Memo and Salon will smirk and make oh-so-smug jokes about “black helicopters” and militias. After all, we already regulate commercial sales, Internet sales, and gun shows, right? This is just a baby step — nothing to worry about, wingnuts. We’ll be told condescendingly that, when youreally think about it, these “loopholes” are a bigger problem than was the gun-show “loophole” because criminals aren’t stupid enough to try to buy their guns from gun shows but they do obtain them via private transfers elsewhere. Hyperventilating themselves onto the republic’s airwaves, someone will point out that it is downright absurd that it is illegal for a private individual to sell a gun without a background check inside a gun show but that it is fine to do so in the parking lot of the convention center. Ezra Klein will write a celebrated Wonkblog post on the topic. Others will ask why the NRA wants to make it easier for the mentally ill and the criminal to get hold of weapons, and they will insinuate that the country has been taken over by “special interests.” And then, when there is another mass shooting — which, tragically but certainly, there will be — the usual process will be repeated: Democrats will call for the kitchen-sink gun bill that they’ve wanted all along, Republicans will oppose it; and, in order to allow some form of “compromise” to placate a public that is absurdly turned on by craven accommodations, a couple of ostensibly roguish senators will hold a press conference and announce that their plan will plug the remaining gaps too. “Nobody is trying to take away your guns,” one of them will say, with a lupine smile. Our politicians will be able to announce that “something has been done,” the sine qua non of mindless politics. And what will they have done? They’ll have created a vast, murky, uncharted grey area, in which nobody is quite sure what is legal and what is not. Is it okay for me to lend my brother a rifle for more than a week? Not sure. Can I give the man down the street my gun if he spends half of his year in Florida? Not sure. Does advertising a weapon on the Internet but transferring it in person constitute a commercial transfer? Not sure. These rules will, if the past few years are anything to go by, be at the whim of so many “the secretary shall” clauses, and, inevitably, they will be differently enforced depending on where one lives in the country. This will suit many: Grey areas, as the Left knows full well, are utterly devastating to liberty because law-abiding people are scared of doing wrong. As a rule, if you aren’t sure and the price for being wrong is five years inside, you don’t do it. Despite the considerable progress at the state level — and in the Supreme Court — federal gun laws are slowly moving in the wrong direction. Marginally expanding something that shouldn’t be there in the first place is no reform at all. I, too, am in favor of “standardizing” the system: I’d like to extend the “gun-show loophole” to all commercial transactions and I’d like to get the federal government out of all gun regulation bar the basic import/export and trafficking provisions that apply to all commercially available products. Of course it should be illegal for felons and the mentally ill to buy weapons; but that is not an argument for the government’s regulating the point of sale any more than its being illegal for you to cheat on your taxes is an argument for universal audits or its being illegal for you to beat your wife is an argument for putting Telescreens in every bedroom. It is high time that those serious about the right to keep and bear arms demanded that impediments to its exercise be treated as serious as are obstacles to other rights. Will they? We’ll see. By all means back this bill if you believe that its consequences will be trivial. By all means note that “it could have been worse.” By all means console yourself that you are just “giving” the president something. But just remember that, tomorrow, it won’t be these changes they’re after; it’ll be the next bunch — and they have a very long list. — Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.