The NRA’s Slippery Slope Strategy To Fight Background Checks

To hear the National Rifle Association tell it, the biggest problem with the bipartisan agreement to expand criminal background checks is what it doesn't propose to do.

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Brianna, 9, of the North Florida Survival Group hands an AK-47 rifle to Jim Foster, 57, the group's leader, before heading out to conduct enemy contact drills during a field training exercise in Old Town, Florida, Dec. 8, 2012.

To hear the National Rifle Association tell it, the biggest problem with the bipartisan agreement to expand criminal background checks is what it doesn’t propose to do. “I think what they’ll do is turn this universal check on the law-abiding into a universal registry of law-abiding people,” warns Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, on Fox News Sunday. “Obamacare wasn’t a tax until they wanted it to be a tax.”

To be clear, there is no national gun registry. The federal government keeps no records from background checks that could be used to create a gun registry. In fact, federal law prohibits the creation of a national gun registry, and the bipartisan agreement to expand background checks specifically states that it is a crime to create a gun registry. So why all the concern about mandatory gun registration?

The answer can be found in history. For more than three decades, the NRA has consistently argued that pretty much any new regulation of firearms would move the country a step closer to more draconian regulations, like gun registration and confiscation. The slippery slope argument has underscored most of the gun owner lobby’s major messaging campaigns, and successfully helped rally a core group of Americans to oppose even the most incremental new measures, and become members of the organization. In the longtime logic of the Second Amendment activist, all gun regulations are suspect because of what might happen next.

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In 1982, a New York congressman, Mario Biaggi, introduced a bill that would outlaw certain armor-piercing rounds, called cop-killer bullets. The NRA responded with a fundraising appeal that called the issue of cop-killer bullets “a Trojan horse waiting outside gun owners’ door.” As recounted in Ricochet, a memoir by Second Amendment lobbyist Richard Feldman, the appeal continued, “If the antigunners have their way, this highly publicized and emotionalized issue will be used to enact a backdoor, national gun control scheme.” In other words, beware the slippery slope.

Around the same time, the NRA made the same arguments about plans to ban cheap handguns, the so-called Saturday Night Specials. In a brochure called The Myth of the Saturday Night Special, the group argued that the a ban on cheap guns used by some criminals would lead to the eventual confiscation of all handguns in America. “Donate to us. Work with us. We need your help,” the brochure concluded.

In 1994, LaPierre published a short book called Guns, Crime and Freedom, that made the same argument about a proposal to create waiting periods for gun purchases. “Waiting periods are only a first step toward more stringent ‘gun control’ measures,” LaPierre warned. “It is just one more step in the march toward national disarmament.”

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More recently, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, which handles federal lobbying, has issued a steady stream of warnings about the coming plans for registration and confiscation of firearms, even though the President has not proposed this, and recent Supreme Court rulings would make any such proposal constitutionally suspect. Here is a video from the group’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox.

Cox quotes from a draft Department of Justice memo to suggest that there is greater conspiracy at work, and that Obama has unstated goals for registration and confiscation. But the quoted memo is simply a policy analysis, not a statement of policy. The Obama Administration has repeatedly says it opposed registration and confiscation.

That 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.” The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, gave this claim four Pinocchios, saying “foes of Obama’s proposals are welcome to leap to all sorts of assumptions about the impact of proposed laws, but such assumptions must be grounded in facts.” The fact is the background check expansion now under consideration in Congress does not involve registration. It expressly prohibits registration.

None of this rules out the possibility that political leaders propose a gun registry in the future. Certainly many leaders, including Barack Obama, have supported it in the past. But just as speed limits do not lead to the confiscation of cars, it does not logically follow that any incremental regulation of guns, like expanding criminal background checks to include gun shows, will lead to registration. What is clear, however, is that the specter of registration and confiscation is an effective messaging device for the NRA, and one it will not stop using anytime soon.

MORE: Understanding The NRA Skittishness Over The Gun Show Loophole