The problem with posturing over guns and abortion

Second Amendment

Supporters of banning abortions and unrestricted access to rapid-fire weapons have something in common — a preference for bait and switch debate tactics. They provide emotionally charged justifications for policies that in reality have less politically potent rationales.

This is their response to a dilemma. If they did not use exaggerated melodramatic rhetoric that calls for policies much more disruptive than those they actually support, it would be harder to sway public opinion.

For the anti-choice side, making it illegal for women to decide — based on the circumstances of their lives — whether or not to go through with the difficult process of carrying a pregnancy to term because of the religious or philosophical objections of others is a hard sell. So, they label it “murder.” But they lack the courage of their conviction — in this case literally. If abortion is murder, a woman who voluntarily undergoes one is a murderer. Obviously, if she took a one-year-old child to a person who she knew was going to kill the child, and she actively assisted in the act, she should — and would — be criminally liable. But when Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWatchdog sues FEC for closing investigation into Rick Scott, allied super PAC Iowa man sentenced to 10 years for shooting Black teen at pro-Trump parade The SALT deduction cap makes it harder for communities to recover MORE blurted out that he favored prosecuting the potential mother, he was immediately contradicted by his new-found anti-abortion allies, who understand that the overwhelming majority of people do not favor jailing women who have had abortions because they do not think she has murdered anyone.

Of course, an objection may be made to abortion on moral, religious or other grounds. But invoking the forces of the criminal law to make this argument legally binding on those who disagree is much harder to justify than demanding an end to unpunished murder.

In the case of those who wish to allow untrammeled access to automatic weapons and to prevent effective pre-sale background checks on the suitability of gun purchasers, the bait is the people’s right to resist an oppressive government. Many gun advocates assert that unless weapons capable of killing dozens of people in a very brief period are freely available, Americans will be vulnerable to tyranny. (They have to phrase this carefully, since the explicit reference to “militia” in the text of the Second Amendment served as the Constitutional basis for gun regulation until a conservative Supreme Court overturned long standing precedent.)

As with the anti-abortion movement and murder, this puts forth a justification that is logically unconnected to the policy it purportedly justifies.


If they really believed this, the NRA et al would be seeking to legalize private ownership of the weapons necessary to stop the most powerful military in human history from installing a dictatorship. Does anyone believe in the capacity of an assault rifle to defend against tanks? Automatic pistols against fighter planes? Free arming of perpetrators of domestic violence against helicopter-mounted machine guns? If protecting the right of Americans to duplicate 1776 was a serious goal, they would be trying to repeal the restrictions on possession of modern military weapons.

They know that asking for the right to own shoulder-fired missiles, fighter aircraft, or warships would make them look ridiculous — but it is no less silly to claim that semi-automatic rifles with large magazines will help patriotic resistance fighters defeat the U.S. Air Force.

Finally, the very fact that they implicitly concede that the existing legal ban on possession of warfighting weapons is legitimate eviscerates one of their other main arguments.

Once you adopt legal bans on any weapon, they argue, you have opened the gates to the slippery slope of total prohibition. As is often the case, a variant of Chico Marx’s great question is appropriate: “Who we gonna believe; them or our own eyes?”

Restricting submachine guns in the 30’s did not lead to banning revolvers. Maintaining the prohibition against anti-tank weapons — as we have since they were invented — has not led to outlawing shotguns.

Advocates of unrestricted gun ownership have ironically been successful in using a rhetorical device that should in fact be turned on them. The most relevant question in today’s American reality is not how far associates of reusable gun rules will go in expanding restrictions. It is how far the NRA and their non-bankrupt colleagues would go — if they could — in replacing those bans that have long existed.

Having successfully repealed the assault rifle ban, how deeply down the slope do they wish to slide? Equipping a paramilitary force capable of stalemating the U.S. Marine Corps?

If they disavow the intent to create a shadow Pentagon, I am happy — for two reasons.

First, it will be comforting to know that the Q-Anon Shaman, Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.), and the rest of the wackos will not get access to battlefield weapons. Second, we can then have a legitimate debate on what further sensible firearms regulation we need — based on the merits, free of the accusation that we are dishonoring the memory of the American Revolution.

Barney Frank represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 terms (1981-2013) and was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011.

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