After years of badgering my father, he has given up watching Bill O’Reilly. Instead, he now watches Shepard Smith. That’s a great improvement, and it makes my argument more difficult. There isn’t as much outright lying on Smith’s show. Its deception is in what the show chooses to cover. (Yes: this is also a problem on MSNBC, but not nearly as big a one.) As a result, it has been interesting to watch my father’s position on gun control change over the last few months.
For the first couple of months after the Sandy Hook shootings, my father was in favor of all kinds of gun control. In fact, he was taking positions that were far more liberal than mine. This is, by the way, typical. If you keep my father from watching Fox News, he spouts the most amazing opinions that would put him very much in the mainstream of Swedish political thought. Since Fox News was treading pretty lightly on the gun issue for those first months, my father was left to make up his own mind. And his mind was made up on this: not only should we ban assault rifle sales, we should make assault rifles illegal—you know, confiscation or forced buyback.
Then just last week, my father flipped. He was no longer for the assault weapons ban. Why? He had heard that there were 30,000 gun laws on the books and that we should enforce them first. That sounded like a good idea to him. I pointed out this was just a distraction argument. The vast majority of those laws were small, technical laws. What’s more: they weren’t federal laws. Anyway, what do laws against sawed off shotguns have to do with a proposed law limiting the size of magazines? I finished by pointing out that regardless of all these laws, there was no law that prevented 40% of all gun purchases to be performed without background checks. So he flipped back.
But it won’t last. I’m sure if I spoke to him today, he would have some other NRA-provided argument for why it would be tyranny to require background checks of all gun purchases. It might even be John Boehner’s new argument that gun laws are useless because, “Criminals don’t respect the law.” (We could say the same thing about murder laws, but I’ll leave that point for now.)
The problem here is one of trust. My father trusts the conservatives and so all they need to do is provide reasonable sounding arguments. That’s true of all of us. I’m extremely well informed, but I’m inclined to accept liberal arguments on shakier evidence than I would require for conservative arguments. Similarly, I assume that Dean Baker (for example) is right and I have to be shown that he isn’t. It is the opposite with Rush Limbaugh.
This is why conservatives put out arguments that we liberals find laughable. This is as true of gun policy (“We should enforce the existing gun laws!”) as well as economics (“Tax cuts stimulate the economy and always pay for themselves!”). As a result, we must constantly shoot these false arguments down with as much force as possible. Conservative people will accept these arguments if they are left alone in the right wing echo chamber. But there is more at stake than any one issue. If we counter enough of these claims, we might develop a critical mass that will make a conservative become a liberal. I’m still hoping with my dad.