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Obama’s Appeal to Emotion Versus Reason

President Obama renewed his push for more restrictive gun control legislation today with an emotional appeal in which he said the nation ought to be ashamed of the waning interest in his proposals:

“Less than 100 days ago that happened, and the entire country was shocked and the entire country pledged we would do something about it and this time would be different,” Mr. Obama said, his voice rising with indignation. “Shame on us if we’ve forgotten. I haven’t forgotten those kids. Shame on us if we’ve forgotten.”

The president is being pressured by members of his liberal base who are blaming him not only for the fact that most of his ideas have no chance of being passed by Congress but also for the drop in public support for his plans since the initial surge for more gun control after the Newtown massacre in December. That was made apparent by a new CBS News poll that shows sympathy for stricter gun laws is down by 10 percent since the tragic shooting of 20 children and six teachers. The survey now shows the percentage of Americans who want more gun legislation to have fallen below the 50 percent mark to only 47 percent, while the number of those who believe the laws should stay as they are has risen to 39 percent from 30 percent three months ago.

Gun control advocates lament this change and say, as the president did today, that it is a function of forgetfulness. That’s why, as Seth wrote earlier, the Michael Bloomberg-funded campaign to promote the issue is seeking to rekindle outrage over Sandy Hook with emotion-laden commercials depicting the parents of the victims. But the problem here is not a lack of concern for the memory of the slain or callousness on the part of growing numbers of Americans. It is the fact that the case for the president’s proposals relies primarily on just this sort of emotion rather than reason. The longer we have to think about it, the less sense these restrictions make to people.

The president and other gun control advocates are right when they criticize those opponents who frame gun rights in absolute terms. The Second Amendment does not prohibit the regulation of guns or even the banning of some sorts of weapons. But to concede that point does not mean that every proposed restriction makes sense or, more to the point, would prevent another Newtown or even lower gun violence in general. Indeed, in their more candid moments, President Obama and Vice President Biden have conceded that this is true.

Many Americans reflexively support any restriction on guns just as some are knee-jerk opponents of even the most reasonable ideas about regulating them. But the more such issues are discussed, the more apparent it becomes to thinking voters that banning certain types of rifles that look like military weapons or even requiring more background checks to complete a legal gun sale is not likely to stop an insane person from committing a massacre. Nor is there much reason to believe such laws will stop criminals from gaining access to illegal weapons.

Seen in that light, the rationale for more gun control boils down to either a general desire to restrict gun rights (a sentiment that is more prevalent among liberals than the president and those who agree with him like to admit) or a desire for a gesture to show our frustration with a problem that transcends theoretical Second Amendment debates.

While a majority of Americans and perhaps even a majority of Congress can agree to more background checks, the notion that more emotional appeals are what the country needs when discussing guns belies the fact that advocates are bereft of better reasoned arguments.

A purely cold-blooded mode of public advocacy has its drawbacks. We ought to care deeply about the issues of the day and there is nothing wrong with sometimes expressing our views with passion. But there is a difference between a passion for the public good and waving the bloody shirt of Newtown or any other tragedy.

The founders of our republic espoused representative democracy and a system of checks and balances specifically because they rightly feared a government that was governed by the emotional whims of the mob. They understood that mobs—whether they consist of 18th century street toughs or 21st century viewers who are easily influenced by inflammatory images—do not reason. They emote. And what results from such emotions is likely to be the opposite of good public policy.

All of which means that the more gun control advocates feel compelled to show disturbing videos of grieving parents, the weaker their case must be. It’s not that we’ve forgotten Newtown, but that more of us have come to understand that we ought not allow our sadness over this tragedy to be exploited by political operatives who are interested in furthering an ideological agenda rather than saving lives.



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