columns

Mar 12, 2018

Immigrants and Guns: Different Issues, The Same Bad Arguments

Anti-gun and anti-immigrant sentiments are driven by disgust and tribal signaling, not evidence and sound argumentation.

With the tragic school shooting in Florida and the ongoing questions about the status of “dreamers,” building the wall, and being flooded with purported “murderers and rapists” from Mexico, it seems that guns and immigration have taken over our political debates. And while there are many disagreements between Democrats and Republicans, guns and immigration are more divisive and vitriolic. Opponents are demonized, arguments are shouted, friendships are lost, no compromises are made.

But the similarities go beyond the heated emotions they raise. Paradoxically, the arguments commonly made by the anti-gun and anti-immigrant sides are remarkably similar in style and substance, and both sides fall prey to the same problematic arguments that they easily recognize in other contexts. What are those similarities?

The first is simply symbolic. Your position on guns and immigration define your partisan status more than any other issues. Therefore the messaging for both tends to be direct, emotionally charged, and often focused on attacking the other side as evil. Tribal signaling is also more common, resulting in bumper stickers, t-shirts, Facebook memes, and even tattoos. While I know plenty of people who are deeply passionate about, say, free trade, I’ve never known anyone who’s tattooed the text of NAFTA on their back. Unfortunately, tribal signaling is usually not conducive to productive debate—the guy with the Second Amendment tattooed on his arm is usually not going to change his mind.

Second, those who are anti-gun and anti-immigrant often believe that there are essentially no laws about those issues currently in place, or at least the laws are not being enforced. In November, Brian Lonergan of the Immigration Reform Law Institute penned an op-ed titled, “America has seen enough tragedies result from its open borders.” With some tweaks, the framework of the op-ed could be re-purposed into a gun-control piece, “America has seen enough tragedies result from its open gun laws.”

In fact, it is extremely difficult to legally get into the U.S., and for some, such as low-skilled Mexican workers without American family, it is almost impossible. Similarly, there are myriad laws regulating the sale and transfer of guns, and the penalties are stiff. Would you be surprised to learn that anyone with even a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction is banned from owning firearms for life? Or that those who use marijuana recreationally or medicinally, even in states where it is legal, cannot legally purchase a firearm? And if you lie about it, that could mean 5 years in prison, or if you get someone else to purchase the gun for you—a “straw purchaser”—that could mean 10 years in prison.

One might reply:

Okay, sure there are laws, but clearly it is not enough because these things still happen. If the Parkland shooter/San Bernardino terrorists can pass the test, then the test isn’t hard enough. We need “extreme vetting.” Or it’s happening because they’re coming in illegally/getting their weapons illegally due to the unprotected border/gun-show loophole, which needs to be closed. Any caring country wouldn’t let this happen to its citizens. We know how to fix it, we just don’t have the will to do it because of spineless politicians who are beholden to the NRA/George Soros.

Have you heard of Kate Steinle?

Do you not care about the children Newtown?

Anecdotes dominate both the anti-gun and anti-immigrant arguments. Whatever gun was used in the last tragedy becomes the focus of the gun-control debate, just as the immigration status of a recent criminal or terrorist becomes the target of the immigration debate. It usually doesn’t help to point out that “assault weapons” are used in fewer murders than fists and blunt objects, or that immigrants are less crime prone than natives.  

Okay, even if I agree that assault weapons/illegal immigrants are not uniquely dangerous, why would we want them in our country? They corrupt our nation and are against our values. Assault weapons/Muslim immigrants pollute our communities with a culture of violence/Sharia law.

That visceral reaction to the “cosmetics” of immigrants and guns is also an unfortunate commonality to the two groups. “Military-style” guns and immigrants from “shithole countries” awaken deep emotions on both sides. I’ve written before that “gun disgust” is a driving force for many anti-gun advocates, and it seems that “immigrant disgust” plays a similar role for nativists. Just look at what happened at the immigration panel at the latest CPAC conference.

But what are the benefits to guns/immigrants? They just cause violence/depress wages, and kids get shot/they take our jobs.

For both gun-control advocates and nativists, the primary benefits of guns and immigrants are difficult to see. In part, this is because their values systems tend not to regard them as benefits. Although immigrants do not depress native-born American wages in any meaningful way (and may actually have a net-positive effect), the most significant benefits of immigration accrue to the immigrant. All things being equal, an immigrant from an average developing country can expect a 4.1-fold increase in wages over a lifetime

But this is not seen as a benefit by the anti-immigrant crowd:

Why should America have to deal with the effects of immigration to make immigrants’ lives better? We didn’t cause their lives to be worse. Are we supposed to take every immigrant from third-world countries now?

Similarly, the primary benefit of gun ownership is the ability to stop or deter crime. Although gun-control advocates don’t want to believe it, it is likely that there are more than 1 million defensive gun uses per year in the United States, and probably more. In the vast majority of defensive gun uses, the gun is just brandished, not fired, which is why we don’t hear much about it.

Yet, for the anti-gun crowd, like the anti-immigrant crowd, those benefits are not really benefits:

The Wild West is not a model. We don’t want to live in a world where people are defending themselves with guns. And why do they have to defend themselves? Because criminals have guns. Don’t pour gasoline on the fire, stop crime in other, more civilized ways.

Perhaps the biggest, and most disturbing, similarity are the dangerous and civil-liberties destroying policies that both groups often advocate to solve the perceived problem. Getting rid of guns in America, or even just one category of guns, would be a civil liberties nightmare unlike any in American history. Liberals were rightly astounded by Mayor Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” program, which was a comprehensive plan to keep guns off the New York City’s streets. As expected, police performed their task with startling racial bias, and, in general, gun control laws have a disproportionate effect on the poor and minorities.

Similarly, since Trump’s election and the corresponding increase in immigration enforcement, we’ve seen agents from the Customs and Border Patrol board Greyhound buses and ask everyone for “papers, please.” We’ve seen the arrest and detention of a green-card holding Polish doctor who’s been in the country for 40 years. And we’ve seen a hastily issued “travel ban” that left loved ones trapped at airports or sent back to dangerous and war-torn countries. Whereas African-Americans get swept up in gun-control policies, Americans who look Latino or Arab bear the brunt of overzealous immigration enforcement.

Of course, none of these comparisons will affect those who are anti-gun or anti-immigrant: “There are some superficial similarities, but guns and immigrants are different because of X.” There are many differences, of course. Yet when the form of your argument often mirrors that of other arguments that you find unconvincing, if not downright offensive, maybe you should re-examine your views.