The Manchin-Toomey expansion of background checks to private gun sales was reasonable legislation, its advocates insist, because it would have forbidden the creation of a federal registry and exempted transfers of guns between family members and between friends.
Those features appear to be in the bill, but why should that matter? The champions of Manchin-Toomey would have us believe that once the bill passed, no more gun laws would ever be proposed again. That is, they’re either naïve or dishonest. I don’t think they’re naïve.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former member of the House and self-styled Second Amendment man who supported Manchin-Toomey, is an egregious example of this dishonesty. He spent weeks mocking opponents for not being mollified by the bill’s compromises. Can he be unfamiliar with the legislative tactic of gradualism? Start a program small to minimize opposition, then expand it in later years when people have become inured.
It’s not as though this tactic has never been used. The income tax started small in 1913 and applied only to the richest Americans. Those who expressed concern that the tax would expand were ridiculed as paranoid. Sen. William Borah, an Idaho Progressive Republican said, “No sane man would take from industry its just reward or rob frugality of a fair and honest return.”
As I wrote in Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax (1999):
The 1913 income tax was put at 1 percent on net income after a personal exemption of $3,000, some credits, and an additional $1,000 exemption for married couples living together. There was also a graduated 2 percent to 7 percent surcharge on incomes from $20,000 to $500,000….
In 1913, the average personal income was $621. Only 2 percent of the population was liable for the tax between 1913 and 1915.
In other words, the tax was introduced as a tax on the rich exclusively.
If the system were in place today, a single person making less than about $45,000 (the bottom 75 percent of filers) would pay no tax. A couple earning less than $60,000 would pay nothing. Incomes up to $300,000 would be in the 1 percent bracket. Someone would have to make $7.5 million before paying the top 7 percent rate. In 1994 dollars, the exemptions of 1913 would be worth $44,776 for a single person and $59,701 for married couples.
But it didn’t take long for the tax to become a tax on the masses. War, as usual, fueled the expansion. The anti-tax prophets were right.
The income tax is not the only example of gradualism. Social Security was also introduced as a modest program with a low tax. (The public was against it.) Now it and Medicare take about 15 percent of a worker’s income. For details see Charlotte Twight’s Dependent on D.C.
The upshot is that you cannot judge a legislative bill in isolation. The dynamics of politics must be taken into account, especially the politicians’ ability to (in Twight’s words) “manipulate political transaction costs.” This refers to the many methods that government officials have to conceal what they’re doing and to make it costly for people to resist if they find out.
How might this idea apply to Manchin-Toomey? This isn’t rocket science. The bill may promise universal background checks (except for family members and friends), but it can’t keep that promise. Criminally minded people will always find ways to obtain guns outside the system. Theft and the black market will make that a certainty. Gun-running is as old as guns themselves, and nothing is more adaptive than the black market.
So what will happen after the next atrocity occurs with a firearm? The advocates of universal background checks will surely say, “We tried this modest approach, and it failed to keep guns out of the hands of bad people. We must do more.”
“More” could well include national registration. It’s a matter of logic. If I own a gun, how can the government assure that I haven’t sold it without running a background check on the buyer? One way the government might find out is to establish a gun registry and periodically do spot checks to see if people still possess the guns that are registered to them. If people are serious about outlawing sales without backgrounds checks, wouldn’t they be driven to such a proposal? As the ACLU has pointed out, the civil-liberties implications are ominous. Registration makes confiscation feasible.
This is not paranoia. It’s a recognition of the dynamics of demagogic politics. If, as polls purport to show, 90 percent of people favor universal background checks and they prove futile in stopping gun atrocities, what will people favor next? Which way are they likely to go: toward full deregulation of gun ownership or toward more draconian measures?
I know where my money is.