Because of its psychological appeal and versatility, the slippery slope is a very popular fallacy. Thus, it is no surprise that Senator Ted Cruz employed it in his recent “argument” against expanding background checks.
The slippery slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no adequate reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:
- Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
- Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there is a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.
In the case of Cruz, his reasoning was as follows:
“The Department of Justice has been explicit that when you require background checks for private firearms transactions, the only way to make that effective is through a national gun registry. So if the bill that is pending on the floor of the Senate passed, the next step in the process would be that critics would say, ‘Well this isn’t effective. We don’t know if you’re selling your firearm to someone else unless we know you have your firearm.’ And in my judgment a federal registry of firearms … would be terrible policy and would be inconsistent with the Constitution.”
On the face of it, it might be contended that Cruz is not presenting a slippery slope fallacy. After all, he does claim that making background checks effective would require such a registry and the “critics” would presumably make that “terrible policy” a reality.
However, looked at more closely, he is still presenting a slippery slope fallacy. While he does purport to provide a reason to think that passing the law in question would lead inevitably to a national gun registry, he actually fails to adequately connect the two. As he conceded on 4/17/2013, the proposed legislation does not create a national gun registry. In fact, the Manchin-Toomey background check legislation actually makes it a felony for government officials to store gun records. Thus, the legislation that is alleged to lead to a national gun registry actually would have made it illegal which would, obviously enough, stop the slippery slope slide immediately. As such, the argument given by Cruz fails to support his conclusion and its only appeal is the psychological fear that passing the law would have led to a national gun registry.
It might be countered that someone could come along a pass a law that would allow a national gun registry, thus there is no slippery slope. However, what is wanting would be the same thing that is wanting now-adequate evidence that this would occur because of the passage of the original law.
I am reasonably sure that Cruz knows he employed a slippery slope-I do not think that he said what he said out of an ignorance of logic. Rather, I suspect he employed it intentionally, knowing how effective the fallacy is as a rhetorical device. After all, he is an Ivy League graduate and perhaps even an intellectual under his new persona. It was, it seems, clever of him to use this approach: he won, despite the fact that the majority of the senate and the vast majority of Americans supported the proposed legislation.