Mary Harry Jones

Libertarian gun author Dave Kopel spent Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday tweeting links to articles about how the Nazis prohibited Jews from owning guns. That's not a disputed historical point, as I wrote at Mother Jones earlier this year. But in the context of the current gun debate, the argument's implication—that proposals for relatively modest gun control laws in the United States mirror Nazi policies—is absurd. As Charles Heller, head of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, warned the AP: "Now, will it get to that in the U.S.? God, I hope not. Not if (U.S. Attorney General Eric) Holder doesn't start sending people to kick doors down."

This brings me to a broader point about the gun debate. In January, Kopel testified at one of the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's new bill to ban assault weapons. He kept his testimony free of Nazis but cited Mother Jones research on mass shooters' use of assault weapons that I took the lead on, making a point of noting that "Mother Jones magazine is named for Mary Harry Jones [sic], one of [the] most eminent American radical socialists." (Our critics on the left, who enjoy pointing to articles that would make Jones "roll over in her grave," would take issue with Kopel's slight.)

I didn't blog about the testimony when it came out because the stat Kopel cited, that assault weapons accounted for 35 of the guns involved in the shootings we included in our research, was based on criteria broader than the language of Feinstein's legislation (as we acknowledged in February when we updated the number to 20).

In the months since I began covering mass shootings and gun politics, knowing nothing about firearms when I began, I've come to sympathize with some of the points raised in Kopel's testimony. In particular, he argued that the term "assault weapon" is poorly defined and ultimately political, that semi-automatic rifles are responsible for far fewer firearm deaths than handguns, and that gun control proponents too often appear clueless when talking about guns.

Barack Obama exemplified the latter point last week when he falsely stated that Newtown killer Adam Lanza gunned down 20 children and six faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary with a "fully automatic weapon." Journalists, too, often mistakenly (or controversially) refer to gun magazines as clips and semi-automatic rifles as assault rifles.

Unfortunately, for all the valid quibbles they raise, pro-gun guys like Kopel also embrace every paranoid, National Rifle Association-endorsed fantasy under the sun. The notion that further gun control legislation might leave private citizens unguarded against a Nazi-esque power-grab in the U.S. is one of the most ridiculous, playing into the myth that Obama's centrist administration is full of socialists. But others are pretty bad too. Case in point: the recently adopted UN Arms Trade Treaty, an initial attempt to regulate the international trade in weapons of war, has led some gun owners to fear that they will become part of an international gun registry used to confiscate their guns. That's complete nonsense, but the idea gained enough traction to result in a Senate resolution to "uphold Second Amendment rights" against an essentially powerless international body. Many of those same senators are now threatening to filibuster what amounts to very modest legislation that they nevertheless seem to believe is part and parcel of Obama's grand conspiracy to confiscate guns.

In March, I attended a Judiciary Committee hearing on Feinstein's assault weapons ban. One of the conservative stars of the panel was former U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams, who as a Florida legislator had voted for the "Stand Your Ground" law that got national attention after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. After the hearing, Adams told me that lawmakers should make no attempts to reform gun laws "because criminals by their very definition do not obey the law."

I think all this speaks to just how far to the right the gun debate has lurched since 1994, when Feinstein's first assault weapons ban passed with the help of conservative demigod Ronald Reagan. Liberals and conservatives have a tendency to talk past each other on the issue, but until conspiracy theories and specious arguments stop dominating the debate on the right, I'm not sure there's much hope for a rational conversation anyway.

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