One of the most contentious points in gun politics is characterizing just how far gun-control advocates intend to go. Most of us in the gun-rights camp intuitively understand that those who want to ban guns will never be satisfied. But we occasionally allow gun controllers to paint us as hysterical and absolutist, when the opposite tends to be true. Here, we’ll explore how to recognize incrementalism as a tactic. In Part Two, we’ll tackle how to expose it and shut it down.

Over the last 10 years, the party line of the major gun-control groups and politicians has been: “I believe in the Second Amendment, but I also think we need reasonable, common-sense safety measures in place.” That phrase is troubling.

Basic Semantics

Illustration by: Brian Fairrington

It is commonly understood that anything after “but” in a declaration negates anything before that pause. For example: “I’m not a racist, but…” or “I believe women should have the right to vote, but…” In contentious policy matters, that wording is inherently two-faced.

“Reasonable, common-sense safety measures” is deliberately vague. It is worded to make any opposition sound inherently unreasonable and extreme. Also, there is no built-in limit to what those very reasonable measures might involve. A total handgun ban is very reasonable to some, but it is not even a little reasonable to millions of us. A ban on the AR-15 sounds reasonable … particularly if you don’t know anything about the AR-15.

The biggest reason that phrase is troubling, however, is incrementalism. Defined as “a policy of making changes by degrees,” this has wrongly been labeled by both sides as “slippery slopes.”

Fallacy or Reality?

The slippery slope argument is a well-known logical fallacy wherein one assumes that if one step is taken, it will set off an irreversible chain of events to an ultimately bad outcome. It is a form of fear-mongering to exaggerate the probability and severity of the consequences past a small first action. For example, if we argue that gun registration will end in a dystopian nightmare, we are making a relatively weak slippery slope argument. When we explain that gun registration is a necessary precondition for a dystopian nightmare, we make a stronger case. I don’t like registration, and there are many examples where registration enabled confiscation, but one does not guarantee the other.

So slippery slope is a fallacy, but incrementalism is a fairly standard political tactic. The major advocacy groups on both sides aren’t stupid. They know exactly which policy initiatives they can rally enough support for, and they will advance toward their goals when and where they can. That isn’t slippery slope; it is just how political groups do business.


Incrementalism, or “ratchet effect,” isn’t unique to gun policy. We have seen it used effectively across the political spectrum in issues ranging from guns to healthcare. I have found that sometimes it helps to explain it to my sparring partners through some left-oriented examples. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg self-describes as an incrementalist as part of her legal worldview. If you search the web for “Ginsburg incrementalism” or “abortion incrementalism,” you will find dozens of examples beyond the gun debate. As fighters for civil rights, we understand the ratchet effect is a big problem. Once you accept a restriction, you may have a hard time getting rid of it — even when it is obviously causing more harm than good. You don’t have to look too hard for examples of that; it took a constitutional amendment to repeal Prohibition.

Anti-gunners aren’t trying to run for the touchdown. They are usually just trying to move the ball one yard closer.

Both the pro-gun and anti-gun crowds have misused the phrase “coming for your guns” to stir up emotions among their followers. The net result is a mental image of a SWAT team literally kicking in your door, shooting your dog and taking your revolver as they drag you off into the dystopian darkness. To the anti-gun crowd, this is just another ridiculous paranoid delusion of the “gun nuts.” To the “gun nuts” (self-described or otherwise), this is one possible outcome of incremental gun control.

Anti-gunners aren’t trying to run for the touchdown. They are usually just trying to move the ball one yard closer. Block and tackle them by exposing the tactic. Help expose their extremism by asking: “How far are you willing to go?”

Jim is a concerned citizen and gun rights advocate. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of his or any other agency. References and links to other gun advocacy sites do not imply endorsement of those organizations. He can be reached at [email protected].