The Biden administration has made priorities of both immigration reform and gun control, the latter being given particular salience by recent mass shootings in Atlanta, Boulder, and Indianapolis. Yet if those in the administration want to make better policy in both areas, they should realize that bad arguments against immigration—ones often used by the previous administration—are very similar to bad arguments for gun control.
First, both argue anecdotally from the most recent incident and ignore broader data. In the previous administration, Trump and his conservative supporters latched on to specific instances of immigrants committing crimes to push the “rapists and murderers” narrative. Hardly a week went by without Kate Steinle—a victim of an undocumented immigrant—being invoked in conservative media.
Those instances of immigrant violence were turned into policy proposals to “shut down” whatever “loophole” allowed the perpetrator into the country. The failed Times Square bomber got in with a family visa; time to end “chain migration.” The Boston Marathon bombers came in when their family was granted asylum status; time to shut that “loophole.” It doesn’t matter if you point out that immigrants commit less crime than natives, family visa holders are rarely criminal, and that your chance of being killed by a refugee in a terror attack are roughly 1 in 3.64 billion per year (we don’t have good data on asylees).
Similarly, gun‐control activists are perpetually chasing the guns used in the most recent mass shooting, trying to close whatever “loophole” allowed the shooter to get the gun or prohibit an entire category of guns. So‐called “assault weapons” are to gun‐control advocates what the scary immigrant is to the nativist. It doesn’t matter that, over the last four years, murders with any type of rifle, of which an “assault weapon” is a subset, were between 300–400 per year.
Both groups wield these rare but tragic instances of violence like cudgels to knock down any argument in favor of immigration or guns. “One death is too much!” they shout. They then accuse the other side of being beholden to special interests—the NRA, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation—who are blocking “common‐sense” reforms.
And both disingenuously claim that they’re not going after “good” immigrants and “law abiding” gun owners. They assure you they love “good” immigrants and law‐abiding gun owners; they just want to stop the bad ones.
Both tend to be quite ignorant about the true facts of immigration and gun violence. Surveys have shown that those living in areas of the country where there are relatively fewer immigrants are more likely to think that there are too many immigrants in America.
And when it comes to gun violence, Americans are deeply uninformed. Despite an uptick in recent years, gun violence has decreased precipitously since the peak in 1993, but, in a 2013 survey, 56 percent believed gun violence was higher than 20 years ago. Annually, suicides account for around two‐thirds of gun deaths, while deaths from mass shootings are a tiny percentage.
Nevertheless, in a recent survey, “only one‐fourth of Americans correctly answered that gun deaths by suicide outnumber deaths resulting from mass shootings.” A quarter of respondents said that mass shootings are the leading cause of gun death while 14 percent believed accidental discharges are the biggest problem.
Both the anti‐gun and anti‐immigrant crowds also seem to believe that there are essentially no laws regulating guns or immigration. The phrase “open borders” is routinely used by nativists to describe our immigration system, which is laughably wrong. For many categories of immigration, there is essentially no way for someone to legally enter the country. Obama broke records on deportations, and Trump beefed up the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) budget and patrols.
For gun controllers, they like to flippantly describe how getting a gun in America is easy, but guns are actually the most regulated consumer product in America. The list of people who are prohibited from having a gun is long, and it includes, for example, anyone who has ever been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense.
And you might be banned from owning a gun if you use illicit drugs, and it doesn’t matter if you live in a state where marijuana is legal. The law is clear: “unlawful users” of controlled substances are banned from possessing—not just owning—a firearm or ammunition in any way, even fleetingly. How an “unlawful user” is defined is vague, but you could face up to 10 years in prison if you qualify.
The anti‐immigrant and anti‐gun crowds also share similarly lofty goals—“getting control” of the situation and closing all the “loopholes”—that they are confident can be easily done if we had the political will and stopped kowtowing to moneyed interests. Anti‐immigrant proponents want to establish “control” over our immigration system with walls, patrols, vetting, and registration (e.g. Real ID), things they say can be done at relatively little cost. Gun‐controllers want a similar system of tracking, vetting, and registration. In reality, both programs would be essentially impossible to impose without massive civil liberties violations that would make stop and frisk look like a children’s show.
We have a 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico that runs through varied terrains, private property, and a host of other difficulties. We also have around 400 million guns in private hands, and there’s no registry to indicate where they are or who has them, nor obviously is there a registry of undocumented immigrants. The vast scope of both immigration and guns guarantees that trying to “shut it down” will impose massive costs on law‐abiding Americans.
Stop and frisk, after all, was a gun‐control program—think of it as Mayor Bloomberg trying to make NYC a “sanctuary city” from guns—and meanwhile anti‐immigrant sheriffs and CBP agents were stopping and frisking those who “looked” like they might be illegal immigrants. The difficulties caused by the scope of both issues basically guarantees dragnet policies will be used that will ensnare more innocent people than guilty ones. “Bad” immigrants, like “bad” guns, are not obvious at first glance, and the immigrant or gun that performs good deeds tend to look an awful lot like the “bad” ones.
The rhetoric from both groups is also distressingly similar, using imagery of disease and pollution to describe immigrants and guns. In so doing, they demonize the law‐abiding gun owners and immigrants who contribute to the richness and diversity of our nation. Almost every gun in America will never be used in a crime, and most immigrants will never commit a crime.
Finally, both groups discount the clear benefits of immigration and gun ownership as illusory or even undesirable. Americans use guns to defend themselves a lot, and, although estimates vary widely, one million times a year isn’t a bad guess. But gun‐controllers regard that stat as an unfortunate confirmation of our wild‐west attitudes, not a benefit. And immigrants do not meaningfully depress wages, they contribute to our wonderful diversity. Nativists don’t buy it, though, and they don’t want taco trucks on every corner.
Unfortunately, both sides can see the mote in the other’s eye but miss the beam in their own. A productive conversation will require recognizing the bad arguments we might be making on one issue and criticizing on the other.
Commentary by Trevor Burns. Originally published at Cato At Liberty. https://www.cato.org/blog/how-anti-immigrant-anti-gun-advocates-make-same-bad-arguments