I know this story made it into this morning’s link roundup, but the more I ruminated on the subject, the more I felt it needed expanded treatment.
Conservatives can’t stop praising Breitbart.com’s young editor-in-chief, Ben Shapiro, for his appearance on Piers Morgan defending gun rights. Most of his well-wishers describe his performance as “smacking” or “beating down” the CNN host who became a target of their ire after publicly calling for stricter gun laws in the United States.
Watching Shapiro’s performance I don’t understand the enthusiasm. He definitely has better skills than the average TV guest — specifically his persistent effort to define common ground and resist red herrings — but there was no full-throated defense of gun rights here. Perhaps after watching Morgan clown the gun movement with the insidious tactic of “just letting Alex Jones talk,” any engagement with Morgan is seen as a win for the gun gang. And Morgan did drop the ball in a few places where a different take could have devastated Shapiro.
Here then is my roadmap for engaging Ben Shapiro. This is essentially a recreated liveblog of my reactions from first watching this video. Here’s the video and my reactions are below.
Let me first start at the end because it sums up the problem with Morgan’s overall tack in this interview. The piece ends with Shapiro pleading that we should stop demagoguing and talk about reasonable laws. This is, of course, fair. But, Morgan had him on the ropes at various points throughout the interview, with Shapiro laying out all sorts of perfectly reasonable laws that his own constituents are fighting against. If Morgan pinned him to those proposals, used that fact to hammer the NRA as unreasonably out of touch with even Shapiro, and then pivoted to just discussing an assault rifle ban and whether a semi-automatic assault rifle has any efficacy in Shapiro’s Red Dawn-style vision of America’s political future with civilians taking on the most advanced Army in the world, he could have closed the door on this debate much easier.
0:08 — Ben Shapiro has a book called “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans.” Said it before, and I’ll say it again: when did the macho, cowboy iconography of the Right become replaced with such whiny tools?
1:03 — Shapiro is, perhaps inartfully, making a good point about avoiding the impulse to let the pathos we feel for the victims of Sandy Hook for stand in for specific policy proposals. Getting too wrapped up in a handful of tragedies at the expense of a cool evaluation of the big picture can lead to bad policy. But Shapiro loses all sympathy when he invokes the imagery that Morgan is “standing on the graves of children.” It’s provocative and unnecessary. In addition to taking offense at the accusation, Morgan could have pointed out that there’s a flip side to this accusation — the efforts of the gun lobby (admittedly less so after Sandy Hook) to commit a complete erasure of the victims by impugning the honor of anyone who dares mention a mass shooting is at least an equivalent shame.
1:11 — A PROP!!! Busting out a visual aide is almost always the death knell for a TV guest. Morgan is getting lambasted by the Right for later calling this copy of the Constitution Shapiro’s “little book.” Morgan was right to be dismissive, though it would have been better to call the document Shapiro’s “disingenuous prop” and go ahead and read the Second Amendment aloud with all its “well regulated Militia” glory. Like many fundamentalist philosophies, Shapiro’s enthusiasm for adhering to the letter of the Constitution ignores a lot of its text and few gun advocates are ever called to task on their interpretation of the militia clause.
2:25 — Here was a big opportunity for Piers Morgan. Shapiro points out that handguns kill more individuals in aggregate than assault rifles and condescendingly asks if Morgan cares as much about the kids in Chicago as the kids in Sandy Hook. Morgan points out that mass shootings are carried out by assault rifles. This is a good point, but it only implies rather than directly answers why Morgan has no interest in taking on handguns. This would be a good opening to raise the fact that if there is any value to the gun lobby’s stated commitment to guns as a means of self-defense, taking away handguns would impede that right because handguns are used in self-defense (directly through use or indirectly through providing peace of mind), but taking away assault rifles would have no bearing on that right. It’s not that Morgan’s focus on the killing capacity difference is wrong, but making the argument about “self-defense” (which Morgan will raise in passing later) builds a bridge of credibility with on-the-fence gun owners and forces Shapiro’s hand — he must either explain the necessity of assault rifles to self-defense (laughable) or unveil his theory that the Second Amendment should be about taking over the government a little earlier than he’d planned.
3:40 — Why even engage this point? It’s a matter of “Left or Right” because of campaign contributions and the organizing ability of the gun lobby. Shapiro won’t admit that. Morgan is unprepared to go down the “follow the money” rabbit hole. So this is just kicking off a red herring that takes us away from the real issue.
3:56 — Kudos to Shapiro for admitting that the Second Amendment isn’t really about self-defense or hunting for the Right. This would be a good place to question what the Founders’ envisioned as resistance by bringing up the “well regulated Militia.”
4:08 — Godwin’s Law! Morgan avoids challenging the popular myth that Hitler banned guns, as opposed to relaxing gun regulations. I get Morgan’s unwillingness to take on this claim, but while it is a distraction from the core issue, a public demolishing of this myth would go a long way toward blunting the Right-wing spin machine on guns.
4:37 — Brilliant move by Piers! Conservatives are generally loathe to discuss specifics.
4:42 — Background checks. I’d make him commit to that. Make him promise to join the fight for stricter screening. He’d start to waffle and sound weak and the whole debate would be over. This is also an opening to compare Shapiro to the NRA, which has consistently lobbied against these checks.
5:06 — So this whole “good person/bad person” thing is dumb. I mostly thought Morgan did a fine job but could have done better, but this exchange is just terrible for Piers, especially after Shapiro graciously admits to redefining the debate along the lines of responsibility. But one opportunity Shapiro handed Morgan was the claim that it should’ve be illegal for Adam Lanza’s mother to have unsecured guns in her house when she lived with a mentally disturbed child. Here’s a good follow-up that wasn’t asked: “Um, why should Adam Lanza’s mother have been allowed to have ANY guns with a mentally disturbed child in the house?”
6:25 — As previewed earlier, Morgan now raises the self-defense argument as the reason handguns are off the table.
6:40 — Goddammit. Enough with the props!
7:11 — Shapiro is right to blow off the drug law comparison as a red herring.
7:25 — Morgan gets his bearings back and pushes Shapiro for specifics again. Shapiro wants to ban fully automatic weapons. And yet, he’s already based his defense of the Second Amendment in his belief that Americans need to be able to overthrow a hypothetical tyrannical government. I’d ask why he’s OK with taking the most powerful military weapons out of the hands of potential freedom fighters — does he think the U.S. military could lose to a few semi-automatics or is it the tyranny argument empty and he realizes that the audience would completely blow off any wingnut defending fully automatic weapons?
8:06 — Shapiro supports keeping guns out of the hands of those with criminal backgrounds. Another opportunity to contrast Shapiro with the NRA, who lobbies against keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists.
8:24 — Shapiro admits to wanting to close the gun show loophole. And then immediately goes into defending the NRA. It’s a question of debate strategy, but if I were Morgan I’d focus some energy on highlighting that a Right-wing blogger can’t even bring himself to back the bulk of the NRA agenda. This undermines the NRA and undermines Shapiro’s standing in the conservative camp of the gun debate. Both would be huge wins.
11:22 — The Left/Right debate was a little distracting for most of the discussion, but I think Morgan is trying to get at the artificial effort of the gun lobby to use latent hostility toward the “Left” to prevent undecided conservatives (like Reagan as Morgan points out) from joining efforts to impose stricter gun regulations. It’s a very good point, and one that I think Morgan never got to fully articulate in this talk, which is too bad.
12:26 — Instead of trying to explain that the other is the “real bully,” Morgan should dismiss the idea of bullying entirely and say, “this isn’t about bullying outside of your persecution complex — I make arguments, you make arguments — the difference between you and me is you whine about my arguments and I answer yours.” Much more effective than playing Shapiro’s game.
For anyone interested, here’s a link to Shapiro’s book, “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans.” If you wanted to know how the other side thinks.