Gun Nuts

The GOP presidential candidates have an extreme paranoid fear of gun laws and gun confiscation.

debate gun control.
What the candidates said at Thursday’s debate about gun laws and gun confiscation was madness. Above, the GOP candidates participate in the Fox Business Network presidential debate on Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Halfway through Thursday’s prime-time Republican presidential debate, Sen. Ted Cruz joked: “In any Republican primary, everyone is going to say they support the Second Amendment. Unless you are clinically insane, that’s what you say in a primary.”

The audience laughed. But you don’t have to oppose the Second Amendment to be off your rocker. There’s another kind of mental illness, and Thursday’s debates showed how fully it permeates the GOP. It’s a paranoid fear of gun laws and gun confiscation.

I’m not a gun owner. I’m also not persuaded that the restrictions President Obama has proposed would significantly reduce firearm violence. But even from a neutral perspective, what the candidates said on Thursday was madness. No matter what evidence was presented, they insisted that guns should be unregulated and that the government was preparing to confiscate them. Here’s some of what they asserted.

1. There should be no gun laws. In the prime-time debate, Cruz bragged about leading the fight against legislation that would have required universal background checks on gun purchases. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie touted his own list: “I have vetoed a 50-caliber rifle ban. I have vetoed a reduction [in] clip size. I vetoed a statewide ID system for gun owners.” Christie added, “In New Jersey, what we have done is to make it easier now to get a conceal-and-carry permit.” But the winner of the bidding war was Donald Trump. Debate co-moderator Maria Bartiromo asked Trump, “Are there any circumstances that you think we should be limiting gun sales of any kind in America?” Without hesitation, Trump replied, “No.”

2. Gun laws are inherently futile. Sen. Marco Rubio told the prime-time audience that Obama’s gun-control proposals wouldn’t have prevented recent mass shootings because “criminals don’t buy their guns from a gun show. They don’t buy their guns from a collector. And they don’t buy their guns from a gun store. They get—they steal them. They get them on the black market.” That’s not true: Dozens of mass shooters bought their weapons at gun stores. But Rubio’s claim goes beyond these incidents. It’s an argument against all gun laws.

3. Guns are our only defense against terrorism. Trump blamed the deaths of 130 people in Paris and 14 more in San Bernardino, California, on the victims’ lack of guns. Rubio went further, suggesting that Americans should arm themselves against terrorists. “We are in a war against ISIS,” said Rubio. “They are trying to attack us here in America. They attacked us in Philadelphia last week. They attacked us in San Bernardino. … And the last line standing between them and our families might be us and a gun.”

4. Obama deliberately targets innocent people. When Obama “meets with the attorney general in the White House,” said Rubio, the president’s instructions are to “give me options on how I can make it harder for law-abiding people to buy guns.”

5. Democrats will abolish the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment has been around for 224 years. In 2008, the Supreme Court affirmed that it protects the right to own a handgun and to possess a rifle or shotgun without a trigger lock. The right to own long guns wasn’t even disputed in the case, and there are presently about 300 million firearms in the United States. Nevertheless, on Thursday, Cruz and Rubio warned that Obama or Hillary Clinton would find a way to take everyone’s guns. “I am convinced that if this president could confiscate every gun in America, he would,” said Rubio. “I have seen him appoint people to our courts not to defend the Second Amendment, but to figure out ways to undermine it.” Cruz predicted that if Clinton is elected, the Supreme Court “will rule that not a single person in this room has any right under the Second Amendment, and the government could confiscate your guns.”

6. Thriving gun sales are proof that guns are threatened. Neil Cavuto, a co-moderator of the prime-time debate, asked Rubio, “What fact can you point to that the president would take away everyone’s gun?” Cavuto pointed out that during Obama’s tenure, “Gun sales have more than doubled.” Rubio replied: “That sounds like people are afraid the president’s going to take their guns away.” The audience applauded.

7. Polls that favor gun laws are bogus. In the undercard debate, co-moderator Trish Regan noted, “Recent polls show the majority of Americans are in favor of universal background checks.” Former Sen. Rick Santorum replied: “Not in this room.” Regan explained that she was citing a fact, not her opinion. “It’s the poll data,” she said. At that point, another candidate, Carly Fiorina, incredulously retorted: “And we all believe the polling data all the time, don’t we?” The audience applauded.

8. Ignore executive orders. Sandra Smith, another co-moderator of the undercard debate, reminded former Gov. Mike Huckabee, “You called President Obama’s executive orders on gun control unconstitutional and completely insane.” “Yes, I did,” replied Huckabee. Smith continued: “You even told gun store owners to ignore the president’s orders.” Again, the crowd applauded.

Guns are a complex issue. People do use firearms to protect themselves, and criminals do buy guns on the black market. In other contexts—notably, marijuana and abortion—liberals are less credulous that restrictive laws will change behavior or do more good than harm. But what we heard from the Republican candidates on Thursday wasn’t a nuanced critique of gun laws. It was a web of extremism, denial, and paranoia that in any other setting would be recognized as mental illness. Without an adjudicated diagnosis, you can’t stop such people from buying weapons. But you can certainly stop them from becoming president of the United States.

Read more of Slate’s GOP primary coverage.