Dingell’s Number

There is an interesting gun meme in the United States. I started noticing it a few years ago and now I see it everywhere. The meme has the following structure: “There are already over 20,000 gun laws in the United States. How will adding more laws help?” (Other common variants use 21,000, 22,000, 25,000, and 30,000.)

The large round number stood out to me. I wondered how anybody could have counted so many laws. That seems a task that would require a lot of labor, collecting laws from the cities, counties, and states and enumerating them.

It turns out that, as far as anybody can tell, this number was first stated by John Dingell, a representative of the Democratic party from the state of Michigan in testimony to the United States Congress in 1965. There is a description of his statement in “Evaluating Gun Policy: Effects on Crime and Violence”: “Consider the fact that we now have on the lawbooks of this Nation over 20,000 laws governing the sale, distribution, and use of firearms.” The study finds that “no additional references to the 20,000 figure appear in Dingell’s testimony, and no source for the estimate is given”. There is no reason to believe that he did not just make up this number. I am amazed that given Mr. Dingell’s long tenure in Congress, nobody ever managed to question him on this. Certainly, whatever interns or aides who worked on compiling such a number would have documented their work.

Ronald Reagan repeated it in 1981. Charlton Heston repeated it in 1999. This has given it a boost and now it is repeated quite often.

It is all over social media:

Of course, I am not the first person to notice that this number seems contrived. It has already been disputed in many places. Here are a few:

I have searched on social media for uses of this number (e.g., references to the specific and arbitrary 20,000 or 22,000 laws). I asked several of the people who use this number where they learned it, wondering if they read it in a book or just heard it on social media themselves. Many respondents report simply that they read it somewhere and that it makes sense because adding up all of the gun laws legislated by cities, counties, and states would be approximately that number. I find this interesting purely from a memetic point of view, demonstrating that people will rationalize their belief instead of evaluating it critically.

Contrarily, the above mentioned study found that because “more than forty states preempt all or most local gun laws”, the number must be smaller. The study found that the number of statewide laws “may be as few as 300”.

A 2018 report by The PEW Charitable Trusts claims that 600 new gun laws were enacted since the Sandy Hook slaying in 2012. It does not enumerate or reference any of these laws, but rather “data compiled separately by the National Rifle Association and the Giffords Law Center to Reduce Gun Violence”. It finds that most of these laws expand gun access, not restrict it. This makes the question even more interesting because when people are complaining about the fanciful large number, they are usually lamenting the restrictions, not the laws facilitating access. [Credit to @WazzuCoug94 for pointing me to this report.]

A project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds a lot fewer laws in the various states.

53 years later people continue to repeat this number. The argument is completely valid without the fabricated number: “There are already many gun laws in the United States. How will adding more laws help?” But adding a number that sounds researched adds weight to the assertion. It's like a shibboleth for determining how likely someone is to assess a statement critically before repeating it. This number ripples across social media. The more it gets repeated the more likely it is to be repeated again without question. This is regrettable. We need more critical thinking on this topic and fewer memes blindly repeated.

Because Dingell’s number is believable (nobody on any side of an issue would argue that the United States has too few laws) and tied to a controversial issue, it is a perfect meme.