Why 'If We Can Just Save One Child ...' Is a Bad Argument

Almost everyone favors maintaining some freedom -- to drink alcohol, for example -- that, if curtailed, would save innocent lives.

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President Obama mostly struck the right tone in his Sunday speech at an interfaith service in Newtown, Connecticut, paying homage to the slain educators who tried to protect their students and solemnly naming the victimized children. But I was disappointed that he settled on these words: "If there's even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that's visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try."

It's the sort of statement that only sounds appropriate until you reflect upon it, at which point it becomes absurd. Here's one step we could take to save parents, children, and towns from future massacres: Make it far easier to institutionalize mentally ill people, segregating them en mass from the rest of the population. I emphatically wouldn't want to take that step. Doing so would rob a great many Americans of liberty. So I don't think we have an "obligation" to try it, especially given that the vast majority of the mentally ill never perpetrate violent attacks on the public. I'm almost certain Obama agrees, but you wouldn't know it from the sloppy formulation that he used.

He went on to promise that "in the coming weeks, I'll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental-health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have?"

Interpreted narrowly, I have no problem with Obama marshaling his power "to engage" his fellow citizens. I'd only add that this is a president whose general notion of presidential power extends beyond engagement to indefinite detention and secretly assassinating American citizens without due process. So if Obama ever tweaks his formulation slightly and promises to use "whatever power" his office has "to stop gun violence," you'll understand why I'll shudder. I've seen what it means for American presidents to do "everything" in their power to stop U.S. children from dying in terrorist attacks: It has meant torture, dead innocents abroad, and attacks on due process. I've also seen presidents do "everything" in their power to keep drugs away from our children. What I wouldn't give for a politician who promised to do "only the prudent things, and no more."

Now let's focus on what Obama meant, rather than what he said.

His argument seems to be that if gun-control legislation can save another child, parent, or town, surely we have an obligation to try it. Said Obama in the same speech, "Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?" I suspect the average gun-control advocate nodded along with those words, in part because America is riven by a cultural divide, and folks on one side of it don't place a very high value on the freedom of gun owners to possess the weapons of their choosing. To someone who cares nothing for guns that freedom can seem quixotic and irrational.

But is Obama's reasoning really as benign as his supporters perceived it to be? How would we react if he had said, "In bygone years, this country institutionalized its mentally ill population, and if you object to moving back in that direction, are you prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"

The formulation is only persuasive if you already agree with the wisdom of the reform.

I admit that I don't value gun rights much for myself. Folks very close to me own guns. But a paintball gun is the closest I've come to even firing one, and I'm sure I'd feel less comfortable in a classroom or restaurant where everyone was armed than a room in which no guns were present. Furthermore, it is difficult for me to understand why so many gun-rights advocates are so uncompromising about their Second Amendment rights, even as they stand by in bafflingly silent acceptance as War on Terror excesses make a mockery of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. They're far more likely to die in a domestic shooting than a terrorist attack, yet they're willing to cede more liberties, by many orders of magnitude, in order to maybe decrease terrorism. One begins to doubt whether they care very much about liberty beyond their own. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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