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

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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. 

I'm nevertheless allergic to "if we can only save one child" formulations, and "are we really prepared to say that dead children are the price of our freedom" formulations, because whatever you think of gun control (I happen to support more of it than we have today), I'm self-aware enough to understand that while I don't personally value guns, I value lots of freedoms that, if they could somehow be abolished, would surely lead to fewer children being killed.

Imagine a world where prohibition was actually effective and didn't have any unintended consequences. In that world, would I favor a ban on alcohol? Would I favor a law that restricted motorists to driving a maximum of 35 miles per hour? In fact, I'd want alcohol to remain legal, and I'd favor permitting motorists to drive at the highway speed limits we have today. What if a vast system of government surveillance cameras could drastically reduce violent crime at the price of significantly diminishing the privacy that Americans enjoy? I suspect that the vast majority of gun-control advocates would join me in insisting on certain freedoms, even though the associated innocent lives lost would dwarf those lost to firearms. (I should add that most of us, myself included, are okay with vehicle safety standards and bans on drunk driving. I am not sure precisely what the gun-control analogue is to measures like those.)

Of course, there are all sorts of differences between, say, beer and handguns. But if my responsible enjoyment of IPAs is somehow more rational or morally superior to my neighbor's responsible enjoyment of his hand-guns I confess that I don't understand why. It's easy to imagine that of course you'd give up a recreational enjoyment if it even had a chance of saving hundreds of innocent children. As it turns out, almost all of us take what amounts to the opposite position all the time when we personally value the good that would be prohibited "for the greater good." I'd argue that the overall bias toward freedom turns out to be good for everyone, especially in a world where prohibition doesn't work and always has unintended consequences. And I think we're all worse off in various ways due to the willingness of my fellow citizens to cede privacy and liberty so that they can feel and perhaps be safer from terrorism.

None of the foregoing absolves us from trying to save more lives and prevent other harms in ways that give proper deference to pluralism and freedom. I don't think the National Rifle Association has it quite right either. As I noted yesterday, universal background checks that apply even to private gun sales seem to me a reasonable and prudent safeguard against rampages, even though it wouldn't have prevented the one in Newtown. Sure, the background checks would be an inconvenience, but my tentative impression is that they neither transgress against the right to bear arms nor destroy any of the numerous ways in which gun owners enjoy it.

In any case, I don't think it's right to assign zero value to the preferences of gun enthusiasts, a mistake some anti-gun voices make. Liberals insist that living in a pluralistic society means teetotalers ought to refrain from banning alcohol, though some of them regard it as the stuff of the devil; that social conservatives ought to refrain from banning abortion, though some of them regard it as murder; that even people who get occasional speeding tickets or are at fault in an automobile accident get to keep driving because they have the right to do so. Are guns really in a totally distinct category? Or are they just valued in a distinct subculture of American life? The fact that it's a very different subculture than mine makes me more wary of insisting that the preferences of its members ought to be paid very little mind in shaping future public policy. Personally, I wouldn't trade much safety for liberty to have guns, as I don't care about them, but I'd definitely trade a significant amount of safety for the privilege of living in a free society and enjoying whatever aspects of it make me happy, so long as I don't do harm to others. It still seems to me that certain gun restrictions could be tightened without transgressing on any significant preferences save two I care less about accommodating: exaggerated fears of slippery slopes and the powerful tribal desire to stubbornly cede no ground at all. I can generally support gun control in accordance with the aforementioned values.

And there are other ways to reduce violent crime too ...

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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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