AR-15sRich Pedroncelli / AP

Pornography is officially a “public-health crisis” in Utah, according to 2016 legislation. The Republican representative Todd Weiler, who championed the bill and told me at the time that he sees a lot of porn in his Twitter feed, has been working to make it illegal for internet service providers to provide internet that contains porn.

When I covered this story it felt like a fringe movement, born of conflicting ideas about the role of government in public health. Banning porn means expanding government oversight in a way that infringes on personal liberties and squelches an enormous industry that creates wealth and jobs. These tenets seem contrary to many conservatives’ stated objectives and free-market approach, yet it was conservatives beating the drum.

This week, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat took the argument mainstream with his column “Let’s Ban Porn.” The piece was supported by some vocal conservative-minded people, like Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, who shared it with the endorsement: “Porn oppresses women, eviscerates manhood, destroys marriage, robs children of purity, and enslaves people in private morose self-indulgence. Ban it indeed.”

This seems like an opportunity for many of us to clarify what we believe the role of government should be in maintaining a healthy, orderly, just society. Should regulations be limited to policing bad outcomes—as in, punishing and jailing people convicted of sexual assault? Or should regulations look upstream, at causes and influences, and try to prevent problems like assault? And if so, is banning pornography an effective way to do that?

There is a basic consensus among experts that it’s possible to develop unhealthy relationships with porn. Its consumption can become habit-forming and isolating. Of course, so can Netflix. And definitely Twitter. But when porn factors heavily into a person’s understanding of what sex is, it can become a formative force in interpersonal dynamics at levels beyond the romantic or sexual. This could be relevant to domestic violence and general patterns of objectification that are disproportionately depicted in porn. Though, again, the same could be said of ultraviolent movies and the video games where people shoot each other for 18 hours at a time.

As we spend more time on screens, it's increasingly clear that what we consume has the potential to lead us to treat others badly, and that this can lead to broader societal decay. I’m not here to suggest whether or how best to regulate sex-related media in order to prevent people from behaving badly toward one another, or to suggest how regulations might help optimize the human-porn relationship across societies. What’s interesting is the idea that this is possible at all, and who tends to support the idea.

To draw a line around what constitutes a tastefully artistic depiction and what should be illegal would presumably require the appointment of some sort of national Pornography Czar, a tremendous position of judgment imposed on what constitutes a healthy depiction of sexuality. Few object to images of a bare-chested male or a woman in a swimsuit—or would consider that pornography at all. Female nipples are the line drawn on some platforms between acceptability and indecency. Images of two people kissing is usually allowable. What if they are naked, though? And then they are also touching one another, you know, down there? And these people are married, and they are in love, and they are doing this to make a baby? At what point is it a bad influence?

Ideally that process would be informed by evidence. If there were a spate of domestic-violence incidents that were clearly linked to watching a certain video, or genre of video—like, for example, the sort that include people having sex and then shooting one another—a case could be made that since a lot of people don’t know how to separate fantasy from reality, videos like that should be banned. At this point I would probably support the banning of a virtual-reality game in which the player is the male CEO of a multinational corporation and the objective is to grope as many subordinates as possible.

In any case, if the goal of this policy is to minimize harm while maximizing freedom, why shouldn’t a similar approach extend to firearms?

Even though it’s illegal for the CDC to study gun violence and how to prevent it, there are still some data. One fact is that the AR-15 has emerged as a gun of choice for mass shootings—used in Parkland this week as well as Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Orlando, and many other places now synonymous with tragedy. Meanwhile, in Kansas, a Republican congressional candidate is giving away an AR-15 as part of his campaign.

Unlike pornography, the AR-15 was not a product designed for pleasure or fantasy, but for maximizing harm, a triumph of “wound ballistics.” My colleague James Fallows has written about this at length, including this exchange at a congressional hearing between Representative Richard Ichord and Eugene Stoner, the designer of the M-16, the predecessor to the AR-15:

Ichord: One army boy told me that he had shot a Vietcong near the eye with an M-14 [which uses a substantially heavier bullet] and the bullet did not make too large a hole on exit, but he shot a Vietcong under similar circumstances in the same place with an M-16 and his whole head was reduced to pulp. This would not appear to make sense. You have greater velocity but the bullet is lighter.

Stoner: There is the advantage that a small or light bullet has over a heavy one when it comes to wound ballistics ... What it amounts to is the fact that bullets are stabilized to fly through the air, and not through water, or a body, which is approximately the same density as the water. And they are stable as long as they are in the air. When they hit something, they immediately go unstable ... If you are talking about .30-caliber [like a bullet used in the Army’s previous M-14], this might remain stable through a human body ... While a little bullet, being it has a low mass, it senses an instability situation faster and reacts much faster ... this is what makes a little bullet pay off so much in wound ballistics.

In Florida, an 18-year-old can purchase an AR-15 and enough ammunition to kill hundreds of people in a private sale without a background check. The only argument in favor of that sort of purchase is that the government shouldn’t regulate things.

Rand Paul, for one, is relatively consistent in arguing from a position of limiting government and reducing the federal deficit. Last week, for example, Paul was the one Republican to filibuster the budget bill on the grounds that it increased the federal deficit by around $1 trillion. He is a minority among Republicans, who have historically made displays of concern about government overreach and spending—as an argument against Medicare or food stamps, for example—only to then cut taxes and vote for a bill that adds to the deficit. Donald Trump, for example, campaigned on reducing the deficit but has remained insistent on billions for a border wall and massive investment in the military in addition to tax cuts.

There are meaningful debates to be had over the point at which measures meant to ensure public safety are doing more harm than good—and the role of government in serving as a counterweight to private interests whose objective is to sell harmful products.

But it’s difficult to seriously engage with limited-government arguments when those same people also could consider it reasonable for a government to ban images of people having sex.

It would be one thing if the opposition to regulating guns were only a matter of fealty to the Second Amendment, but it’s clearly more than that. And while the policing of pornography remains a logistical maze that Douthat and others haven’t described in detail, the United States has enacted a ban on “assault weapons” in the past. Reauthorization was blocked in 2004. A bill reinstating it exists to be taken up by the Senate at any point.

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