How Pro-Choice Activists Are Like Pro-Gun Activists, Cont'd

Jessica Hill / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Jim Elliott, a reader whose writing on guns Ta-Nehisi featured a few years ago under a pseudonym, rejoins the debate under his real name:

Your reader's comparison of gun rights activists to pro-choice activists made immediate sense to me, as a gun rights liberal. Both gun control advocates and pro-life advocates primarily work upon first principles. They make a moral argument, not a pragmatic one.

As perhaps well they should. Pro-choice advocates, after all, weigh the potential for life against the liberty of a life already existing and choose the latter, whereas gun rights advocates weigh the potential for death against the liberty of a life already existing, and choose the latter.

When you’re essentially arguing against a moral axiom such as life, you’ve just picked the losing team. Just as a pro-choice advocate can’t really argue with the picture of an aborted fetus, neither can a gun rights advocate argue against the picture of a weeping parent. Nor should they; as Ben Carson and Jeb Bush just learned, it’s basically impossible to not be an ass if you even try.

Sure, us gun rights guys can quote figures all we want. I could point out that according to the National Institutes of Justice, the use of firearms in non-fatal violent crime is down, drastically:

The number of nonfatal firearm-related crimes has dropped from a high of 1,287,190 in 1994 to a bottoming out of 331,618 in 2008. And even though that number has since increased, it remains at around a third of its peak. In 1994, the firearm crime rate was 7.4; in 2011, it was 1.8. And, interestingly, firearm use in non-fatal violent crime remains consistent with its historical range of between 5-8 percent of overall non-fatal violent crime.

But those facts won’t matter.

I could point out that murder and non-negligent manslaughter are down from a 1994 peak of 23,326 to 14,196 in 2013, according to the FBI. I could point out that, also according to the FBI, 8,454 of those deaths in 2013 were caused by firearms—just under 60 percent of them—and that this remains consistent with the historical average of the percentage of murders that are done with firearms.

But that won’t matter.

I could point out that this coincides with a period in time where there has been a monumental growth in the number of people with concealed carry permits, or that such individuals are not any more likely to commit violent crime. For example, out of the state of Texas’s 584,850 permit holders in 2012, 120—0.021 percent—were convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, with only a few of them charged in murder or negligent homicide.

But that won’t matter.

I could point out that your chance of being criminally killed by a firearm is 0.000267 percent. I could point out that accidental firearm deaths account for 0.6 percent of all accidental deaths in the U.S., and that such deaths are down from a peak of over 2,000 in 1981 to fewer than 600 in 2013.

But that won’t matter.

It won’t matter because I’m basically being an ass: Behind every one of those data points is the story of a life lost. There’s a mother or father who’s not coming home, a son or daughter who won’t be tucked in tonight. How do you argue with the moral equivalent of Dick Cheney’s One-Percent Doctrine couched in the image of a woman screaming in the parking lot of an elementary school [in Newtown, Connecticut, in the photo seen above]? You don’t. Unless you’re a complete ass.

Gun rights activists have to realize this. We don’t have a good answer. We may not even have a right one. We can either avoid this discussion by flinging first principles at one another like good fundamentalists, or we can recognize that the gun control folks aren’t wrong. Unlike with abortion, we can’t fall back on different axiomatic definitions of what a zygote is. Gun control advocates are responding to the loss of what are indisputably innocent lives. We have to respect those lives by recognizing that.

Update from a reader:

But here’s the crucial difference: Most—almost all—anti-abortion activists are very open about wanting to make all abortion illegal. They’re very vocal about how abortion is murder in their eyes, and thus not a negotiable practice.

But most gun-control supporters fall in the middle of the bell curve, just wanting background checks, a cooling off period, maybe some basic training in gun safety, and no assault rifles. And I don’t think they’re being cagy about it. That’s really all most of them want.

So the unwillingness of the pro-life crowd to negotiate makes sense, while the intransigence of the NRA is something else.

Another reader:

Jim Elliott’s comparison of pro-choice activists with gun-rights activists is deeply flawed. He writes:

Pro-choice advocates [...] weigh the potential for life against the liberty of a life already existing and choose the latter, whereas gun rights advocates weigh the potential for death against the liberty of a life already existing, and choose the latter. When you’re essentially arguing against a moral axiom such as life, you’ve just picked the losing team.

Let me be blunt: It is wrong to suggest a woman’s liberty is the only thing at risk when she is denied the right to have an abortion, given that many women need an abortion to save their own lives. It almost pisses me off that I have to point this out to Jim, whom I like and respect, but it’s disheartening so many men seem to skip over the whole thing about our bodies being part of their risk-analysis equation. A woman’s liberty to control what happens to her own body, and the lifelong consequences of denying her that liberty, are profoundly different than those involved with a person’s liberty to own a gun (and I think even pro-life advocates would agree with me on this point). While there may be some shared concerns about preserving life, these issues are much too complex to be analogized.

Update: Read this followup note for Jim’s response to the two readers.