[Note: I wrote this piece for another site, but since it doesn’t seem to be being published there I’m putting it here. It’s intended as a bit of a companion piece to my most recent ‘Federalist’ article].
I’ve heard some people talking about the recent student march in Washington saying things like “it’s really a pro-life march” and “gun control is a pro-life position.”
Let’s put a stop to this nonsense right now, shall we? Whatever your ideas of gun control are, anti-gun is not pro-life; it is just anti-gun. To call it pro-life is a cheap rhetorical trick, akin to saying that those who opposed Obamacare opposed all healthcare reform, or that those who are against affirmative action just hate Black people. It’s what’s called the straw-man fallacy: purposefully misstating your opponent’s position in order to make it appear weaker than it is.
To be against abortion, or euthanasia, or other such things is to be against a clear, concrete practice. It amounts to a tautology: don’t kill people and those people won’t be killed. It is a matter of principle that it should not be legal to willingly take an innocent human life for any reason because it is wrong.
To be in favor of gun control, on the other hand, does not generally mean to be against weapons in principle (few people would advocate the overthrow of the military, police, and similar institutions). It means that we believe removing or limiting privately owned firearms would reduce violence. That is, it is the idea that enacting certain laws will result in certain effects.
Now, whether or not they actually will is not the present concern; the point is that we are talking about a means to achieve a goal, not about the goal itself. The end desired is less violence; the means being discussed is greater restrictions on firearms.
You see, having fewer guns available, or even outright banning private firearms (assuming such a thing could be done) is not the same thing as reducing violence. Again, don’t think I’m saying more than I am: for the purposes of the present discussion, it may have that effect, but my point is that it is not an obvious or indisputable connection. It is open for debate. If you make abortion illegal, then quite simply there are no legal abortions. There is an essential connection between what is enacted and what is achieved. That is objectively not the case with gun-control.
The key difference is that, when it comes to guns, the thing we desire to stop is already illegal and we are only discussing ways to further discourage it. When it comes to abortion, the thing itself is what we are trying to outlaw.
In other words, one is a matter of principle, the other of strategy. One is a debate over whether to permit certain practices that by definition involve killing people. The other is a debate over whether or not certain new laws would reduce violent crime and to what extent they would infringe on legitimate individual rights. This is not a matter for discussion: that is objectively what is at stake in each case.
The distinction is further complicated by the fact that guns are often purchased and used to protect lives. The justification pro-gun advocates use is precisely that they need guns to defend themselves, their families, and their rights, and it is simply an objective fact that guns are often used in this capacity. You can debate how great a need this is and how it compares to the potential for abuse, but you cannot argue that it does not exist. Furthermore, if you intend to argue that without guns those killed by them would be alive, then you have to accept the counter argument that without guns those who have used them defensively would be dead or at the very least assaulted. I don’t think either argument is very good, but the point is that can’t accept one without accepting the other.
As this indicates, you cannot simply claim that gun-control is ‘pro-life’ because it is an open question whether it will actually lead to less violent crime. You could just as well say that being pro-gun is pro-life because guns are used to protect life and deter crime. Again, I am not currently arguing one or the other; I’m saying that they are rhetorically equivalent and thus calling either one ‘pro-life’ – equating it with opposing the legal killing of innocent people – is disingenuous. It is claiming a one-to-one progression where none exists.
More importantly, it is dishonest. To say that being pro-gun control is to be pro-life is equivalent to saying that someone against gun control is anti-life: that is, that they want more violent crime, or at least think that violent crime is a matter of indifference. You see, it’s a disguised straw-man attack, obliquely misstating the opposing position to make it appear weaker than it actually is. It is the sort of thing a con-man or snake-oil salesman does: if you doubt the efficacy of his patent blindness cure, that means you think blind people don’t deserve to see.
Do you see the point? The objection is not to the intended goal, but to the proposed method of reaching it. You cannot describe a means to an end as being either pro-life or otherwise, because ‘life’ (here meaning the reduction of violent crime) is the end goal and the debate is over how best to achieve that. Whatever your views on the issue, please have the honesty to acknowledge what is being discussed.