The debate over gun control has heated up again in the wake of the Colorado theatre shootings. Each side of this issue has been making their predictable points on cable news and talk radio programs, opinion pages of newspapers, blog posts, and Facebook status updates.
Advocates of gun control argue that restricting access to firearms, especially to weapons like assault rifles, will reduce the opportunity for individuals with ill intent to take the lives of others. Opponents of gun control counter with an appeal to the Second Amendment arguing the right of citizens to bear arms.
I’ve been thinking about the points and counterpoints of the gun debate and have noticed some interesting similarities to the abortion debate. In the abortion debate, one side advocates for abortion control arguing that restricting access to abortion will reduce the number of abortions. The other side counters with an appeal to rights that a Supreme Court ruling declared are implied in the Constitution.
Of particular fascination (and frustration) to me is the fact that generally those arguing for legal restrictions with respect to the one issue directly counter that very argument with respect to the other issue. And conversely, those arguing for rights with respect to the one issue directly counter that very argument with respect to the other issue. In other words, what is considered perfectly good rationale for making a conclusion with regard to legal restrictions vs. rights in one matter is considered illogical for making a conclusion with regard to legal restrictions vs. rights in another matter. So what determines the logic that is used is not whether the logic is actually logical but rather whether it appears to support an ideological position that has been staked out in advance.
Those on the right, who generally would be opposed to gun control yet be in favor of abortion control, will use rhetoric like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” They argue that even if gun control laws are enacted there will still be gun violence. Those on the left, who generally would be in favor of gun control yet opposed to abortion control, call this a red herring. Yet they turn around and use nearly the same argument with respect to laws restricting access to abortion—“making abortion illegal won’t stop abortions; women will just go have back alley abortions.” Of course, those on the right who used this line of reasoning to oppose gun control call it a red herring while they push for abortion control. And around the circle we go.
Except for a small extremist minority to either side of the spectrum, it seems to me that most who are either pro-gun ownership or pro-choice are moderately so. They seem to be pro-“whatever” with a caveat. Unfortunately, many of the more widely heard voices on these issues are not from those who hold nuanced, moderate positions on the matter but rather from the more extreme edges. In the cacophony of polarized, uncompromising talking points, those who lean a bit left or right of center seem to get pulled toward the pole on their respective side of the issue. The result is the inability for our society to at least get to a reasonable resolution on the most obvious places of common ground.
When asked generally if they favor or oppose gun control, those who are pro-gun ownership on the right will largely answer unhesitatingly “opposed.” Talk about specifics, and that changes. Many who are pro-gun ownership question why anyone, other than while serving in a military uniform, would need or should have an assault rifle. But those who represent the most extreme position on pro-gun ownership (who unsurprisingly have a significant financial interest in such a position—namely the NRA and gun and ammunition manufacturers) are setting and dominating the agenda. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to get into place an assault rifle ban, even though there would be significant common ground (left and right) to do so.
Turn to the abortion issue and a similar dynamic is in play. When asked generally if they favor or oppose laws restricting a woman from choosing an abortion, those who are pro-choice on the left will largely answer unhesitatingly “opposed.” Talk about specifics, and again that changes things. Many who are pro-choice are not pro-abortion. In fact, many who hold a pro-choice view believe that it is a desirable goal to reduce the number of abortions. Further, many who are pro-choice question why someone would need or should have a mid or late term abortion. But those who represent the most extreme pro-choice position (again, who unsurprisingly have a significant financial interest in such a position—namely Planned Parenthood and abortion providers) are setting and dominating the agenda. Consequently, it is very challenging to effect even the most reasonable of controls on abortion, even though there would be significant common ground (right and left) to do so.
Unfortunately, we’ll never eliminate all abortions or gun deaths. (I think everyone, left and right, would agree with that.) Yet, overwhelming majorities, consisting of conservatives and liberals, would agree that we should do whatever we can to reduce the number of abortions and the number of gun deaths as much as we reasonably can. To reach those goals, it is unacceptable to simply say that we should have no restrictions simply because some will still do what we’re trying to prevent. And it is unacceptable to simply say that there is no limitation that may be placed upon what we deem to be a right.
At some level most all of us agree in principle (as evidenced by liberal arguments for gun control and by conservative arguments for abortion control) that rights have their limitations. Could it be that the left and the right have more agreement than they actually realize?