Over the weekend there was a massive march in Washington and other cities to demand new laws, ostensibly on behalf of innocent lives being endangered. That sounds like another giant protest march that takes place once a year in Washington, except this one is being reported coast-to-coast, buoyed by celebrity endorsements, and hailed as the dawn of a revolution, rather than being studiously ignored or downplayed.
It should be obvious that I’m speaking of the March for Our Lives and the March for Life, two ostensibly similar marches advocating ostensibly similar views. Yet comparing the two positions reveals illuminating fundamental differences.
Ownership Versus Action
Of course the most obvious distinction is in the subject matter: one favors limiting or ending gun owners, the other limiting or ending abortion. Let’s consider the two subjects, for here the crux of the matter rests.
Gun rights deal with a person’s right to own a particular tool for a particular purpose. Put briefly, a gun is a weapon; weapons are used in fighting. People want to own guns so if they ever need to fight to defend themselves, their families, or their rights, they can do so effectively. There are obvious and legitimate reasons why they would want this, ranging from violent attackers to civil unrest.
But, although they have legitimate uses, guns by nature are open to abuse. They allow a person with evil intent to inflict more damage than he would otherwise. Gun-control advocates argue the potential for abuse is greater than the legitimate need for private firearms, at least with regards to certain weapons. In other words, gun control advocates wish to limit access to guns in order to limit their potential for abuse.
Abortion rights deal with a person’s right to do or have done a particular procedure. This procedure, by definition, destroys a human life: specifically the human life the people in question created by having intercourse, whether consensually or violently. They desire this because, to one degree or another, the life to be destroyed is unwanted or inconvenient and was not intended to be created.
Although the reasons for wishing to destroy this life may be understandable, abortion still destroys an innocent human life. Moreover, in most cases that innocent human life was created by other people voluntarily engaging in an act they knew could lead to this outcome. Pro-life advocates argue that deliberately killing an innocent human being simply cannot be justified, save in cases of direst need such as when the life of the mother is at stake.
In other words, pro-life advocates wish to forbid a particular action that, by definition, destroys a human life.
Note the difference: one involves a right of possession, the other of action. To own a gun says nothing of how it is used, and there are clearly legitimate reasons someone would want to own one. To perform an abortion, on the other hand, means to kill a human life, and the only question involved is whether such an act can be justified. Gun-control advocates argue that the undeniable potential for abuse outweighs the undeniable goods derived from gun ownership, while pro-life advocates argue that abortion itself is an unjustifiable action.
Responsibility Versus Irresponsibility
This difference points to another: private firearm ownership presupposes a degree of self-control and responsibility. Owning a weapon demands treating it with respect for the power it conveys. If we permit a person to own firearms, we assume he is a reasonably mature, independent moral agent who is able to act rationally and responsibly.
Those in favor of gun ownership seek to take responsibility for their own lives and actions, rather than being pre-judged incapable of doing so. Now, whether or not a given individual is capable of this is a legitimate question, but ultimately beside the point. The point is that to seek gun ownership means to ask for greater responsibility for one’s life and to be judged accordingly.
Furthermore, the reason behind gun ownership is for the individual to be able to defend himself, his family, and his property without having to depend upon official institutions for protection. It demands that he not only treat his gun with respect but also be able to judge when it ought to be used and be able to use it. The right to gun ownership, therefore, means the right to take responsibility for one’s own life. Whether you believe in gun ownership or not, that is what the position objectively is.
On the other hand, abortion presupposes a lack of responsibility and moral agency. It is precisely a means to escape from the consequences of one’s choices: to be able to enjoy sexual intercourse without having to care for any children that result. It demands the power to destroy developing life that one’s own choices created, meaning the power to escape moral responsibility.
To this, of course, some raise the issue of rape. So should abortion should only be legal in cases of rape and similar crimes? Those who think so essentially agree with the principle being discussed, and we may leave that issue for another time.
Those who think not haven’t added anything to the conversation by raising this issue. Rape and similar matters account for a very small number of abortions, and we may take such cases as a separate question. When people advocate against abortion, they are primarily thinking of the vast majority of cases, in which abortion follows consensual sex as a means of birth control.
I am not here making any statement about that consensual sex, as that’s a different discussion. I’m merely saying abortion means destroying a human life that sex created. The creation of human life is an entirely predictable result of engaging in intercourse. Therefore, abortion, by definition, means removing the consequences of what is, as a rule, a voluntary act. So it is a means of escaping responsibility. Whether or not you think abortion can be justified, that is what it objectively is.
Thus, a pro-gun position demands personal responsibility. A pro-abortion position demands an escape from it.
Clarity of Vision
Finally, there is the difference in goals and vision. The pro-life movement’s goals are straightforward enough: end abortion, or at least end common, voluntary abortion not involving rape or serious health issues. Pro-lifers argue this would save millions of innocent lives, which is simply fact, since abortion by definition means killing a human life. The goal of the pro-life movement is thus so straightforward as to be a tautology: don’t kill people and those people won’t be killed.
On the other hand, the gun-control movement’s goals and reasons are far more vague and dubious. For instance, the immediate issue of the Washington march seems to be another assault weapons ban (although the rhetoric seems to be demanding much more, further pointing to the vagueness of their position).
This first raises the question of what constitutes an “assault weapon,” and second the issue of whether this would actually help. Even assuming the broadest definition of assault weapon, and assuming the ban were effective, this would only mean a change in weapon choice for the next mass shooter, and more mass shootings have been committed with handguns than with rifles. It seems reasonable to assume that, if rifles were not available, potential mass shooters would simply use handguns, and so on and so forth down the list of weapons until we come to knives and bombs.
This is the elephant in the room for gun-control advocates: all this effort, all this anger, and all for something unlikely to actually help. If the pro-life movement manages to ban all abortions after a certain developmental stage, that means a clear limit to the number of people killed because what is being banned is the act of killing itself. There is a clear expected benefit to their advocacy, and that benefit (fewer people killed by abortion) rises the further the position is pushed.
But if the gun-control movement manages to ban semi-automatic rifles, that won’t save a clear number of lives that those rifles would have killed, because what is being banned is simply a tool that may or may not have been used to commit murder, and whose absence certainly will not prevent the attempt. The expected benefit (fewer murders and mass killings) is dubious at best, and remains dubious no matter how far the position is pushed.
If you ban all abortion, then nobody is legally killed by abortion. It is a simple one-one exchange. If you ban all guns, it doesn’t mean no one is legally killed by guns (since that has never been legal). It only means the general populace is denied the right to defend themselves and becomes further dependent upon government institutions while becoming more vulnerable to violent aggressors.
In other words, one movement demands greater responsibility for individual citizens and less institutional control. The other demands the reverse. One argues man is a moral agent who is responsible for his own actions. The other argues that man cannot be trusted, only institutions.
Behold the American political divide in a nutshell.