If It Saves Just One Life

During his January 16 speech on gun control, President Obama said:

Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try.

His first sentiment is accurate, thoughtful and, although regrettable, reflective of reality. It is true that those intent on harming or burgling are not all that interested in laws and the preferences of civilized societies, so in this way the President is merely acknowledging this truth.

The second sentiment regarding the bromide "if it saves one life, isn't it worth it" is depressing. Whenever a politician utters these words, you should be wary. Very wary. The real answer to this question – if we are to be honest – is likely, "No." The statement is often used to stir emotional and populist sentiments in order to forward some legislation that the speaker is favoring. It is used by many on both sides of the aisle and it is troubling no matter who says it. And I can assure you that most of those using it are brimming with good intention.

I am certain that reducing maximum speed limits to 35 mph would save lives – many more than one life and orders of magnitude more than any and all gun control schemes. Banning driving altogether would be even better – if vehicle fatalities were the only consideration. But when the costs are considered, the lives saved must be compared to the costs to society. Societies are constantly counting the costs and determining if the prescription is worse than the disease. Politicians are no more callous when they support higher speed limits that assure more fatlalities than they are when they oppose gun control measures that would do little or nothing to reduce gun violence and/or gun related deaths.

To the individual affected by gun violence, statistics and societal costs are meaningless. The murdered loved one isn't partially dead or statistically insignificant. So for the individual the platitude of saving just one life means everything. But a society must consider things more broadly and cannot make laws based on saving just one life. It is always a trade off between, say, freedom and reducing numbers killed.

Intoxicated driving provides a good example of the trade-offs. One might support stringent restrictions on blood alcohol levels as a way to reduce deaths on the roadways. But all alcohol related driving deaths cannot be prevented by this action alone, so one might think up other ways to 'save just one more life'. Roadside sobriety checkpoints may be a method by which one more life could be spared. However, roadside checkpoints have an element of presumed guilt such that the driver must disprove his guilt via a test administered by the roadside officer.

There are an infinite amount of issues for which some could argue from atop the 'if it saves one life' soapbox. Arguing against abortion, automobiles, energy production, ultraviolet rays, fast-food, drone strikes, cigarettes, and lawn darts would certainly save one or more life. Just as allowing the South to secede, swimming pool bans, peanut based food bans, never going outdoors, guarding embassies and schools resembling prisons would undoubtedly save lives.

And some acts aren’t as clear. And while one could argue that outlawing capital punishment would preserve the life of the convicted, there is ample evidence that ridding the world of some such evildoers would save far more lives in the long run if the evildoer is ever released and then commits more crimes. And weren't there more than a few that thought prohibition would save lives? Good intentions aside, prohibition likely cost many more lives than it saved.

Our society must grapple with whether gun bans or anything else that is promised to save 'one more life' is worth the abridgment of the Constitutional rights and individual liberty. The point is that societies count the cost, and like it or not, saving just one more life is not usually worth the societal cost. The answer to the question, "If it saved one life, wouldn't it be worth it?" is usually "No." And I suspect that would be the President's answer if met with a proposal to arm every citizen based on evidence that innocent lives are spared quite regularly by armed citizens rebuffing the unwanted advances of a criminal or rapist.


Gun Control v The Patriot Act

So on the one hand the Patriot Act is bad because it delegates far too much discretion and arbitrary power to law enforcement agencies, because it opens the door for abuses by the Administration and is an attack on civil liberties. But when others suggest that similar problems may exist with gun control -- that it delegates far too much discretion and arbitrary power to law enforcement agencies, that it opens the door for abuses by the Administration and is an attack on civil liberties not to mention an actual Amendment -- well, anyone who would suggest such nonsense is a bunch of crazies, clinging to their guns and religion.

Nobody wants unrestricted gun ownership. It is heavily regulated now. Those who think it isn't are ignoring the truth to further their agenda, lying to further their agenda, cannot read or aren't interested in facts. None of the proposed changes would have prevented Sandy Hook and other tragedies. Aren't these studies and facts and data that those who are always lecturing about studies and facts and data should consider? Will changing the color or stock material really prevent lunatics from acting looney? And this from a crowd that is eternally lecturing and mocking the religious for believing in an "invisible friend in the sky" and ignoring facts and science.

Fighting further regulation doesn't mean that gun owners want no regulation just as opposing further taxation doesn't mean one wants no taxation. Those who reduce their ideological opponents to such an extreme position are either lying or are just trying to win an argument. They certainly aren't interested in exploring ideas, "bipartisanship", "compromise" or "negotiating". They are interested in brinkmanship. And this from the side that is quite proud of their capacity for nuance.

The truth is that over the last 30 years, the U.S. homicide rate has declined by 50 percent. As Krauthammer writes, "We’re living not through an epidemic of gun violence but through a historic decline." Does this mean we should be uninterested in doing what we can to improve laws or curbing violence? Of course not. Again, only the silly and unserious paint their ideological opponents in such a way.

Would those who are in favor of gun laws have felt the same if "news"papers published maps that showed where all Muslims live? Of course "news"papers should not publish such lists or maps. All those gun owners are presumably innocent and have committed no crime just as the majority of Muslims are peace lovers and intend no harm. I guess the same crowd who struggles with the distinction between Islam and Islamists is equally puzzled by the distinction between gun owners and mass murderers.

The same group that was very concerned that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft would, in the name of the Patriot Act, jack-boot through every home destroying every conceivable civil liberty on their way to rounding up all peoples of Arab descent are now mysteriously quiet about the abuses of government. "But that was different," they cry. The "Bushies" only wanted to enrich their gun buddies and the left wants to spread peace and love and harmony. I suppose that would be great if it were in any way tethered to reality. There is as much or more cronyism and pocket lining going on these days as ever. In fact, an awful lot of loans have been taken out in the name of environmentalism and defaulted that have enriched a select few. And it has all been done in plain sight. If corporations like Halliburton were involved, would we hear the end of it?

This is why smaller government is better. Corruption and cronyism on both sides is the status quo. And only by limiting the amount of power any group or individual can have can this be checked. Those who are concerned when Bush and Cheney are at the tiller should maintain that suspicion when their side is at the helm. The problem is, they don't. They forget that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. (Yes, it cuts both ways. Those who look suspiciously at gun control should have as keen a suspicion for things like the Patriot Act. The thing is, they usually do.)

Those who think that larger and larger government can do no wrong often are tilting against their proper suspicion of those in power. They suspend that suspicion when those they agree with are holding the reins. How they manage the cognitive dissonance is a bit of a mystery. Those who think smaller government is a better way acknowledge that power corrupts, no matter who is in charge, so limiting the influence of those in power is a better management practice.

So the one side relies on mankind being good and having better answers and more perfect implementation. The other says all men are frail, mortal and corruptible and therefore institutions that can exercise great power over large groups should be limited. A well armed citizenry is a part of a larger picture that regulates and limits that power.

The Founders understood this. Shouldn't we?