The Imperfect Resoning of “Saving Just One Life”

Firearms on display at a gun show (image from Politico)

During President Obama’s first weekly address to the nation of 2016 the President made clear he intends to explore the use of an Executive Order to address what he sees as America’s “gun epidemic.” Rightfully, the President acknowledges that expanded background checks and increased scrutiny of firearm sales at gun shows can not stop all acts of gun violence. But then he goes on to say, “But what if we tried to stop even one?” It is here that the President goes down a slippery slope of moral reasoning. Using the idea that saving just one life alone justifies the use of Executive Order not only undermines the President’s argument but sets a precedent for the use of this line of reasoning for future policy decisions.

The idea that hard work, rewriting of laws, and wholesale use of governmental powers provided under the Constitution (regardless of branch) is correct as long as one life is saved is a powerful line of persuasion. But our collective memories are short; saving “one life” has been used by law makers to justify numerous programs, laws, and policy decisions. Not all of these programs ended in citizens agreeing that the ends justified the means.

PRISM Surveillance Timeline (taken from Washington Post)

The PRISM program outed by Edward Snowden is a prime example of the fallacy of “saving just one life” justification. Through Snowden’s disclosures the National Security Agency was shown to be collecting data on American citizens by mining social media and internet mail databases, ostensibly to enable the Agency’s ability to detect and prevent terrorist activities. Outcry and anger was swift following the disclosure. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) went as far as introducing new legislation to prevent what he saw as a violation of American’s Fourth Amendment Rights. In response to PRISM critics’ belief that the NSA had violated citizens Consitutional rights, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stated that the program was “part of our obligation to keep Americans safe.”

So here lies the issue: Do the ends justify the means? Or more finely, at what point do we put the safety of one above the rights of the whole citizenry? The balance between freedom and security is always difficult. In our hyper- polarized times that balance can be even more difficult to find. It did not take gun control opponents from 2016 presidential candidates to gun show patrons to voice their disapproval of the President’s potential use of Executive Order. The President saying that taking such actions would be worthwhile if just one act of violence is prevented leaves him open to easy rebuttal. It also opens the door for other lawmakers to use the saving of one life or stopping of one act of violence as justification for future legislative actions.

The President should use his town hall on Thursday night to further explain the reasoning of why his use of Executive Order is proper and useful. After all the implementation of the background checks the President proposes would not have stopped our most recent massacres much as the building of a border wall would have prevented the murder of Kathryn Steinle by and illegal immigrant. There is a much more robust case to be made for the expansion of background checks that touch on economic, community, and even national security issues. If the President looks to earn support from gun rights activists he must address these points rather than rely on the emotional argument of saving just one life.


Brian Smith is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and a veteran of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Washington. Follow him on twitter @bsmith11a