What Does It Mean to Be Pro-Life, Anyway?
Is gun reform a pro-life cause?
With the recent mass shootings, once again, there has been a litany of calls for gun control and rifle bans. Many prominent progressives have claimed that supporting the right to own a gun is hypocritical of anyone claiming to be “pro-life.” Although the speaker is often acting in bad faith, it does raise an important question worth discussing: Is support for gun ownership mutually exclusive to being pro-life?
First, we must define our terms. There are many ways to define “pro-life,” but at a minimum, being “pro-life” requires opposition to the active and intentional taking of human life when alternative actions are possible. An act that ends a human life is not, in and of itself, contrary to a pro-life philosophy. However, an act that intends to end human life for the sake of ending human life when other, perhaps better, options are available is contrary to a pro-life philosophy.
Based on the above definition, the baseline for being “pro-life” would mean opposing outright murder, genocide and forced sterilizations, euthanasia, abortion, and the death penalty. Not everyone is going to agree with those (especially the last 3). Perhaps a case could be made, in some circumstances, against something like opposition to euthanasia or the death penalty being a requirement for the label “pro-life.” Still, these are kind of boiler plate items. Everything else (social safety nets, care of the planet, making health care available and affordable, working against poverty and malnutrition, etc.) are less immediately obvious when it comes to positions that could be called “pro-life.” This is because they do not involve a direct and active participation in the death of a human being.
Where does “gun reform” (however one might define that) fit in to this definition? The obvious question that comes to mind is, “How does owning a gun or supporting the ownership of a gun make someone not pro-life?” The answers people will come up with are…interesting:
A gun is a weapon meant to kill so owning a weapon means you can’t be pro-life.
Ad contra: The assumption here is that a gun is an intrinsically evil thing, the sole purpose of which is to kill humans for no other reason than pure malevolence. Not only is this untrue, this argument makes a moral judgement about an inanimate object — the gun — and applies it to the owner of that object without consideration of the person’s intent or actual use of that object.
Opposing gun control means you support (by omission, presumably) mass shootings or other violence done with guns.
This is just an absurd position, but you see it all the time. “Republicans love their guns more than school children” and other smears are tossed around each time gun control comes up. These appeals to emotions assume that by opposing a specific means of — purportedly — ending violence, someone must support violence. Opposing what we may see as ineffective or even counterproductive proposals is very different than opposing the stated aim of those proposals.
A gun is morally neutral. Although, some people may wish to present a case for a gun being morally good, I would not go that far. A gun is an inanimate object designed to release a projectile at high speeds as directed by the user of the gun. The gun is not the actor, it is the means by which the actor achieves their ends.
If the actor has malicious intent, the action is morally wrong, but the means they use are not, per se, morally wrong. Misuse and abuse of any thing does not make the thing evil — the abuse is evil. The use of a weapon to defend yourself, you family, or your property is a good thing. Providing food for your family is a good thing. The use of the same weapon to murder innocent people is evil. The weapon itself is neither.
Any number of perfectly legal and normal actions can be precursors to a single illegal and heinous act. Various and surprising things have been used to commit horrendous acts of violence against innocent civilians. People over the age of 25 can probably remember one particularly egregious event involving airplanes. The fact that a tool is misused does not mean the tool itself has any intrinsic moral weight. A gun is a tool just as a car or a box cutter is a tool — they can all be used or misused.
According to the FBI, of the nearly 14,000 murders in 2019 for which statistics are available, over 10,000 were done with a firearm of some sort. Of those 10,000, less than a thousand are considered to be “justifiable” (self-defense or in the line of duty). So, yes, guns are used to kill people and handguns, in particular, are responsible for the vast majority of all murders.
However, homicides pale in comparison to suicides in the US with over 23,000 firearm suicides — accounting for less than half of all suicides in 2019. America has more of a suicide problem than a gun problem.
We do and should hold individuals accountable for reckless and deadly use of cars or other tools. This is not an argument against any sort of accountability for reckless or abusive use of guns, but our response to a shooting should be more in line with our response to road rage — the individuals involved are held accountable, not the tool and anyone who uses that tool correctly.
If you are going to argue for specific gun control policies, argue for it in good faith and show how those specific policies could save lives. Claiming to know what should define something from the outside is not the best way to win people over to your side of an argument.