Of Guns and Gosnell: Just Laws vs. Root Cause

Certain events of recent months have prompted the usual debates on the effectiveness and desirability of legislation against violence.  In April, proposed bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as expanded background checks for gun ownership failed to clear the Senate.  And then in May, Dr. Kermit Gosnell was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder of babies born alive, in addition to numerous violations of abortion laws.  What these two events have in common – besides their obvious pertinence to hot-button, life-and-death issues – is the parallel controversies they have inspired concerning the relative merits of legislative and systemic solutions to particular forms of violence.
As a firm believer in the consistent ethic of life, I have been challenged to consider my own degree of consistency in the way I think about life issues such as abortion and gun control.  I have found it helpful, for consistency’s sake, to engage in the simple thought experiment of pretending not to know which issue is under discussion – or, from another angle, examining the two beside each other as parts of a whole – with the understanding that, in terms of the best means of seeking solutions, a principle that applies to one also applies to the other.  This can hopefully clear the way for a fresh examination of the relation between laws and systems.

In all cases, it would be naïve to expect a juridical panacea.  Too single-minded a focus on legislation – imagining, say, the overturning of Roe v. Wade or a sweeping ban on firearms to be a kind of holy grail that would solve the problem instantly – can be an easy pitfall in activism against violence of any kind.  We need to be realistic about the limits of what laws by themselves can accomplish within social systems that remain conducive to violence, putting at least as much effort into transforming the internal structures of those systems as the laws that govern them.  On the other hand, it would also be naïve to expect a kind of charitable anarchy to prevail of its own accord.  This side of the eschaton, no amount of individual choices or private charity will render legal restrictions on violence unnecessary.  This too is realism.

Martin Luther King got at this precarious balance more concisely when he said, “The law cannot make you love me, but it can keep you from lynching me.”  This hauntingly simple statement captures both the limitations and the necessity of just and life-affirming laws.  Ideally, we would not need such laws because love would suffice.  But because there will always be people refusing to love, we need laws to temper the consequences.  And yet, for the same reason, no laws can cure social ills at their roots.  This is why thinking and acting on a systemic level is also necessary in order to get beyond the counterproductive and often superficial legislative arguments that dominate public discourse.  Insofar as we can agree that such phenomena as abortion and gun deaths are, at the very least, tragic and undesirable, we can and must use this as a common starting point from which to work toward preventing situations that lead to such tragedies.

In a public square as polarized as ours, it bears reminding that just laws and just systems are not enemies.  Rather than treating them as competitors in a zero-sum game, we should take a twofold approach.  Firstly, prevention of violence, in all forms, should be the primary driving focus.  No act of violence occurs in a vacuum.  If we fail to address the roots, for example, of lack of support for pregnant women and their children, or of unchecked animosity that builds over time before exploding into a deadly outburst, then even the most comprehensive law will only be a superficial band-aid masking a much deeper set of problems.

Secondly, however, whenever legislative questions do arise, it should go without saying that the more life-affirming option is always to be favored.  Granted, what this looks like at a practical level may in some cases be open to debate.  But such debates are often driven by underlying fears under the guise of prudential judgments, and these too must be addressed.  When legislative proposals meant to restrict a given type of violence are not only subordinated to systemic solutions but actively opposed (often inconsistently depending on the “issue” at hand), questions of motive are difficult to avoid.  Without wanting to digress into ad hominem suppositions about what such motives might be, there appears to be something else going on behind the usual tired arguments about what will or won’t “work.”

Let me deal with one particularly inevitable deflection: the argument that “criminals will find a way.”  Whether the proverbial criminal is a back-alley abortionist or a “bad guy” wielding an assault weapon, the fallacy is the same, and is again twofold.  First, it rests on the unspoken assumption that “criminal” is an ontological category of individuals with no moral agency.  Second, it presumes an impossibly absolute standard of effectiveness according to which any law that could possibly be circumvented is deemed useless.  Such reasoning is not only unrealistic but self-contradictory, being simultaneously too pessimistic about the capacity of select individuals to refrain from violence, regardless of the consequences, and too optimistic about the capacity of the “law-abiding” to abide without laws.  In short, this is a flawed anthropology.  We are all moral agents capable of committing acts of violence, legal or illegal, and capable of choosing not to do so.  Or as Solzhenitsyn once put it, “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

In the concrete incidents that have provoked these discussions in the first place, vulnerable lives – specifically children – have not been sufficiently protected by our nation’s laws, and that is a problem. For instance, Kermit Gosnell was acquitted of a fourth murder charge for a disturbing reason: lack of evidence that the baby in question was born alive.  Despite being past the 24-week legal limit for abortion, “Baby E” was still not considered fully human under the law.  And for another example, the guns that Adam Lanza used to kill 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School were legally owned.  In both cases, existing laws have failed morally because they have failed to protect life.  Any lack of legal protection for the vulnerable, whether in a kindergarten classroom or their mothers’ wombs, is fundamentally an injustice. 

The significance of this, again, does not in any way mean that systemic factors should be ignored.  For a positive example, an organization like Feminists for Life is (rightly) focused predominantly on systemic solutions to the problem of abortion, especially in supporting pregnant women to in turn support their children, while also pointing to connections between systemic and legislative problems, such as by critiquing parental notification loopholes that abet ongoing abuse of minors.  They have been critical of the arguments used in the Roe v. Wade case itself for failing to address the real problem, presuming that the only way to eliminate pregnancy discrimination was to eliminate pregnancies – the worst kind of legislative solution.  They were also the only pro-life sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act, which, as a legislative proposal aimed at another systemic factor tied to violence against the unborn, demonstrates that laws and root causes need not represent strictly separate approaches.

Laws designed to prevent, regulate or outlaw specific forms of violence are, in short, both necessary and not enough.  Practically speaking, violence is complex, taking various forms from the systemic to the personal, which are interconnected in numerous ways within a vicious self-feeding cycle.  As such, it demands an equally complex set of solutions.  Morally, however, violence is often much simpler than it is made out to be, and we must be wary of turning complications into justifications.  The driving question in every case should be: what promotes a culture of life?  We can and should ask this proactively (what can we do to prevent violence and respect life?) as well as in response to any given proposal, idea or action (is this life-affirming or life-denying?).  The answers will contain some room for debate, but the question, with universal reverence for life as its underlying principle, must be the starting point and ultimate goal.

Julia Smucker

Julia writes for Vox Nova  

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