January 9, 2012
According to the Weekly Standard, today the vice-president said this:
“As the president said, if your actions result in only saving one life, they’re worth taking. But I’m convinced we can affect the well-being of millions of americans and take thousands of people out of harm’s way if we act responsibly.”This “one life” line receives an awful lot of attention after massacres, especially among those who would jump to rush legislation through. It shouldn’t, of course, because it is a silly thing to say. No free society worth its salt operates anywhere close to the principle that a law that could save “one life” is automatically worth passing, or that “actions” that result in “only saving one life” are axiomatically “worth taking.” Holding all school classes in lead-lined, bulletproof underground panic rooms would probably save “one life” over the next few years, but that doesn’t mean we should do it; banning Ibuprofen would probably save “one life” in the next few years, but that doesn’t mean we should do it; limiting access to trousers and bananas and televisions and wardrobes and swimming pools would almost definitely save “one life” over the course of a given year, but, again, that doesn’t mean that we should do it. And so on and so forth. The question, as ever, is whether the cost is worth it. The “one life” canard is an attempt to bypass that and appeal to emotion. Depressingly enough, it’s relatively effective.
The “one life” idea is especially silly in the context of the gun debate because it can be used both ways equally productively. Almost every day, an American saves his own life — or someone else’s life — with a privately held firearm. Last week, for example, a mother in Georgia used a .38 revolver to protect herself and her children from an intruder. Taking Joe Biden’s line — which he appears to have inherited from the president — one could quite easily construct a case to issue all mothers with revolvers whether they like it or not. Wait, you object to having a gun in the house? You think that arming all of America’s mothers sounds expensive? You’re not sure that’s the best idea anyway. Civil liberties? Yes, yes, but if it saves just one life . . .
In Britain this fallacy is wheeled out fairly often. It was used when the Labour government tried unsuccessfully to extend the number of days that it could lock up suspected terrorists without trial (to 90!), it is used when discussing making motorcycle helmets mandatory, and it is used in a somewhat sinister manner when discussing the death penalty. It is, in other words, used by people who wish to sidestep the inconvenient truth that what they are suggested is thorny, silly, or unpopular. Joe Biden is well aware that the Left has been gradually losing the argument on firearms for 30 years now, and that the only time that gun controllers enjoy even a modicum of support from the public is when they manage to mislead them with meaningless terms such as “assault weapon” or to conflate terms such “automatic” and “semi-automatic” with sufficient success that people are led to believe that machine guns are available at Walmart. That is to say that Biden knows that there is a latent skepticism toward the proposition that reviving old firearms laws that had no effect on anything is magically going to fix America’s problems, and thus he has to go for the emotional angle. He’d like to be able to say, “If it saves ten thousand lives,” but he can’t. Hence:
“There really is no evidence that gun laws make a difference.”
“Yes, yes, but if it saves just one life . . .“
The obvious counter-question is, “yes, if it saves one life what?” But nobody seems much interested in asking that.