Collateral Umbrage

Not long after the shooting in Newtown, a good friend and I got into a small argument about gun control. I lean liberal and he leans conservative. We conveyed the normal, predictable points represented by our respective camps and then something strange happened. It suddenly occurred to me friend’s position was the same as mine. But not in terms of gun control; he was espousing my position on abortion.

The pro-gun mindset is virtually identical to the pro-choice stance. Twenty children (and six adults) were shot down in in one day in Newtown and gun control advocates want access to certain guns and certain types of gun clips limited. Over 3,000 fetuses are aborted per day across the country, and pro-life proponents want access to abortion or certain types of abortion (late-term, etc.) prohibited. Pro-gun folks bristle at the thought of any type of existing gun or ammunition clip access being banned, because if gun control advocates get an inch, they’ll try to take a mile. Pro-choice folks make the same argument, especially in regards to late-term abortions.

Here it is, the 21st century, and conservatives and liberals have adopted the same stance on different issues–but both issues involve the lives of children. It’s surprising and disconcerting.

As a rational, progressive-leaning citizen, I am disinclined to accept hypocrisy, even my own. And when I examine these issues honestly, I have to acknowledge that liberal gun control proponents and conservative pro-life advocates may both be wrong for the same reason. Limiting choice is un-American.

Liberals are not fans of abortion, but believe women should control their own reproductive decisions. Conservatives harbor the same rationale for gun rights. They abhor gun-deaths, especially of innocents, but believe Americans should control their own personal protection options.

Whether we like it or not, freedom and liberty don’t limit us to responsible, ethical, moral, wise or even healthy decisions. We are equally free to make irresponsible, unethical, immoral, unwise and unhealthy decisions. Choice is the privilege of freedom. Independence is a product of liberty. To a large degree, under our own oft-claimed, defended and celebrated ideals, we can no more deny stupid, thoughtless or evil choices than we can intelligent, thoughtful or good ones.

A case in point is cigarette smoking. It’s dangerous, unhealthy and debilitating, individually and collectively, but somehow that doesn’t stop 60 million Americans from smoking and knowingly and willfully exposing a large percentage of our children to toxic, second-hand smoke. It’s a slower death than the young victims at Newtown suffered. But—in principle—it doesn’t make smokers any less evil than Adam Lanza. Or gun-makers any more lethal than cigarette companies.

It’s tough to stomach the deaths of 20 innocent children at the hands of a disturbed soul in Newtown. But a recent U.S. study of American drone strikes in Pakistan indicated that only 2% of the confirmed kills there were actually hostile targets. The rest—approximately 3,000 innocents, almost 200 of them children—were just collateral damage. If you live by the sword, don’t you die by it?

Should this alarming trend in our foreign policy be any less disturbing than tragic events on our domestic front?

In a free society, freedom and liberty are not sedentary conditions. They’re processes that require vigilance and, more importantly, reason. In regards to issues like gun rights, abortion, smoking, industrial farming, natural gas “fracking,” armed drone usage, etc., I’m not sure we’re vigilant or reasonable. And we continually teeter between being a Beacon on a Hill and a Tower of Babel.

Ultimately, the victims of Newtown, abortion, and second-hand smoke are simply collateral damage, and the measures we discuss in regards to solving these problems invariably address symptoms instead of cures. We need to rethink our mindsets and recalibrate our bearings. A debate on gun control needs to be had, but we should not approach it hypocritically.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional & Nefarious and Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History. Read other articles by E.R..