On September 29, Republicans in the House of Representatives conducted a theatrical grilling of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards after a series of underground sting videos showed her organization's employees haggling over fetal body parts. Two days later, a gunman at a rural community college in Oregon killed nine people and wounded 20 others in a depressingly familiar school shooting.
Clever culture warriors attempted to link the two stories as an indictment of the opposing side's hypocrisy. "If pro-lifers would just redirect their power toward gun violence, the amount of lives they save could reach superhero levels," said Trevor Noah, new host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. "They just need to have a superhero's total dedication to life. Because right now they're more like comic book collectors: Human life only holds value until you take it out of the package, and then it's worth nothing."
"The fact remains that no pro-life advocate is in favor of firing a gun at people's heads," retorted Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defending Freedom, writing at CNS News. "Noah, it seems, is in favor of crushing baby heads. He is in no position to accuse pro-lifers of hypocrisy."
These two fights reliably fall along the traditional left-right split whenever there's a mass shooting or an abortion-related controversy, like the 2013 conviction of murderous abortionist Kermit Gosnell or the pro-choice filibuster that same year by Texas state Senator Wendy Davis. The roles are so well-worn by now that the immediate aftermath of such news events, particularly on social media and cable news, resembles less policy discussion than religious ritual, with the opposing side treated as not just intellectually wrong but morally evil.
Gun control advocates and anti-abortion activists may not overlap much in a political Venn diagram, but they actually share many key features in common, in ways that hold particular interest for those of us who find ourselves across the divide from them in moments of heightened stress.
The most important similarity is that on fundamental legal questions, both sides have lost decisively at the Supreme Court. Abortion was legalized nationally with 1973's Roe v. Wade, which located an expanded right to privacy within the 14th Amendment, and that protection was extended in 1992's Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Blanket firearm bans were declared unconstitutional in 2008's District of Columbia v. Heller, which found for the first time that the Second Amendment was indeed an individual right, and then 2010's McDonald v. Chicago (which, like its predecessor, passed with the slimmest 5–4 majority) extended that decision to all 50 states.
What do you do when you lose a big national fight? Libertarians are no strangers to this question, having taken drubbings a decade ago on private-to-private eminent domain transfers (Kelo v. City of New London) and medical marijuana/interstate regulation (Gonzales v. Raich). In those cases, both of which bucked popular opinion (support for medical pot and opposition to developer-enriching eminent domain both run near 75 percent), activists reacted by taking advantage of federalism, passing new freedom-friendly laws and ballot initiatives in cities and states.
You can see a similar approach on abortion and guns. State and local governments have passed more than 200 abortion restrictions over the past five years, adding waiting periods and parental notifications and mandatory physical examinations before the issuance of abortion pills. Abortion is still broadly legal, but the precise frontiers of that legality—the exact fetal age after which it becomes banned, the requirements imposed on abortion providers—are hotly contested at the margins.
Gun controllers started re-focusing on local success stories after the passage in November 2014 of Washington state's Michael Bloomberg–backed Initiative 594, which expanded and strengthened background checks in a way that national Democrats have been failing to do for the past several years. While we can expect to see more such activity in the wake of the Oregon shooting, gun control advocates face an uphill battle against public opinion: Gun rights have increased in popularity in recent years, and states over the past two decades have rapidly expanded the legal right to carry firearms. Frustration over lack of progress can leave activists reaching for a magic wand to make the unfavorable legal climate go away.
"All that is necessary for sanity to rule again, on the question of guns," wrote The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik in a much-discussed piece after the Oregon shooting, "is to restore the amendment to its commonly understood meaning as it was articulated…a scant few years ago. And all you need for that is one saner and, in the true sense, conservative Supreme Court vote. One Presidential election could make that happen."
Such simplicity reeks of an exasperated desperation. The notion that the Second Amendment protects a collective and not an individual right was discredited not by the late-breaking fantasies of conservative jurists but by the research of liberal academics like Sanford Levinson a quarter century ago. Even the dissenters in the Heller case recognized the Second Amendment as applying to individuals.
But it's more clarifying to think of post-shooting commentary as declarations of emotion rather than carefully thought-out legal history and policy analysis. Consider this child-like passage from Gopnik (emphasis in the original): "We know how to fix this. Gun control ends gun violence as surely an antibiotics end bacterial infections, as surely as vaccines end childhood measles—not perfectly and in every case, but overwhelmingly and everywhere that it's been taken seriously and tried at length."
When the Planned Parenthood videos started appearing in the summer, the overwhelming response by activists was bewilderment that the world did not share in their sense of horror. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who generally does a yeoman's job of describing conservative views to a liberal audience, likened the graphic footage in those videos with "that moment when you start pondering the possibility that an institution at the heart of respectable liberal society is dedicated to a practice that deserves to be called barbarism."
Having lost the big legal arguments, anti-abortion activists, much like their pro-gun control counterparts, are left with pointing at the blood and saying, "See?" It is undeniable that such emotional pleas to our sense of empathy and disgust are genuine, worthy of respect, and often persuasive, at least temporarily. But they might also be self-defeating.
Pro-choice advocates know that behind every new state bill about second-trimester abortion or parental notification lies a deep desire to make abortion illegal. So they react accordingly, treating every marginal fight—including, presently, the attempt to block Planned Parenthood by removing government funding—as the beginning of a slippery slope to remove a treasured right.
The same is true for guns. As Juliet Lapidos observed in The New York Times in 2013, "If the gun-control camp mentions restrictions the anti-gun-control camp hears bans. If the former mentions a ban on certain kinds of guns, the latter hears all guns, plus confiscation." Two years later, with President Barack Obama specifically referencing the gun policies of Great Britain and Australia (both of which have carried out confiscations), those seemingly paranoid worries look a lot more plausible, and gun rights advocates are again digging in their heels.
Many of us can feel uncomfortable or alienated during these moments of high political passion. But there's an important principle to remember: Prohibitions also create their own emotional outrages, while definitionally restricting individual latitude. And Americans have proven themselves open to logical arguments even in the face of tragedy.