Adam Gopnik's essay on gun control suggests more than it says

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post on the schoolhouse door?
  • Post on the schoolhouse door?
The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik began an essay on gun control the other day with a metaphor made more compelling by the extra length to which Gopnik did not push it.

Here's Gopnik's opening:

We live, let’s imagine, in a city where children are dying of a ravaging infection. The good news is that its cause is well understood and its cure, an antibiotic, easily at hand. The bad news is that our city council has been taken over by a faith-healing cult that will go to any lengths to keep the antibiotic from the kids. Some citizens would doubtless point out meekly that faith healing has an ancient history in our city, and we must regard the faith healers with respect—to do otherwise would show a lack of respect for their freedom to faith-heal. (The faith healers’ proposition is that if there were a faith healer praying in every kindergarten the kids wouldn’t get infections in the first place.) A few Tartuffes would see the children writhe and heave in pain and then wring their hands in self-congratulatory piety and wonder why a good God would send such a terrible affliction on the innocent—surely he must have a plan! Most of us—every sane person in the city, actually—would tell the faith healers to go to hell, put off worrying about the Problem of Evil till Friday or Saturday or Sunday, and do everything we could to get as much penicillin to the kids as quickly we could.

In this scenario, opponents of the inoculations are committing passive violence. "Those who oppose [gun control] have made a moral choice," Gopnik writes, "that they would rather have gun massacres of children continue rather than surrender whatever idea of freedom or pleasure they find wrapped up in owning guns or seeing guns owned."

This is provocative and dubious—most opponents of gun control have persuaded themselves that there is no correlation between their guns and the occasional massacres, and that their guns—who knows?—might prevent the next one. The NRA expresses its concern about the safety of children by proposing to put an armed guard in every school. But Gopnik doesn't take seriously any concern of the NRA beyond the one about protecting our easy access to guns. And it's our access, the access due every upstanding American (not simply the access enjoyed by criminals and psychopaths) that Gopnik insists must be cut way back. "Gun control is not a panacea, any more than penicillin was," he writes. "Some violence will always go on. What gun control is good at is controlling guns."

Gun control measures that simply make it harder for you, me, or anyone else to buy guns will save lives, Gopnik believes, because when something becomes even a little harder to acquire, fewer people acquire it, and that includes bad guys. Pointing to the New York City police department's discovery that "making crime even a little bit harder made it much, much rarer," Gopnik argues that "even madmen need opportunities to display their madness, and behave in different ways depending on the possibilities at hand. Demand an extraordinary degree of determination and organization from someone intent on committing a violent act, and the odds that the violent act will take place are radically reduced, in many cases to zero."

It's an attractive argument made more alluring by my desire to believe it—and by Gopnik's restraint. When I read his metaphor of the infection striking down the city's children, my imagination soon had me out ahead of him, which is where I believe he wanted me to be. Hey, wait a minute! I was thinking. There's another faction of citizens you don't mention—the ones so hostile to the inoculation program they're willing to kill to stop it. Such people exist; nine health workers just shot dead in Karachi, Pakistan, had been going door-to-door vaccinating young children against polio. Militants had opposed the campaign, some calling it an American plot to sterilize Muslim children.

No need for Gopnik to give the NRA reason to scream that east-coast liberal lunatics are now comparing wholesome gun enthusiasts to the Taliban. He chose a metaphor rich enough to give him more than he asked of it. That's fine, sly writing. And if a reader likes me wonders if there actually is a significant difference between protecting kids from guns by putting guns in their schools and protecting kids' health by assassinating health workers—well, I suppose Gopnik would not say me nay.

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