What If Buying a Gun Were Like Getting an Abortion?

It’s worth asking: What would a world look like where “pro-life” activists were as rabidly committed to protecting schoolchildren as they are to defending blastocysts?

[Photo: Students participate in a protest against gun violence outside the White House in D.C.]
Gun violence is now the third leading cause of death for U.S. children. Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s speech after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting called for a “culture of life,” a known shibboleth for anti-choice groups looking to “end abortion in our time.” In turn, Fox News commentators (and even MSNBC ones) have repeatedly linked the mass shooting epidemic to abortion. Right-wing social media followed suit, calling for exchanging the recently defeated 20-week abortion ban for a ban on AR-15s. Abortion, this argument would have you believe, is a greater moral evil than a society that allows teenagers to buy semi-automatic weapons.

It is vital to remember that abortion restrictions in this country are rooted in the desire to impose extremist Christian ideology on others, violating a pregnant person’s access to vital medical care and constitutional right to privacy in the process. Unlike common-sense regulations on guns, these restrictions are not evidence-based and do not advance public safety. In fact, to rationalize many of them, the anti-choice movement uses a relatively new, certainly fundamentalist ontology of personhood: “Human life,” they insist, begins at fertilization. Yet, it’s worth asking: What would a world look like where “pro-life” activists were as rabidly committed to protecting schoolchildren as they are to defending blastocysts? In other words, what would buying a firearm in, say, Kansas, look like, if you could suddenly transpose the cultural and legal restrictions on abortion to gun ownership?

To buy your firearm, you try to Google a store. But the first three stores you try aren’t gun stores at all; they’re staffed by radical pacifists. One state over, in Oklahoma, they’re even funded by government money. Such “gun crisis centers” hand you a stuffed animal, a yoga mat, and a pamphlet on the risks of suicide and grave bodily harm to law-abiding gun owners.

After you sift through the gun crisis centers, you are left with four legitimate options. None of them will sell you an AR-15 or any other firearm deemed to cause extraordinary damage to the human body. There used to be one joint that would. But after the owner was murdered at church by a domestic terrorist bent on ending gun ownership in the United States, the state decided to go ahead and ban all assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The remaining stores were then required to relocate to at least five miles from a school, daycare, or playground, and to widen their hallways to accommodate a SWAT team in the event of a terrorist attack.

Now that you’ve found your options, you have to get to them. Ninety percent of U.S. counties have no legal gun stores, and in Kansas that number is even higher. (Private sales are totally illegal: Anyone selling a weapon must have completed four years of paramilitary training in order to obtain their Federal Firearms License.) But you feel this is necessary, so you arrange transportation, pay for a hotel, and take off work for two days: Kansas has a mandatory 24-hour waiting and counseling period after your first (in-person) appointment to purchase a firearm. You lie to your mother about where you’re going; because of how politicized gun ownership has become, you know she’d just cry and say you’re going to hell.

When you get to the store, though, thousands of people surround the entrance. They were inspired by the record turnout at a store selling legal firearms in Charlotte last year and decided to organize in Wichita this year, during the 40 Days Free From Firearms. It’s pure bad luck that you’ve come on the day they chose to picket.

The protesters wave posters with photos of victims from the latest school shooting, obtained without consent from victims’ families. They scream at you that you are a child killer, a murderer waiting to happen, a gun nut, a “sicko” with a fetish for a metal phallus. At last, with help from a volunteer escort the shop uses to help people make their way through the crowds, you make it inside and sit down to wait. But, it’s a Swords Into Ploughshares protest today, and activists push their way into the clinic to offer you a tiny metal dove, melted down from a bullet. “Choose peace,” they tell you intently. “Choose peace.”

Finally, the licensed firearm seller can see you.  You aren’t picky about which firearm you get; you know the state outlawed the safest option for your family last year. The court blocked the law, of course, but the owner of this store got nervous and decided to stop selling it, just in case.

The owner’s assistant hands you a stack of paperwork to sign and a booklet. “I can’t make you read that,” he says cheerfully, “but I have to offer it to you. When I come back we’ll do the rest.” The pamphlet is called “A Citizen’s Right to Know,” and has a charming, chubby-cheeked toddler on the front cover. The pamphlet wants you to know that buying a gun “destroys the unique, complex fabric of a peaceful society,” places your children at great risk, and “increases your risk of PTSD, suicide, domestic violence, and murder.” There is a section marked “Alternatives to Buying a Deadly Weapon,” with a list of fabulously expensive home security systems. You sign the paperwork and lean back in the chair to wait.

When the owner’s assistant comes back he’s rolling a cart of medical equipment. He checks your vision, hearing, and reflexes, then administers a comprehensive mental health exam. None of this will be paid for by your private insurance, as Kansas bars private health insurance from covering firearm fitness checks. To add insult to injury, the state requires the person administering the mental health exam to be a licensed physician, so it’s quite expensive.

You’re finishing up when the owner raps on the door and sticks his head in. “Hi there,” he says. “Sorry about the protesters today—they got a permit so there’s not much to be done. An escort will help you back to your car, OK?” You shrug, rattled but unwilling to admit it. He tells you they’ll run your background check overnight and you can come back at 9:00 the next morning.

You get some sleep and show up again at 9:00 sharp the next morning, before the protesters. The owner turns his computer monitor around to face you. “You ready?” he asks. He clicks play on a video of a toddler dying in a trauma bay from an accidental gunshot wound to the chest. While the video plays, the owner reads a script written by Kansas legislators working with trauma surgeons from Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, describing in detail what a bullet can do to children’s organs. The script is timed to end when the child flatlines and the surgeon calls time of death.

The owner gives you a minute and goes to the back of the store where he keeps the stock. He brings out a certificate of ownership, a permit, the 50 bullets you are allotted per year, and a Sig Sauer P938. “Congratulations, son,” he says. “Welcome to America.”

None of this is real, of course: Kansas has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country. Every firearm restriction I hypothesize above, though, has its parallel in the state’s unscientific, unconstitutional abortion laws and cultural stigma. Where they differ is simple: Abortion only constitutes a public health threat if you accept the extremist position that a fetus has an identical moral and legal status to a born human being. Guns, on the other hand, constitute a pressing danger to real children; gun violence is now the third leading cause of death for them in the United States. Yet, it is patients seeking abortions—an overwhelmingly safe health-care service—who must face a barrage of legal and cultural hurdles.

The persistent injection of abortion politics into the gun control debate belies the “pro-life” movement’s fundamental hypocrisy: They are only concerned with protecting human life—however one defines it—if they can police our bodies in the process.