“We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice” -- Henry David ThoreauScalpels. If you were to give scalpels to toddlers, you wouldn’t be surprised if they cut themselves. But you wouldn’t -- you shouldn’t, at least -- jump to the conclusion that every person with a scalpel is a toddler.
Toddlers lack foresight and are ignorant of many a cause-and-effect-connection. So, what would you do with toddlers and scalpels; especially, if apparent grown-ups had the minds and emotional development of toddlers?
For example, some people claim to be advocates concerned about “what’s good for the environment” and they feel it necessary to, at least, remonstrate with gardeners or farmers who use weed control compounds, even such as Roundup, which leave no toxic residues in the soil. (But see How Toxic is the World’s Most Popular Herbicide Roundup?)
Toddler-minded dilletantes with weed-killers can create substantial collateral damage. But carefully applied they can help gardeners and farmers reduce otherwise unnecessary weed-control costs.
Gun Control. In the USA an issue paralleling that of our scalpels' example is gun control. With a major difference. Scalpels are not as readily available or as sought with as intense avidness as are guns (or weedkillers).
Toddlers, or toddler-minded people would be, indeed, are, dangerous with guns. But not everyone who has a gun need be a toddler, or toddler-minded, or dangerous. This is simple logic. Partisan fussing and fuming over the controversy does not change that. For stentorian voices to invoke “liberty” or “2nd Amendment Rights” does not practically address the issue of the high rate of death or injury facilitated by easy access to guns.
But neither does the suggestion that laws be passed and enforced to reduce or prevent access to guns: short time gains here may well generate longer term ills. Also, we have to consider the immediate costs of training personnel to enforce such laws and prosecute their offenders. And who is ready to exacerbate our already overgrown penal crowding situations by adding to the prison population? (And see THE COST OF ARMING SCHOOLS: The Price of Stopping a Bad Guy with a Gun)
The pass-and-enforce-laws-and-prosecute-offenders proposal comes up in this context, too, with opponents apparently willing to disregard real damage as inconsequential, e.g. merely a cost of having a “free market.”
It is at this point in the public argument that proposed restrictions are modified to suggest that education can play a role. Just as scalpels are generally restricted to those whose education has prepared them to put them to proper use, so, it is suggested, could guns be made available to those whose education in the proper use of guns has qualified them to be trusted with them. (See Gun Fun or Safe Kids? Must we make trade-offs?)
Overlooked Pachyderms. One elephant in the room is cost. How much would it cost to “educate” all those who want guns, or any potentially dangerous item, to use them carefully? This would obviously be a major expenditure. Would anyone want to have their taxes raised to provide it? And how likely is it that enough people would want to forego using these “scalpels?”
The second bigger and consequently even less talked about elephant in the room is that the possible harms risked to life and limb are, to judge by the behavior of our population, of lower priority than the convenience of maintaining ready “scalpels.”
At this point, usually, some people, holier, in their own opinion, than others, stand up and start wagging their fingers at gun-owners, particularly. Or, they may indulge in berating gas-powered lawn-mower users or loggers or fishermen for despoiling the environment; or, for being unwilling to “reduce their carbon footprint.” (Surely, it is the practice of lemmings to reduce their carbon footprint to the absolute minimum.)
But are these same people willing to give up highways, bridges, sewers and electric lines, automobiles, airplanes, inoculations and police protections to forestall the injuries and loss of lives which are typically, although inadvertently, consequent to their construction and maintenance? (See Schools are spending billions on high-tech security. But are students any safer?)
An easy example is that of a highway on which occurs a certain number of deadly accidents a year. No doubt this number could be reduced using additional safety devices and surveillance methods. But as the cost per life that might be saved goes up substantially, the interest in raising taxes to pay for it does not. This explains the common practice of many a township’s avoiding installing traffic lights demanded by worried parents until and unless some critical carnage occurs at the intersection.
Similarly, it has been the practice in some public school districts, if students show persistent high rankings on SAT’s, to try to induce new teachers to leave -- usually by burdening them with extra duties or less attractive facilities -- before they get tenure and merit substantial salary increases. Who need pay for experienced teachers if the kids do just as well with greenhorns? (See Do We Really Need Better Teachers? What For?)
On the other hand, in schools, “scalpels” frowned on by outspoken community members are often categorized as instruments of “violence.” And “violence,” it is preached, has no place in schools! So, for example, karate or riflery classes, as well as certain kinds of shop classes are unlikely to be found even in high schools. Can’t trust those teen-age tots with such “scalpels!”
Permissible School Violence)
Nonetheless, it remains a feeble moral position, indeed, hypocrisy, even, to complain about the collateral damage brought about by the practices of other people while disregarding the risks of one’s own collateral inflictions.
To examine these issues further, see Pursuing Educational Targets: What is the Collateral Damage?
Also, see Buffering: Enhancing Moral Hazard in Decision-Making? .