When rights go wrong
Free speech may not have played a role in the Tucson shooting, but the Second Amendment sure did
By Barry Gordon 01/27/2011
Americans love their rights. We talk about them incessantly and have an especially sensitive radar to sniff out any early warnings that our rights are about to be infringed. But the recent tragic events in Tucson have me thinking about two rights in particular — those embodied in the First and Second Amendments of our Constitution.
The First Amendment right to free speech has never really been absolute. There are libel laws restricting a person’s right to say anything about anybody they please (although in the case of public officials, the effect of these laws is almost meaningless). There are truth-in-advertising laws governing commercial speech. Community standards are relevant in determining whether speech is obscene and unprotected by the First Amendment. And “incitement” is an exception to the free speech protection if, but only if, the speaker is inciting others to take imminent unlawful action.
No one, to my knowledge, has made a direct connection between some of the vitriol that passes for political debate and Jared Loughner’s actions in front of that supermarket. Loughner’s political beliefs seem to defy the usual categorizations. But we do know that there was an exceptionally virulent anti-government strain infecting those beliefs. His hatred of the Federal Reserve and his desire to return to a hard currency (a favorite of Ron Paul’s), his position that income taxes were unconstitutional notwithstanding the 16th Amendment, and his tendency to see government conspiracies around every corner have all been well-documented. Some have suggested that he was influenced by the “sovereign citizen” movement, an anarchic ideology that he may have shared with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
It is also beyond dispute that Loughner, and others like him, exist in an atmosphere that resounds with talk about a “second American revolution,” the use of “Second Amendment remedies” and with an almost irrational mistrust of government. Are the ramblings of a deranged conspiracy nut that much different than the largely incoherent meta-theories Glenn Beck puts up on his blackboard every day? If anyone is looking for validation for his crackpot ideas, he can now find it on commercial television or talk radio or, sometimes, in the halls of Congress.
The absolutism of the First Amendment protects such speech and, on balance, that’s probably a good thing. But such speech doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Even if it did not affect this particular case, it could directly affect another Jared Loughner in the future. There is a difference between arguing about policy and suggesting that the president is the anti-Christ. At least some discretion may be in order.
While political speech may not have been a factor, we know that our Second Amendment right to bear arms was. Loughner walked into a store, legally purchased an extended-clip automatic weapon, and bought at least some of the ammunition at Wal-Mart. He concealed the weapon legally. In fact, the only time he violated the law was when he fired into the crowd.
I admit that I’m not a fan of guns. Guns may not kill people, but they certainly make it far easier for people to kill people. And the whole hunting argument doesn’t hold any weight with me. People used to hunt for survival. Today, hunting is just killing other living creatures for recreation. “Hey, let’s go out on the weekend and shoot some birds out of the sky or kill a defenseless animal!
Doesn’t that sound like fun?” Not to me. And if you need to hit a target, I know this great archery range in the Arroyo. I don’t believe there’s been a political assassination attempt with a bow and arrow since the Sheriff of Nottingham.
As for the self-protection argument, home invasions are statistically rare, especially when compared to incidences of gun murder by a family member or friend. The presence of a gun in the home has turned many a domestic dispute into a violent tragedy.
But even assuming that the US Supreme Court is correct in finding an individual, constitutionally protected right to own guns, why must that right be “absolute” any more than our First Amendment right is? What we need is a little less absolutism and a lot more common sense.
If we had reasonable gun laws, Loughner might have had to register the weapon like we have to register an automobile (as they do in Canada). He may not have been able to purchase an automatic weapon, at least one with an extended clip. He may not have been able legally to carry a concealed weapon to a public event. In other words, at any point prior to the shooting, he would have had to violate the law numerous times in order to carry out his plans, giving law enforcement far greater opportunity to prevent this horrifying act from happening.
The chances of any of the above getting passed by Congress are nil, we are told. Even the Democrats have given up the fight. Our constitutional rights under either amendment are sacred. But there’s a difference we ignore at our peril. Words alone don’t kill anybody. Guns can and do … every day.
Barry Gordon teaches at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.