The shooting incident of 8 January 2011 has brought out the chorus of reactionary voices that always shriek after any outrage. The current demand is for limits on both free speech and gun ownership. Likely, these calls will fall silent as time passes, but they are pointlessly dangerous, and the sane among us need a means of responding.
With that in mind, let’s consider the first two amendments to the U. S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
From the perspective of a modern libertarian, those two are badly written. It has taken our nation a long time to figure out what was meant, and those who see the document as a living text see these lines differently from the vision of those who wish to hold to the original intent, whatever that may be. There is an irony that people who strongly support a broad interpretation of one amendment often want a limited reading of the other.
Here’s what I wish were the actual text:
Persons within the jurisdiction of the United States have the right to create and distribute their own expressive works, to practice their beliefs, to assemble in groups, and to petition their governments in any manner that does not directly impede the ability of others to do the same.
Citizens have the right to own and bear small arms and the right to use them for legitimate purposes, including self defense.
But that’s not how the amendments were written, and we have to deal with the text that we have. Since the First Amendment mentions only speech and the press, a strict interpretation could be used to limit what is permissible on the Internet. Those of us who express our opinions in articles such as this one might find that they have annoyed someone in power who would then use the force of law to stop us. Or the Second Amendment might be read to mean that only an approved state militia is allowed to possess arms. Weapons of a particular caliber or magazine capacity could be taken from private citizens, as ultimately could any weapon that the government doesn’t want us to have.
That being the case, I want the broadest interpretation of both amendments to be applied. I do recognize that we’re talking about powerful objects here. Guns and speech (oral or written) have changed the world many times over. But that’s what free citizens are able to do–remake their lives as they see fit.
My proposal, then, is that whenever we hear an attempt to ban one, we ought to add in a call to ban the other and see if we could live with that. You want to ban magazines that can hold more than ten rounds? Would you accept a similar ban on books of longer than one hundred pages? You want to ban hate speech? What about semiautomatic rifles? I live in Arkansas, but I can buy a book in any other state or have one shipped to me. With a few exceptions, I can only buy guns in my state of residence. Depending on the time and the community, certain books, video games, and music have been banned, while the same items were sold in other areas.
The fact is that any government that can take one away from us can take the other. Today’s government will not be in power tomorrow, and any overreaching that you tolerate now because it goes in a direction that you like can be turned by the next administration, court, or Congress in ways that you would find unacceptable.
The general principle here is that whether we like it or not, both expression and guns are protected in the same way in our Constitution. Taking one away would be as easy as taking away the other, and if we value our liberties, we must refuse to permit the theft or voluntary loss of either.