The recent shooting incident in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado raises a question of basic rights. According to the reports that I’ve seen, the theater in question bars the carrying of firearms. Of course, we see how well a sign declaring a “gun-free zone” worked, but that’s another matter. I want to consider the broader point about the boundaries of rights.
Take my home as an example. It’s generally agreed that I have a large measure of a right to privacy within its walls. Under our laws, if the government wants to come in, there must be a warrant issued by a judge to allow that, minus a small number of exigent circumstances. Our government violates that all too often, but many of us recognize that to be a violation. In addition to privacy, I have the right to say who gets to come in and what my guests get to do while visiting.
But what about a business? If I own a business, how much control over the behavior of visitors do I have? A business operates in public. We’re not talking about private clubs here, so we’ll leave aside questions as to whether a golf course can bar blacks or women. The point is what rules a store that is open to the public can have.
It’s here that we need to distinguish between passive and active rights. Take the case of a woman walking into a store while wearing a hijab. She is practicing her religion in public, but that’s a passive practice. If she walks around speaking to customers about her beliefs or if she calls out a prayer, she’s moved into action.
I chose the example of Islam first precisely because it’s the one that many Americans will have difficulty with. But the same question applies to a Jewish man who wears a yarmulke.
As I said above, a public business is just that. It has to be open to everyone who comes to participate in the business. A store owner has the right to remove someone who is disrupting that business, but the passive expression of a person’s basic rights–in the examples given, the right to exercise of religion–is not a disruption.
How does this apply to the events in Aurora? The handgun that I carry concealed on my person is not a disruption to the normal activity of any business. Unless I’m in imminent danger, it won’t be visible. I don’t cross over into active expression of my right to self defense on a whim. Since I am passively exercising my right, the business has no justification in banning what I do, any more than it would have to ban a yarmulke or a hijab. The laws in some jurisdictions don’t comply with rights in this regard, and those need to be changed.
What this points to is how much freedom we each may have in public. As always, I seek the most freedom that we all can have while we’re together.