I understand the passion of those who advocate for gun control. I get it. I may disagree with the exact goals or techniques, but I do not doubt the sincerity of those moved by the tragedy of school shootings. I do not doubt that many young people who recently marched or walked out of schools in protest had high motives.
Nearly all of those who advocate for greater gun control want to save lives. The argument is obviously compelling. Who doesn’t want to reduce murders? Who doesn’t want to ‘save just one child?’ Who isn’t moved by adolescents trying to change the world for the better? Even in our theological and philosophical disparities it’s hard to argue that there’s something more important than life itself; that we should do anything to preserve lives.
In order to accomplish this, some believe not only in bans of certain types of guns but in repeal of the Second Amendment itself. They believe that the best way to ensure a safe society is to take private ownership of firearms off the table as a right and perhaps re-introduce it, only with far more restrictive rules.
Given that gun ownership is a fundamental part of the American experience, and is enshrined in our Constitution as a civil right, the ongoing debate has lead me to wonder just what else we would do if we thought it would make us safer.
I’m not trying to engage in hyperbole. I’m asking. If people were being killed because of free speech and free assembly, would we research the health effects of either? Certainly people in history have used free speech to advocate violence, or have organized marches and events that turned violent as a result of their exercise of free speech and assembly. Free speech (although there was yet no Constitution) along with freedom of the press helped trigger our own revolution against England all those years ago.
And if we researched the First Amendment guarantees of free speech (as some research gun violence), and found that there were risks associated with the free exchange of ideas in America, would marchers call for its repeal? One need only follow the madness of the modern college campus, where growing numbers of students devalue free speech, to see that this is not outside the realm of the possible.
If there were thousands of deaths from freedom of religion, would we ban freedom of religion, also located in the First Amendment? If studies showed it contributed to growing violence, would we take that step? Would we strike freedom of religion from national life? Indeed, in many parts of the world it is the exercise of extremist forms of religion that leads to terrible tyranny, oppression and in all too many cases death. Is this worth a ban on the free expression of religion? There are places where this freedom is not guaranteed, or where the only ‘freedom of religion’ is the freedom to practice one religion.
We could likely make the case that the freedom of the press (another gift the founders placed in the First Amendment) has been very problematic. Certainly, the press (in the case of school shootings) seems to contribute to ‘copy-cat’ activity, even as the press continues to give fame to the shooters with 24-hour coverage. Freedom of the press has been used legitimately, and illegitimately, to change national conversations on many issues. But what if all of that information just made a more recalcitrant population of readers, listeners and viewers? A more aggressive group of educated people? Would we research ways to replace freedom of the press? For the sake of physical safety? Without a doubt, the historical suppression of the press has been used to prevent dissent and protest; and likely (at least from the standpoint of the state actors suppressing it), the goal was a more peaceful society, without loud voices agitating for change or communicating revolutionary ideas.
Now, what about due process? The act of going through due process is time consuming. But it is a safeguard against unjust legal proceedings. In recent years, colleges have trampled all over due process in their zeal to prosecute students accused of sexual assault. This has frequently been done without involvement of police whatsoever, but by college tribunals that amount to kangaroo courts, emboldened by Title IX regulations. As bad as it has been, and despite the fact that countersuits have been filed and won (think Duke Lacrosse case), there are those who feel that this is the safest way to keep students, particularly young women, safe on college campuses.
Shall we dispense with due process if it saves one life? It certainly makes more expedient the surveillance and prosecution of potential (not confirmed) terrorists and other assorted ne’er do wells.
If research suggested we would be physically safer (despite obvious potential mistakes), would we be finished with due process?
Many are asking for more substantive research on gun violence as a public health issue. And again, I get it. But if we’re researching the safety of what is, here, a civil right, then would we consider the value of others? And would we wish to act on that research for the sake of physical safety if our conclusions suggested it?
Of course, there are differences of scale; at least now. Gun violence is obvious and verifiable. It is awful and cruel and devastating. We can see its effects. But the fact remains that gun ownership remains a right. And despite the misunderstanding of gun control advocates, it is a highly regulated right.
What is being advocated is public health research into the relevance and safety…of a longstanding and deeply held American right that existed (and many of us believe exists) for very good and demonstable reasons even as it unintentionally makes it easier for the nefarious and wicked to obtain deadly weapons.
But increasingly, Americans (and especially the young) find themselves at ease with safe spaces where disagreement is not allowed. They are used to constant surveillance and Internet connections that link them to everything from friends and friend groups to their televisions, refrigerators, vehicles and thermostats.
When will we say that freedom of speech, of religion, of due process (or of others still) can be sacrificed for physical safety? I’m not saying I know. I’m now even saying that people would really do this.
I’m just asking questions.
But here I’ll make a statement. Is physical safety the highest good? Is freedom higher? Is liberty higher? Is self-determination higher? Is it worth any restriction or surveillance if we can live healthy lives, have food and shelter, and entertain ourselves? Is the Constitution an old, worn out document that needs to be replaced by greater restrictions so that we can live better and safer, our wild American experiment lain the altar of our physical security?
I think that freedom and liberty and self-determination are more important than mere metabolism, safety and comfort.
What does the rest of the country think?
Only time will tell.