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Guns, Hate, and Freedom of Speech

The Las Vegas abattoir’s terrible glare—under which our legislators should writhe in shame—exposes grim facets of the gun control “debate” that even those of us with mere moral aspirations must demand be acknowledged right now. Pious “too soons,” are code for “never”; and the admonition that politics have no place in this latest massacre’s immediate aftermath, is itself insidiously political. No, we can’t stand for these dodges anymore; nor can we tolerate national cowardice disguised as some vile fatalism of liberty that deems the ever-multiplying body count an acceptable price for to pay for “our freedom.” No. This “issue” has never for a moment been anything but political; and the freedom-crazed out there must be made to understand that equality—also enshrined in the Constitution—is really a vital check on personal liberty. Every citizen in America is vested with the equal right to life before the right to liberty for a reason: because, as we saw again in Las Vegas this Sunday, one man’s “liberty” can grow monstrous, and obscenely snuff out the lives of so many.

The politics of gun control have always been those of life and death. It was politics that ultimately allowed Stephen Paddock to possess the guns he killed with; and, if we’re to prevent another bloodletting like this from happening again, it will only be through exercise of political will. But to do this we Americans that know this nation is damned if no sane gun control policy is enacted, need to be cunning, and subtle, and intellectually merciless in our opposition to the gun lobby. We have to find new ways to vanquish their arguments, and, if we can, to turn their claim to Constitutional sanction against them. Along these lines I’d like to suggest the following: if, as Citizen’s United toxically claimed, money is speech, then the money spent by the NRA to influence legislation is a form of hate speech; and that hate speech, by extension, curtails the free speech of those who seek gun control.

Political philosopher Caroline West makes the ingenious argument that racist hate speech can, arguably, be construed as limiting its victim’s freedom of speech. Essentially, her thesis requires that we understand freedom of speech not merely as a matter of expression, but also of reception. For example, it’s possible to imagine a dystopian-future scenario where the government uses some form of mind control to interfere with the comprehension, rather than the production, of seditious speech. In a setting like this, a subversive group’s freedom of expression would be in no way impeded; instead, through some nefarious technology, the intended meaning of that expression would be rendered incoherent in minds of its audience. Here freedom of speech is not curbed per se, but interference in the speech’s intelligibility at the point of reception produces the same effect as if it had been. According to West, racist hate speech can, within certain limits, be similarly understood to interfere with the reception of its victim’s speech—at least in its intent, if not always in its real world effect. The express goal of hate speech is to degrade, devalue, and even dehumanize its victims, to the extent that it undermine their speech’s legitimacy. If the project of those that speak race hate is successful, an atmosphere will have been created where their victims, devalued as people, suffer a relative diminishment in the attention and consideration accorded their speech. This amounts to an infringement on the victim’s First Amendment right, even if no explicit attempt to silence their speech is made. Within this strict paradigm, hate speech becomes a retroactive gag on the free speech of the community it assails.

How does this relate to the gun lobby and the gun reform debate? The NRA spends millions of dollars in its efforts to influence our venal legislators (though their venal sins turned mortal once again in Las Vegas). In doing so, it promotes an ideology that works to brand gun law reform proponents as having unconstitutional (or even anti-constitutional) values. In a particularly egregious example, some recent NRA ad copy seethes “…the only way to fight their lies is with the clenched fist of truth.” Leaving aside right now the fact that this language is explicitly a violent threat, let’s take a moment to consider how the NRA is depicting its opponents. The NRA’s ideological position on the right to bears arms is rooted in a claim to what they believe to be Constitutionally guaranteed, thus uncontestable and eternal, American values. By this very fact, anyone who disagrees with them is immediately painted as someone whose values are fundamentally antagonistic to the United States itself. Even more, the NRA’s raging bombast implies—may even explicitly state—that advocacy for gun control is tantamount to a criminal act, a kind of treason.

Now, leading from this, let’s talk about the level of attention and consideration gun control advocates should reasonably expect their position to be given in a setting where speech is supposed to be “free.” If the playing field is level, their speech should be afforded the same basic respect as the NRA’s. But when we consider Congress as the crucial auditor for both gun control advocates and the NRA, the playing field goes veritably seismic. The money that the NRA lobby spends so outsizes that amount spent by gun control advocacy (since 1989, the NRA has spent just shy of 30 million USD to the paltry 4.2 million USD spent in the name of gun law reform), that from an accounting perspective alone it could be argued that the NRA’s speech is about 26 million dollars “freer” than its opponents (there’s a whole other argument about money in politics in general here that we won’t go into now). But what I want to stress is that this huge disparity in lobbying funds coupled with the fact that the NRA rhetorically positions its opponents as criminals, ultimately diminishes—or intends to diminish—the attention and consideration Congress pays gun control advocacy. This is certainly borne out by the fact that no meaningful gun control legislation has been brought to the floor of Congress since the assault weapons ban in 1994. But even if that were not the case, the very intent to devalue gun law reform proponents through money and libelous vituperation is enough, I believe, to charge that the NRA engages in a form of hate speech that infringes on the right to free speech of those with whom it doesn’t agree.

As we were all sadly reminded in Charlottesville, Americans who speak race hate will continue to insist it’s their Constitutional right to do so. And while it may be unlikely that a focus on hate speech’s victims’ right to free speech, on their right to have their voices considered in their full, unmaligned measure, will actually pierce race haters’ garish Constitutional armor, exposing the hate speech of the NRA, abetted by the filthy lucre it disgorges down Congress’s mercenary throat, is a place to at least begin using our Constitution against those who think that the best way to preserve the document is to have it soaked in innocent blood.

The Second Amendment is not a transcendently self-evident protection; it is the historical enunciation of men, fallible, self-interested men that were not given the gift of prophecy. But the point here is not to say that the right to bear arms in America should be liquidated wholesale. It’s that the meaning and limitations of that right are now profoundly different than at the moment it was inscribed. When the NRA brandishes the Second Amendment in its hateful, plutocratic “clenched fist of truth,” it undermines the ability of every American on the other side of the “issue” to exercise her right under the First. We need to make our legislators accountable to us on this point. We must in no uncertain terms make them understand that we will hold them to account, that their inaction and greed is an accessory to murder, and that, to crib from Rilke, “there is no place that does not see you, you must change your life.”

Jonathan Schmitt is a writer and historian living in Atlanta, Georgia. His work focuses on American foreign policy and imperialism, with a particular focus on early 20th century U.S.-Native American relations. He is also a producer and writer for Chorus Films, and currently at work on a documentary on humanitarian organizations providing aid to immigrants on the U.S.-Mexican border.

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Jonathan Schmitt is a writer and historian living in Atlanta, Georgia. His work focuses on American foreign policy and imperialism, with a particular focus on early 20th century U.S.-Native American relations. He is also a producer and writer for Chorus Films, and currently at work on a documentary on humanitarian organizations providing aid to immigrants on the U.S.-Mexican border.

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