Rights to What Purpose? Free Speech and the U.S. Gun Control Debate

This past week saw a fascinating moment in the debate over guns and constitutional rights that so scars America. The cause was a gentleman named Richard (‘Dick’) Metcalf. A ‘pro gun’ advocate and lobbyist, Metcalf has written op-eds and articles for gun magazines over several decades decrying any attempt to infringe on the gun lobby’s extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment rights of US citizens. He has sponsored and lobbied on behalf of legislation in his own municipality permitting people to carry concealed weapons.

And yet, when he had the temerity to venture, in a guest column in the December issue of the pro-gun magazine, Guns & Ammo, that people who carry concealed guns in public should receive minimal safety instruction, you would have thought he was in favour of establishing a UN-mandated force to pry the guns out of every red-blooded American’s cold dead fingers. The comments section of the magazine’s web-site exploded with rage; other publications of a similar bent went after Metcalf with fury; and advertisers (read: gun manufacturers) threatened to boycott the magazine and others published by the same media group, Inter Media Outdoors.

If Dick Metcalf cannot make a point over which reasonable people can disagree, then what freedom have all these guns protected for their owners—not to mention for the American people, who suffer the highest crime rates in the industrialised world as the price of these freedoms?

By week’s end, the editor of Guns & Ammo, Jim Bequette, announced that Metcalf would never again write for the magazine, or any other published by Inter Media Outdoors. He went on to grovel to his readership:

Let me be clear: Our commitment to the Second Amendment is unwavering.  It has been so since the beginning. Historically, our tradition in supporting the Second Amendment has been unflinching. No strings attached….  In publishing Metcalf’s column, I was untrue to that tradition, and for that I apologize. His views do not represent mine — nor, most important, Guns & Ammo’s.

Finally, Bequette announced his resignation from the editorship of the magazine; he fell on his sword for having committed the ultimate sin of running a piece which even obliquely questioned the gun lobby’s mantra.

So what exactly did Metcalf say to merit this response? In his column, entitled “Let’s Talk About Limits,” Metcalf tried to make the distinction between gun regulation in the cause of safety, and regulation of the absolute interpretation of the Second Amendment which is favoured by the gun lobby. As Metcalf said,

I bring this up because way too many gun owners still believe that any regulation of the right to continue to keep and bear arms is an infringement. The fact is that all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be. Freedom of speech is regulated. You cannot falsely and deliberately shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.  Freedom of religion is regulated.  A church cannot practice human sacrifice. Freedom of assembly is regulated. People who don’t like you can’t gather an ‘anti-you’ demonstration on your front lawn without your permission. And it is illegal for convicted felons or the clinically insane to keep and bear arms. But many argue that any regulation at all is, by definition, an infringement. If that were true, then the authors of the Second Amendment themselves should not have specified ‘well-regulated.’ The question is; when does regulation become infringement? …. I don’t think requiring 16 hours of training to qualify for a concealed carry permit is infringement in and of itself. But that’s just me.

Dangerous stuff!  For if we accept the notion that some regulation is acceptable, then why not more? Might people be required to get a licence to own a gun? Might effective, nation-wide data-bases and background checks be created? Might the right of the gun industry to sell at ‘gun shows’ on a ‘no questions asked’ basis be infringed? Might the majority of the American people who want gun laws, and the overwhelming majority of US police chiefs, finally get their way?

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The answer, of course, is yes. And that is exactly what the multi-billion dollar US gun industry and its paid mouthpieces (such as the NRA and magazines like Guns & Ammo) fear. The reason why Metcalf’s argument must not merely be refuted but destroyed, along with anyone who has the temerity to make or publish it, is that it is the thin edge of the wedge. If the idea of any regulation on guns is accepted—even an innocuous one requiring safety training before one is allowed to carry them around in public—then why not other kinds of regulation? Where does it end?

But here is the curious thing about the way the gun-lobby responds to the Dick Metcalfs of the world: what is the purpose of the right to bear arms in the first place? Surely the framers of the US Constitution provided this right for a reason—to give citizens the ability to protect themselves from unlawful infringement by anti-democratic forces. But isn’t a part of that also the protection of the right of free speech? Shouldn’t at least part of the reason why citizens are allowed to carry guns be to protect the right of Dick Metcalf to say what he wants?

Not in the view of the US gun lobby.  Freedom of speech is all very well, but not when it runs counter to their view.

The gun lobby has thus constructed an argument in which the right to bear arms is an absolute in itself. This is a situation in which the free speech inherent in the debate over regulation is itself seen as an infringement of the constitutional rights of Americans. It is a fundamental contradiction that leaves us with the deeper question of what the purpose of all these guns is. If Dick Metcalf cannot make a point over which reasonable people can disagree, then what freedom have all these guns protected for their owners—not to mention for the American people, who suffer the highest crime rates in the industrialized world as the price of these freedoms?

The answer, of course, is that the American gun debate has nothing to do with freedom. It is about the ability of a multi-billion dollar industry to make profits while hypocritically wrapping itself in a flag of its own making and brooking no dissent. Sounds rather like the kind of undemocratic, absolutist interest group that the gun lobby warns will take over America if the right to bear arms is in any way regulated, doesn’t it?

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