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The Dilemma of Freedom

One man’s freedom can be another man’s tyranny. America has always stood for the fewest restrictions on freedom necessary to maintain a safe and workable nation. Our restrictions on speech are the most minimal in the world. In most European countries, which also regard themselves as having free speech, both hate speech and extremely disrespectful speech are against the law. Throughout Western Europe, holocaust denial is punishable by prison. Several Western countries and most Middle Eastern countries make religious insults illegal. None of these things are illegal in the U.S. One must incite an immediate risk of violence to have one’s speech declared illegal in America.

Gun laws in the U.S. are among the least restrictive in the world, although not the least restrictive. But among wealthy developed countries, the gun-related murder rate in the U.S. stands out, and America leads the developed world in gun-related mass murders.

We pay a price for our freedom in America. Besides our high murder and mass-murder rates, some of our most angry citizens are being radicalized by internet sites that are free to publish hate messages and videos. Donald Trump’s angry attacks on Muslims and Mexican immigrants are applauded by his supporters, who want to restrict Muslim immigration, conduct surveillance of their neighborhoods and Mosques and to deport undocumented Mexicans who have lived peaceably within our borders for years.

Muslim Americans, gay, lesbian and transgender citizens, Latino immigrants all feel paranoid about their freedom and their safety in America, as do many other Americans who live in high-crime areas or who simply want to go about their lives without worrying being attacked by someone with a gun. Is it time to put more restrictions on speech and gun possession in order to provide more safety and greater freedom for all Americans?

Before going too far down the road to restriction of either gun possession or of speech, we should determine if such measures are actually likely to reduce violence in general or attacks on specific groups. This is almost impossible to do because either the data are not available or the national forum for a rational, data-based discussion of these topics is impossible to achieve. We don’t know the extent to which “home-grown” terrorists are influenced by radical websites and videos nor do we know the effect of more restrictive gun laws. We know the recent Orlando shooter sought out jihadist websites, but we have no idea whether he was influenced by them. He also participated in online gay chat rooms, but we don’t yet know why. The San Bernardino terrorists were at first reported to have posted jihadist messages on social media, but that was later disproved and their online conversations were all private. The Boston Marathon bombers apparently “surfed” jihadist websites and the older brother learned to make a bomb from one website. There is some evidence that the few Americans who have attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIS may have gotten information from radical websites.

It is clearer that assault-style weapons, such as the AR-15 rifle are routinely used by mass shooters. The same rifle was used at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Aurora, and Orlando. Similar guns were banned from 1994 to 2004 and there was a reduction in mass killings during the years of the ban. Defenders of second amendment rights cite the need for hunters to use guns as well as the need to have guns available to Americans for self-defense. In neither case is a semi-automatic rifle required or does it even make sense as the gun of choice. Such guns are used mostly for target practice by Americans, and can be purchased with an ordinary gun permit. Those who oppose banning such weapons see such a ban as an infringement on their freedom and as the first step in a government program to confiscate all kinds of weapons from all Americans.

I’m not really sure what to do about internet speech and I am hesitant to recommend government restrictions because the definition of what can be restricted can expand once such restrictions are in place. Hate messages, such as Donald Trump spews toward Muslims and immigrants, create a climate in which people in both groups feel less free because of the policies and antipathy toward them he advocates. Opposing Trump's messages is necessary, but restricting his or his followers' right to say them is not. The slope we would be going down in doing so is much too slippery. But sites that advocate overthrowing the government with violence or killing others violate laws that are already in place and fall within the framework of our constitution. The specifics of the laws that apply in these cases have been debated fairly recently in our courts and the laws are circumscribed and clear and would seem to pose little risk to our freedom, while perhaps reducing the risks to innocent citizens. Surveillance and prosecution of those who advocate such violence seems to be a reasonable function of a government whose role is to protect its citizens.

With regard to gun laws, without debating the broader issue of how to control the proliferation of guns in the U.S. or how to reduce the criminal murder rate, a ban on assault-style rifles, as we had until 2004, has a track record of reducing mass murders and leaves those who want to hunt or to defend their person with a firearm with access to the means to do both. We cannot expect such a ban to be reinstated by Donald Trump, nor from a Republican controlled congress. Hillary Clinton has called for reinstituting the assault rifle ban and, if enough Democratic congressmen are elected along with her, perhaps it will be brought back. This seems to me to be another thing our government needs to do to protect the lives and rights of its citizens.

Reader Comments (3)

Casey, I am going to disagree with you on one point. We do know how mass murderers are being influenced by messages spread via the Internet. When we began bombing ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq in September, 2014, ISIL sent out a call to supporters around the globe. It directed sympathizers to stay home and attack targets within their countries. When ISIL heard reports that government and military targets were too hard to hit, they sent a second directive: to hit civilian targets by any means possible, and to swear allegiance to ISIL in the process. No central planning, no further direction; just do it. We can see this in attack after attack around the world: Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, and Orlando, to name just a few.

What can we do to stop these attacks? First, no one on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List or the No Fly List should be able to buy a gun. Second, we need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons; no citizen needs to own a military-style weapon, weather it is for sport or defense. Third, we need to coordinate intelligence and law enforcement efforts to identify “lone rats” (I refuse to call them “lone wolves”) and prevent as many ISIL-inspired attacks as possible. Finally, the FBI should be notified automatically when a person on the Terrorist Watch List or the No Fly List attempts to purchase weapons.

We are past the time when Congress should have acted on this issue. Our infatuation with the Second Amendment needs to be tempered by the cold, hard facts of the threat ISIL presents.

June 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Spooner

I agree with you that the restrictions on speech can constitute a slippery slope. But restrictions on assault weaponry in the hands of private citizens are a measure of sanity, so here I agree with Chuck. I'm not sure that we're not all on the same side--you, Chick, and I.

I have a loathsome neighbor down the road who in response to the Orlando massacre put about forty Trump signs on his lawn. My lesbian daughter and her spouse, with their baby, are visiting. It hurts my heart for them to see such vileness. Can I make this horrible man stop? No. Do I want him to die a painful and swift (before November) death? Yes. Does that make me a terrible person? I don't care.

June 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

We are in agreement. A ban on assault weapons is absolutely necessary and to argue against it, citing the 2nd amendment is bogus. An assault rifle is not even a weapon of defense, it is a weapon of aggression. Also, no one on a terrorist watch list or no-fly list should be allowed to purchase a weapon. As I said in the commentary, I also think we have the legal foundation to curtail websites that preach killing or overthrowing our government by the use of violence. A radical religious message is different, as it might or might not refer to violence and what is radical may be in the eye of the beholder.

June 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Dorman

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