When Guns Trample Speech, Do We Have a Democracy?


(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

People protest on the campus of Utah State, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014, in Logan, Utah. Utah's campus gun laws are in the spotlight after a feminist speaker canceled a speech at Utah State University once she learned the school would allow concealed firearms despite an anonymous threat against her. School officials in Logan were set to go ahead with the event with extra police after consulting with federal and state law enforcement who told them the threat was consistent with ones Anita Sarkeesian receives when she gives speeches elsewhere. 


Don’t look now, but I think the Second Amendment just stomped on the First.

Last week, the New York Times reported on the death and rape threats to which Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist cultural critic, has been subjected to for challenging the stereotyped images of women in video games. A number of the malignant little dweebs upset by her criticism of the violent sexism that characterizes some games have waged what the Times termed “a weeks-long campaign to discredit or intimidate outspoken critics of the male-dominated gaming industry and its culture.” Sarkeesian had been on the receiving end of the most intimidating messages.

The peg for the story was one such message that led Sarkeesian to cancel an upcoming speaking engagement at Utah State University. The day before her speech, university administrators received an e-mail warning that a shooting massacre would take place should Sarkeesian go ahead with her speech. “This will be the deadliest shooting in American history,” the message read, “and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.” The e-mail’s author signed with the name Marc Lepine, who, the Times explained, was “a person who killed 14 women in a mass shooting in Montreal in 1989 before taking his own life.”

When administrators told Sarkeesian that Utah law explicitly forbade them from having the campus police stop people with guns from attending her talk, Sarkeesian had little choice but to cancel.

The overwhelming majority of the comments appended to the online version of the Times article either defended or attacked Sarkeesian’s critique of gamer culture. For my money, Sarkeesian and her critique merit all the defense and praise she’s received. But my interest here isn’t in gamer culture, but rather in the almost incomprehensibly idiotic Utah gun law that keeps police from barring gun-toters from attending events where a gun massacre has been threatened.

As the state of Utah’s Department of Public Safety website makes clear, people (other than law enforcement) can’t carry firearms in courthouses, prisons, airports and “churches if posted.” But that completes the list of places where guns can’t be brought. Anyplace else, anyone can carry a firearm openly so long as a bullet is not in the firing chamber or, in a semi-automatic firearm, if the magazine is at least “one mechanical action” away from firing. Utah law expressly forbids public schools or universities from enforcing any rule pertaining to firearms. (Lest you think Utah State administrators are totally powerless, however, they have promulgated campus rules restricting the use of toy guns that shoot Nerf balls, according to an article in the school paper by a Utah State journalism student.)

Upon learning of the Utah law, Sarkeesian chose not to go ahead with her talk. No responsible person could have done otherwise. And that’s surely what the gamer twerp who sent the email had anticipated. After all, Utah’s gun laws could not have been more precisely designed to compel the cancellation, and to encourage more such threats and cancellations the next time a talk is scheduled that upsets some unbalanced or merely sinister figure.

What happened at Utah State was that the right to bear arms, taken to the kind of loony lengths that the National Rifle Association pressures legislators to enact, plainly infringed upon the right to free speech and assembly. While there is considerable question whether the Second Amendment was meant to ensure a universal right to own and carry guns or merely to establish state militias, there’s greater consensus that the First Amendment was intended to protect speech from the momentary (or enduring) prejudices of lawmakers. Historically, guns and the threat of guns have curtailed as least as much speech as they’ve protected, but in this country, fortunately, such episodes are commonly against the law. In Utah last week, though, free speech was curtailed not in violation of a law but entirely because of one.

The problem with the kind of Second Amendment absolutism stoked by the NRA and made into law by legislators and judges is that gun rights taken to extremes inherently imperil other rights. The raisons d’être of guns not used for hunting are self-defense and intimidation. A society where guns are unregulated and the threat of gun violence cannot be legally checked is a society where intimidation becomes the norm and freedom of speech can be easily abridged.

The Constitution is not frictionless machine in which all the parts move harmoniously together. Some of the rights it guarantees collide with other rights it guarantees. The elevation of the Second Amendment into a super-right has now diminished others—including those that the founders quite deliberately put first.