Opinion: Freedom of Speech or Gun Rights: Which is more important?

Edy Zoo

Let's be clear: Gun rights activists are killing the freedom of speech.

Our land of the free is under threat!Photo byPhoto by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

It is often said that America is the land of the free. This phrase is most commonly associated with our country's freedom of speech. But what happens when this right is exercised in a way that some people find offensive?

In the debate over gun rights, Americans seem to love their freedom of speech until the topic gets too controversial. Then all hell breaks loose. That is when supporters of the Second Amendment demand that the liberty above be silenced.

At first, they protest; they boycott; they petition; they use their power of the purse; and when that fails, then they bring out the AR-15s and 9mms. However, they fail to understand that the right to offend is crucial to democracy. It helps us fight against victimization and oppression. Without it, nothing would ever change.

From the nation's foundation, freedom of speech has been rudimentary to the American experience. The founding fathers recognized the power of words. Moreover, they understood that no amount of brute force could silence ideas or opinions. Alexis de Tocqueville once said,

America is great because she is good."

Still, to be truly good, we must challenge ourselves by engaging in robust and open debate on issues that matter.

It is the way things have always been done in America. In fact, many of the most critical social and political movements in our nation's history, from abolition to civil rights, have relied on speech to bring about change. These efforts were only possible with the freedom to voice non-conforming ideas or criticize authority figures.

And yet, gun rights activists are increasingly using threatening and violent tactics to silence those with whom they disagree. In the New York Times, investigative reporter Mike McIntire wrote,

Across the country, openly carrying a gun in public is no longer just an exercise in self-defense — increasingly it is a soapbox for elevating one's voice and, just as often, quieting someone else's."

In his report At Protests, Guns Are Doing the Talking, Mr. McIntire explains how there have been several incidents in which armed protesters have appeared in public places, including government buildings and college campuses. Their intentions have been straightforward: thwart public forums, especially when gun rights are the topic.

He continues by pointing out,

This month, armed protesters appeared outside an elections center in Phoenix, hurling baseless accusations that the election for governor had been stolen from the Republican, Kari Lake. In October, Proud Boys with guns joined a rally in Nashville where conservative lawmakers spoke against transgender medical treatments for minors.
In June, armed demonstrations around the United States amounted to nearly one a day. A group led by a former Republican state legislator protested a gay pride event in a public park in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Men with guns interrupted a Juneteenth festival in Franklin, Tenn., handing out fliers claiming that white people were being replaced. Among the others were rallies in support of gun rights in Delaware and abortion rights in Georgia."

Likewise, the Gifford Laws Center wrote,

Since 2020, there has been an alarming uptick in incidents of armed protesters asserting that their right to bear arms trumps every other right—not to mention public health and safety.
In the first two months of 2020, most armed protesters showing up to state capitols and bringing their weapons to the houses of legislators were doing so to protest gun laws, arguing that even commonsense regulations of firearms were somehow an intrusion on their Second Amendment right. And in the months since, we've seen armed protesters rallying against lockdown orders, counter-protesting peaceful racial justice protests, and claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Protesters who strap rifles to their chests and show up to rallies wearing tactical gear but not masks are not defending themselves against any actual, credible threats. What they are doing is chilling free speech...."

While they may claim to be exercising their right to free speech, their actions have a chilling effect on the free speech rights of others. When people are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being targeted by armed protesters, true freedom of speech is undermined.

The Constitution's First Amendment guarantees "the right to peaceably assemble," a phrase that implicitly acknowledges that not all speech or actions are acceptable. If we value our freedom, it is up to us as individuals and as a society to determine where those boundaries lie concerning free speech.

We cannot allow inflammatory rhetoric and violent threats from an extreme minority of gun rights activists to compromise our most fundamental constitutional protections. To give in would set us down a perilous path indeed. It would be a path towards stifling democracy itself rather than protecting it through discourse and debate among Americans who care deeply about how this nation moves forward.

Of course, gun rights activists "do not" speak for all Second Amendment supporters. There are countless Americans who support both the right to bear arms and robust freedom of speech. But for our country to move forward, we must have a sensible conversation about these issues without being undermined by intimidation tactics or scare-mongering violence on the part of some protesters.

To protect the rights of all Americans, we need to be able to speak our minds without fear of violent repercussions. We require a nation committed to dialogue and self-reflection, not one in which gun activists use threats or force against their opponents. Our goal should be an open society where freedom reigns over intimidation and violence.

Freedom of speech is fundamental for any healthy democracy because it allows citizens to challenge injustices and inequities within our society effectively. This right is necessary for individuals to show constructive criticism towards those in charge or counter misinformation disseminated by government leaders or powerful institutions like big businesses. Ultimately, without free speech, we would lose some meaningful opportunities for progress on issues like social justice, economic equality, and environmental sustainability.

Therefore, we must stand together to defend the freedom of speech. We need to work together as Americans to promote an open and democratic society in which everyone can freely share their ideas with others without fear or retribution. If we want actual change, this is the only way forward: by encouraging our neighbors to engage with us on important issues of discussion and debate, not through threats couched in rhetoric about "gun rights."

Let me know what you think. Are gun rights supporters stifling freedom of speech when they show up to protests in military gear and fully display their guns?

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Edy Zoo is an author who writes about social subjects. He contributes to the ever-growing library of social critics. He approaches local social subjects and local news covering Auburn-Opelika and surrounding cities from an objective point of view. He also holds liberal views.

Auburn, AL

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