One evening a few years back, I was channel-surfing when I ran across a panel discussion of efforts to restrict children’s access to smut and violence on TV. One of the panelists was former New York mayor Ed Koch; another was the president of one of the major TV networks. The latter was quite agitated by proposed regulatory measures that he felt undermined the First Amendment and paved the way to censorship. I anticipated his position; however, I didn’t anticipate Koch’s reply. The former mayor pointed out that the slippery-slope argument that the TV honcho was making was exactly the same as that made by those who saw all attempts at gun control as undermining the Second Amendment and paving the way to gun confiscation. Hoisted by his own petard, the TV honcho’s response was hilarious. He blanched and managed to sputter out something to the effect that some slippery slopes were more desirable than others.
I can’t remember who that TV executive was or what network he headed, but it really doesn’t make any difference. I’d be willing to bet, and I’m not a betting man, that the vast majority of gatekeepers of the mainstream electronic and print media, entertainment as well as news, would have responded to a perceived threat to the First Amendment just as he did, and that they would have been equally nonplussed when called upon to reconcile their views on the First Amendment with their views on the Second Amendment. In First Amendment-loving journalistic circles, “The Second Amendment gets no respect,” as Mike Moore, then editor of The Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, acknowledged in a column by that title in the March 1990 issue of his magazine. Charlton Heston, the movie actor who has become the president of the National Rifle Association, once drove home the same point before the National Press Club, and what he and Moore had to say applies to mainstream media circles in general.
In a USA Today column written when he was president of NBC, Michael Gartner called for the repeal of the Second Amendment. Tom Brokaw, Sam Donaldson, Michael Kinsley, George Will, Hodding Carter, Martin Schram, Leonard Larsen, Don Shoemaker, Bob Moos, Robert Reno, and the editors of the Washington Post have either dismissed the right to keep and bear arms as a collective right, or called it an outdated individual right that has withered away or that should be repealed. And Robert Altman, the producer of ABC’s Gun, a blatantly anti-gun-ownership series from 1997, acknowledges that he “disdains the prevalence of guns in American homes.” As he told a Washington Post reporter: “I don’t care what the founding fathers said—they didn’t have a police force to call on.” In a 1993 Editor & Publisher column, former Boston Globe editor Thomas Winship ignored the Second Amendment altogether when he called for a national newspaper crusade against guns.
Parade posed the following rhetorical question, complete with answer, to anyone thinking about entering its photography contest celebrating the 1991 bicentennial of the Bill of Rights: “How would you convey the sense of the Second Amendment in a photograph? Perhaps a soldier or a Marine or a sailor or an airman departing for duty, a scene with a military flavor, a graduation, or maybe a National Guardsman helping in a setting unrelated to arms or battle” (emphasis added). This after informing readers that we have long since overcome the fears of the federal government that had “inspired the language of the amendment.
Life‘s bicentennial treatment of the Second Amendment acknowledged that an armed populace was necessary when the Bill of Rights was ratified, but made it clear that widespread gun ownership is troublesome now and that the amendment is anachronistic. A 1984 Atlanta Constitution political cartoon had Benjamin Franklin (who had nothing to do with the Second Amendment) commenting to his colleagues: “We’d better say it’s for a ‘well-regulated militia’ or ever) nut in the country will think he has a right to own a gun.” And a television special on the Bill of Rights back in the 1970’s included a symbolic representation of each of the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The logo for the Second Amendment, which was given short shrift in the discussion, looked like it had been lifted off of a box of “Ann and Hammer” baking soda—a hammer, not a sword or a gun, gripped in a hand at the end of a muscular arm with a rolled-up sleeve. One could get the impression that the Second Amendment guaranteed us the right to bare our arms.
I could go on and on, but publisher Lyle Stuart’s comments bring me back to my central point. Stuart once justified publishing The Turner Diaries, the militantly racist and antisemitic novel that allegedly served as convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s inspiration, in this way: “I’m a nut on just a few things in life. I’ve always tested the limits of the First Amendment. I’m a great believer in letting anybody publish the most outrageous, unpopular things there are.” Ah, but Stuart has a social conscience. He donates one dollar of every sale of this $12 paperback to “an anti-handgun organization.” Another deep-thinking First Amendment supporter who completely ignores Second Amendment concerns.
The Founding Fathers left us a mile-wide paper trail explaining the purpose of the Second Amendment. Several scholarly books and over 50 law review articles (many of them by prominent, non-gun-owning, liberal scholars like Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas, William Van Alstyne of Duke, and Akhil Amar of Yale) have detailed this paper trail for anyone willing to take the time to read them. Consider what James Madison’s friend Tench Coxe had to say on the subject before the ratification of the Bill of Rights:
As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms [emphasis added].
In other words, in spite of what the Atlanta Constitution‘s cartoonist may think, the Founders did believe that every law-abiding American citizen had a right to own a gun. And the main reason that individual gun ownership was considered to be important was to keep in line the armed agents of the state that Robert Altman and the Pollyannas at Parade trust so much. And for the information of Tom Brokaw, Hodding Carter, and the others who believe that the Second Amendment is anachronistic and defended only by right-wing nuts in the 20th century, consider the following comment: “The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.” The words are those of Mr. Liberal himself, the late Hubert H. Humphrey, and were circulated in a 1959 written statement on the Second Amendment, but they express sentiments that went unquestioned until the middle of this century. For the further information of people like George Will, who should know better, and Michael Gartner, who call for the repeal of the Second Amendment, the Bill of Rights guarantees rights that the Founders assumed to be natural; consequently, a government that didn’t grant them can’t repeal them.
Incidentally, a government that monopolizes weaponry can, among many other things, tell pundits to take their precious First Amendment and the rights it guarantees and stuff them where the sun doesn’t shine. But I never cease to be amazed that so many people who believe in the power of words can, when it suits their purposes, turn a blind eve to the consequences of words and the ideas they convey.
I am a strong supporter of all of the Bill of Rights, First Amendment, Second Amendment, and all the rest. But with those rights come responsibilities. Media elitists like Lyle Stuart want to take away the vital right to keep and bear arms (the teeth of the Bill of Rights) not only from those Americans who abuse that right by harming innocents with their guns, but from the vast majority of Americans who don’t abuse it. But when it comes to the First Amendment, Stuart and company aren’t even willing to acknowledge that the rights to free speech and a free press can be abused, let alone consider what should be done about those who abuse them.
Of course, abuse of the right to arms often produces a body count, while the impact of the abuse of the right to free speech and/or a free press isn’t that clear cut. So Stuart can deplore the killing of innocent blacks and Jews by gun or any other means at the same time that he feels free, or even obligated, to publish books that claim that killing blacks and Jews is warranted. Men like him can decry violence as they market gangsta rap celebrating the casual killing of cops, the abuse of women, and antisocial behavior in general. They can rant and rave about the easy availability of guns being responsible for school shootings while focusing national attention on the young monsters who earn’ out these shootings. And they can even produce violent video games, such as Postal, that can serve as training programs for these monsters.
I’m not suggesting government censorship. I am suggesting that Stuart and the TV executive who responded to Ed Koch should take a good long look in the mirror and assume some of the responsibility for the amoral mess that they have helped to create, instead of blaming it on inanimate objects that they in many ways have encouraged some people to misuse. And I am suggesting that far more social damage can occur through widespread media abuse of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment than through individual abuse of the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment. For the widespread media abuse of First Amendment rights does much to promote the normlessness and alienation responsible for, among many other unpleasant things, murders committed with guns. Less testing of the limits of the First Amendment might do more to bring about a safer society than would a repeal of the Second Amendment.