Speech and Guns

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I have written regularly on gun control, and occasionally someone annoyed by my views will take a careful look at The Ethical Spectacle and will write me email along the following lines:

"I see that you are a First Amendment activist. Aren't you aware that the Second Amendment guarantees the liberties you enjoy under the First?"

In other words, guns (and the threat of violence they represent) are the cornerstone of liberty. To a traditional civil libertarian, who cares about the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth amendments, and not at all about the Second, this is an appalling thought. But it can't just be rejected out of hand without being examined.

What these gun advocates are saying, in effect, is that the possession of guns by the populace is the best and in fact, the only guarantee that the government will not take our free speech rights away.

It is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction, that guns are most often used to punish or deter speech, that many of the firearm assassinations of the twentieth century-- those of Gandhi and Dr. King in particular--were responses to pure speech with which the shooter didn't agree. It is a side issue, worthy of an essay in itself, that gun advocates haven't figured out any really comfortable argument in response to this one. It would be an honest answer to say that the deaths of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi are "acceptable losses" in a world in which guns serve to protect our freedoms. Few are willing to say this.

I have written elsewhere, in essays on violence and revolution, that necessity and morality are unrelated and that violence should be regarded as shameful even when accounted necessary. The gun advocates' belief, that their weapons secure the continuation of our rights, is a prime example of the glorification of violence as a solution.

In a companion essay, Free Speech as A Prisoner's Dilemma, I applied the famous game theory paradigm to freedom of speech. In the Prisoner's Dilemma (P.D.), there are two basic moves: cooperation and betrayal. The pay-offs are adjusted so that the highest score is for betraying a player who has tried to cooperate, but the lowest score results from mutual betrayal. Across a series of moves, both players will eventually discover that cooperation earns them each the best available score.

In the context of speech, your utterance which offends me is initially regarded as a betrayal. I respond with another betrayal, violence. Sooner or later, we come to understand that speech can be regarded as an act of cooperation because it is not violence. If I learn to respond to your words with words only, we have renounced betrayal and are cooperating on every move. Your words may be just as offensive as they were before, but I have learned no longer to regard mere speech as a betrayal.

Looked at this way, free speech is not founded on violence, but on the renunciation of violence.

In the P.D., the most successful strategy for persuading an opposing player to cooperate on every move is called "tit for tat." Whatever move your opponent made on the last round you make on this one. If he cooperated, you cooperate. If he betrayed, you betray.

Gun advocates are saying, "The gun means that if you betray me, I can betray you very effectively." This is a true statement, but not necessarily a matter for pride. Another way of saying it might be, "If we must revert to bloody, chaotic behavior I can do it as well as you. Probably even better." Gun advocates then do themselves a disservice by being unwilling to define the exact boundaries within which they feel violence is acceptable. I am still waiting to learn the exact circumstances under which, for example, they consider it is proper to shoot a federal officer.

If guns are a guarantee of speech (rather than an extremely effective way of ending it), similar questions must be answered: are guns acceptable only as a way of responding to violence? Is there ever a set of circumstances under which the Second Amendment advocates believe that guns are an appropriate response to speech? Don't answer that one no, too quickly; it is a trick question. Are you obligated to wait until you're shot at, or is a pre-emptive strike ever acceptable? If the latter is true, you've just said that violence is an appropriate response to speech, if that speech is about violence.

Hannah Arendt wrote in On Violence that we all too often fail to distinguish between terms such as power, authority, and violence. She defines power as "the human ability not just to act but to act in concert." Authority is based on "respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority is therefore contempt..." Violence simply has "an instrumental character". She quotes Madison: "All governments rest on opinion". If power and violence are synonymous, "then there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun, and it would be difficult to say in 'which way the order given by a policeman is different than that given by a gunman'" (quoting Alexander Passerin D'Entreves).

Government, Arendt concludes, cannot be based on violence alone:

Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the ends it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.

The element present in power and missing in violence is, of course, cooperation--the fundamental building block of government and of freedom of speech. Gun advocates conceive the world as based solely on violence. Those who dimly see the value of cooperation misconceive--and glorify-- betrayal as the surest way to restore cooperation. It is not human nature that this should be so. Arendt says, "The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world."