It’s About Liberty, Not Technology
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Last month actor Mark Hamill, an advocate of gun control, posted this tweet to his nearly one million followers:
“Don’t get me wrong, as a strong supporter of the 2nd Amendment [sic]—I believe in every American’s right to own a musket.”
In doing so, Hamill was repeating an anti-gun argument that’s frequently heard and is surprisingly widespread.
This argument says that the Second Amendment was written over two centuries ago, before today’s modern firearms had been invented. Therefore, the Second Amendment only protects a right to keep and bear muskets and other primitive firearms common at the time.
You might think that this is a satirical remark, more snarky than a real argument.
Yet many opponents of the right to keep and bear arms actually intend this as a serious argument. Even those who use it half-jokingly often believe it makes a legitimate point.
For example, journalist Piers Morgan tweeted this in 2012:
“The 2nd amendment was devised with muskets in mind, not high-powered handguns & assault rifles. Fact.”
I could cite many more. Versions of this argument are circulating on the Internet.
How might libertarians effectively respond to this? One obvious way is to apply the same logic to other amendments.
The First Amendment, which defends freedom of speech and freedom of the press, was written before the Internet, television, radio, DVDs, cell phones and other forms of personal and mass communication.
Yet most Americans, especially liberals and progressives who favor gun control, certainly recognize that the First Amendment protects such modern communication as well.
No First Amendment activist would argue that a newspaper must be printed on 18th century technology to have First Amendment protection. What could be sillier?
Similarly, most reasonable people see that the Fourth Amendment protection of privacy clearly applies to modern technology such as cellphones, laptops, and so on.
In some circumstances, it may also be useful to point out that this issue has already been settled — and quite forcefully — by the Supreme Court.
In fact, in the landmark 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, the Court declared this argument was “bordering on the frivolous.”
Wrote the Court:
“Some have made the argument, bordering on the frivolous, that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment. We do not interpret constitutional rights that way. Just as the First Amendment protects modern forms of communications… and the Fourth Amendment applies to modern forms of search… the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.”
The Supreme Court drove the point home just last month in Caetano v. Massachusetts, which concerned a woman who carried a stun gun for self defense:
“While stun guns were not in existence at the end of the 18th century, the same is true for the weapons most commonly used today for self-defense, namely, revolvers and semiautomatic pistols. Revolvers were virtually unknown until well into the 19th century, and semiautomatic pistols were not invented until near the end of that century. Electronic stun guns are no more exempt from the Second Amendment’s protections, simply because they were unknown to the First Congress, than electronic communications are exempt from the First Amendment, or electronic imaging devices are exempt from the Fourth Amendment.”
These are powerful, even devastating, arguments from logic, history and authority that pretty much lay waste to the argument that the Second Amendment is limited to protecting our right to black powder muskets. But… there’s one more important point to make.
We should always remember our purpose as communicators. In most communications and conversations, we should seek to win others to our side, not just to win arguments.
So, rather than just responding with the powerful arguments above, take a moment first to listen to those making these arguments and try to uncover their genuine concerns. Are they worried about our society becoming more violent? Are they fearful of more children being victims of mass shootings? Are they advocates of nonviolence who have adopted an anti-gun position?
These are all legitimate, admirable, understandable concerns. Let your listeners know that you share their concerns (if you do) and then point out that there are libertarian answers — solutions — to all of them. By identifying and addressing the underlying concerns, you can try to win them to our side, or at least to a better and more sympathetic understanding of our views. That’s a lot better than merely winning an argument, but making a permanent enemy.
If the conversation allows it, you could go even further and point out that, to many libertarians, the right to keep and bear arms is rooted in the fundamental libertarian idea that people should be free to do anything they wish as long as they don’t harm others. A conversation that reaches this level can be very rewarding.
There are specific communication methods you can use to respond in such effective ways, and I have compiled many of the best of them in my book How to Be a Super Communicator for Liberty: Successfully Sharing Libertarian Ideas.
Please check it out.