Guns as Free Speech?

Friday, November 15, 2013


Last weekend, a small group of women in the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America held a meeting at a restaurant in a Dallas suburb. In the parking lot outside a group of men women and children wielding assault rifles held a pro-gun demonstration, saying they were exercising their First Amendment rights. Bob speaks to Slate's Dahlia Lithwick about the rise of Open Carry demonstrations, and whether carrying a gun qualifies as free speech.


Dahlia Lithwick

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [20]

Marcia from Cleveland

The only speech being exercised by these bullies is to let people they disagree with know that they have the means and will to kill them. These women were having a private meeting at a restaurant and this band of thugs showed up to intimidate them. I hope that the next time these women meet they have people in parking lot with cameras ready to put the video of these people all over the web.

Nov. 18 2013 04:29 PM
Some Guy from California

Bob Garfield,

This piece was better than I generally expect from WNYC, but still a bit lacking, especially from a program whose raison d'etre is commentary on other news media. I refer in particular to your misuse of the term "assault rifle", as well as the ambiguous but popular term "assault weapon".

"Assault rifle" has long had specific technical meaning, which is that of a select fire rifle (which can select among fully-automatic, semi-automatic, and often a fixed burst mode). In fully-automatic operation, holding down the trigger will continuously fire the weapon. In burst mode, a fixed number of bullets (often 3) will be fired per trigger pull. Semi-automatic mode fires one bullet per trigger pull. A "machine gun" is a fully-automatic weapon without the select fire capability.

Both machine guns and select fire rifles have been regulated in the United States since the National Firearms Act of 1934, and no weapons capable of full-auto manufactured since 1986 are allowed to be owned by private civilians. This makes civilian-owned full-auto both exceedingly rare and expensive.

I find it unthinkable that anyone would have brought an "assault rifle" to the demonstration in question, lest their $50k+ property be at risk of seizure. Your use of the term "assault rifle" in that context is thus either sloppy or extremely understated (if someone had indeed been carrying a fully-automatic weapon there, that would have been newsworthy in and of itself).

The term "assault weapon" was most likely invented by the Brady campaign with an approximate meaning of any semi-automatic rifle that looks scary and/or resembles a fully-automatic weapon. Since then, the term has entered wide use with inconsistent definitions.

"It is worth noting that there are numerous different ‘legal’ definitions of 'assault weapons'. A report from the Legal Community Against Violence showed no fewer than eight jurisdictions, anywhere from 19 to 75 banned firearms, six differing generic classification schemes and several legal systems for banning more firearms without specific legislative action. In other words, an 'assault weapon' is whatever a politician deems it to be." ( version 6.2)

In fact, cosmetic differences among semi-automatic rifles do not result in noteworthy functional differences. One might just as well define "assault weapon" to mean "semi-automatic rifle", but in that case, why not just use the specific technical term and leave out the fearmongering?

Semi-automatic rifles differ in a meaningful way from bolt- or lever-action rifles, which do not chamber a subsequent round as part of the firing operation. Both semi-automatic and bolt-action rifles are found in common use throughout the US.

So Bob Garfield and the rest of the OTM staff, please educate yourself on the firearms terms you use; they matter greatly. You could easily write an OTM segment on misuse of these terms by other media outlets; don't let such misuse include yourselves.

Nov. 18 2013 02:40 PM
Alexander Jhin from California

The real issue is not open carry: It's the availability of guns. If you ban Open Carry, then the problem becomes Concealed Carry (legal and illegal). At least with Open Carriers you KNOW they're armed. With concealed carry, you have no idea who's armed and who isn't.

Ignorance is not bliss.

(BTW, the NRA hates open carry because it makes it obvious how many people have guns... knowing how many people have guns leads to more open debate of guns, which the NRA doesn't want.)

Nov. 18 2013 12:28 PM
russell bell

How about this act of free speech: set off a string of firecrackers in the midst of an 'open carry texas' demo. Bet OCTers wouldn't take responsibility for their response.

Nov. 17 2013 07:26 PM
Mary from Durham, NC

Without getting into the rights thing, am I understanding correctly that in response to some mothers exercising their first amendment rights, a bunch of gun toters came out in large numbers to demonstrate their 2nd amendment rights with all their equipment? Were they scared of these women? It would seem they were using their god-given right to display their fire power as if communicating a threat rather than using their reasoning powers. This has all the appearances of sanctioned bullying

Nov. 17 2013 07:10 PM
sandy mason from los angeles

The Black Panther Party was continuing a tradition of armed self-defense that blacks employed against the KKK. Huey Newton's inspiration was NAACP official, Robert F. Williams (Negroes With Guns), whose work in North Carolina to arm blacks led Williams to flee for his life. Williams went first to Cuba and then to China where Chinese officials worked out a deal to allow Williams and his wife to return to the U.S. Some think this deal helped pave the way for Nixon's rapprochement with China. Also, Condoleeza Rice wrote in her autobiography that her father was part of a black militia that organized against the Klan.

Nov. 17 2013 07:03 PM
rocinante2 from Atlanta

A bone to pick with Garfield's second guest:

The law-professor guest called the National Rifle Association’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment “extreme” on two separate occasions. A law professor, much less one who has written a book about this subject, should know that the NRA’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is no more “extreme” than the Supreme Court’s, which now settled law: the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual right (but not without limits).

The NRA does not advocate the repeal of any federal gun control law currently on the books. The NRA is fine with tight federal regulation of fully-automatic (machine) guns, any gun over fifty caliber, silencers and explosives. The NRA is fine with background checks and import restrictions. How is that “extreme”?

A law professor should know that the “individual right” interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, while it has its detractors, is the widely held, majority consensus in the world of legal scholarship, and is acknowledged by prominent, left-leaning constitutional scholars like Sanford Levinson, Alan Dershowitz, Laurence Tribe and Akhil Reed Amar, among others.

Also, a nitpick: I also object to his use of "coup" to describe the way the pro-2nd-Amendment forces took over the NRA leadership in the mid-70's. They used grassroots organizing, the NRA's bylaws and a fair, duly-administered vote at the annual meeting to accomplish the change.

Democracy at work, baby! If the leadership ain't workin' for ya, change it.

Nov. 17 2013 03:26 PM
rocinante2 from Atlanta

This story was considerably better than what I typically expect from NPR on this topic, but given the program's personnel and cultural biases, there were flaws. (They just can't help themeselves.)

Host Bob Garfield described the behavior of the open-carry activists as “brandishing” their weapons almost immediately after describing them as “slung over shoulders”?

Which is it, Bob? According to the Collins English Dictionary, to “brandish” is to “wave or flourish in a triumphant, threatening or ostentatious way”.

Carrying something slung over one’s shoulder is not flourishing it, even if that object is a weapon. For that matter, someone carrying a pistol in a purse or shoulder bag is just as dangerous (or not), but it’s not “brandishing” until you take it out and wave it around (and there are laws against that, even in Texas).

Here’s a helpful thought experiment:

Imagine a policeman or soldier (or other person sprinkled with the magic of Government Authority) strolling down your street with an “assault weapon”.

Now, imagine this person carrying said rifle slung over one shoulder. Got that clear in your mind? Ask yourself if you find that threatening. (I wouldn’t.)

Now, imagine that same person strolling down your street with the same weapon at the ready: slung across his/her chest, hand on the grip, index finger extended alongside the trigger guard, off hand on the foregrip.

Better yet, imagine that the rifle has a mounted optic, and the person is using that optic like binoculars to scan the other people on the street and the buildings, incidentally pointing the weapon at whomever and whatever he/she looks at through the ‘scope.

How would that make you feel? (I would find it very intimidating. So should you.)

You should find your neighbor carrying a slung rifle down your street LESS disturbing than a cop or soldier, because there are far more legal restrictions on the behavior of your neighbor and what he/she can do with that rifle than those that exist for cops and soldiers, and a much higher bar to justify your neighbor using (and much higher penalties for misusing) that weapon than there would be for a cop or soldier.

Garfield also referred to the weapons in question as “loaded”. Aside from betraying Garfield’s lack of technical knowledge about firearms, how did he know they were loaded? Did he do a chamber check?

Finally, Garfield exaggerated both the frequency of mass shootings (remarkably constant over the last thirty years; you have to cherry pick the time frame and the definition – like Mother Jones magazine did in a recent article – to show any recent increase) and how often “assault weapons” are used in crime (rarely; less than 2% of gun related crimes, according to the FBI).

Again, a vast improvement over what I expect, but still needs work.

Nov. 17 2013 03:15 PM
Coco from Usa

These pathetic paras got busted by Marmel. The intent was absolutely CALCULATED TO ALARM.

Nov. 17 2013 03:04 PM
just us

We need more demonstrations of this sort

Nov. 17 2013 11:39 AM
Harold Hill from Red State

The host showed his leftist bigoted bias in this story. Thank God, the Corporatist State Media (MSM) has lost most their credibility with most Americans! 2nd Amendment advocates are not extremist and nether is the NRA or Gun Owners of America! Most rank and file law enforcement are pro 2nd while most the big city police chiefs are anti 2nd Amendment!
I too want to thank Ms. Lithwick for a frank discussion without impugning 2nd Amendment supporters!

Nov. 17 2013 11:11 AM

People in uniforms carrying guns can be much more dangerous than civilians.
In the 20th Century, people in uniforms killed about 20 times more people than civilians killed.
You are about Seven-hundred-million times more likely to be killed by an average government, than by an average individual you meet.
In the 20th Century:
About 200 national governments killed about 250,000,000 people = average 1,250,000 per government, in war & in peace;
while about
10,000,000,000 individual people who spent time on Earth in the 20th Century killed 18,000,000 = average 0.0018 murders per person.
[all numbers approximate]
1,250,000 killed per government / 0.0018 per individual = 694,444,444 times
(rounds out to Seven-hundred-million)
An average government is Seven-hundred-million times more dangerous to an average individual, than is another average individual.

Nov. 17 2013 10:42 AM
Faye from Austin

I live in a state that allows people who have a permit to carry a gun by-pass security to get into the Texas State Capitol while those of us who do not have to go through a security scan.
As to the NRA they have the finest state representatives that money can buy. There will be no change in gun control as long as they have such a large purse.

Nov. 17 2013 10:39 AM

People in uniforms carrying guns can be much more dangerous than civilians.
Gun Owner error 2%
Police error 11%
Police officers have five times the error rate of shooting the wrong person as civilians.
That's probably because a gun-carrying civilian sees, or is the intended victim of, the crime he is thwarting. The bad guy is likely to be the one demanding his money.
The police are injected into the scene later, without knowing who the bad guy is, without knowing who is the threat to themselves. So a story of the plainclothes officer shot by his comrades is far more common than an officer being shot by an armed witness.
In most civilian defensive gun uses, a mere display of the gun is sufficient to cause the felon to depart, without shots fired.
Armed civilians are safer than trained police. The police can't be everywhere. Armed citizens could be, if allowed.

Nov. 17 2013 10:37 AM
mary Weddig from Oshkosh WI

Some thoughts on open carry, there's a reason people (especially people with a legitimate reason to carry weapons) wear uniforms, so as not to instill the fear that goes along with seeing weaspons being carried openly. Two guys walking the Appleton Farmers Market openly carrying ak47s does one thing for me, make me afraid.

Having grown up in the 50s and 60s and going to UW Madison in the turbulent years, there was a visceral reaction to seeing the National Guard in the streets in armed vehicle carrying rifles. I felt the same thing after 9/11 when traveling in airports that were filled with armed soldiers. But at least they were organized and controlled. Which brings me to what open carry leads to: anarchy.

Its funny, we toyed with anarchy in the 60s but had enough sense to learn from history that in civilization there is a place for government, law and order, and justice. lots of people, not in uniform, running around with guns (and generally, talking about less or no government) strikes me of anarchy and the law of the street. So, which guy with a gun do I trust?

Wyatt Earp had gunmen check in their weapons at the town line. I still think that is a sound rule. Trust the guy with the star?

Finally, Guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people. People without guns do that too, but only one at a time.

Nov. 17 2013 07:47 AM
Red Neck from Nevada

I was surprise by Bob Garfield's obvious intent in this article, repeatedly hammering the phrase "assault weapons" and remarking that there were new murders with "assault weapons" every day. I expect more accuracy and insight from NPR -- can Bob give an accurate description of what an "assault weapon" is that makes meaningful distinction between it and a hunting rifle? Can you please tell us just how many people have actually been killed by "assault rifles" in the past five years? I think that most listeners would be taken aback to learn that, even including recent high-profile attacks, long guns of any kind are rarely used in any crime.

Thanks to the guest, Ms Lithwick, for discussing this topic in an accurate and factual manner. The question of the intent and result of open-carry demonstrations makes for a fascinating discussion, but only when it is not caught up in uninformed anti-gun hysteria.

Nov. 16 2013 06:23 PM

Here in Wisconsin we have gun nuts "making a statement" by carrying AR-15 rifles to places like the Appleton Farmer's Market and daring the police to confront them.

I hope they continue to push the point because it's creating awareness of and backlash against the recently enacted concealed carry in Wisconsin. Even a die-hard hunter I know told me "We never meant to encourage THIS kind of stupid behavior! I guess the law has to be reconsidered."

Nov. 16 2013 02:51 PM
katya rogers from NYC

LA pel - click on the play icon on the homepage (its right next to the words "this weeks show"). The pop up player will load with the whole show. Theres also a player on the show page itself.
Thanks for sticking with us despite WBUR's time change!
OTM senior producer

Nov. 16 2013 10:39 AM
L A Pel

OTM: Great program, but it's broadcast here, north of Boston, at 6am (with the other religious programs!). How do I click to listen to the whole program each week, rather than needing to return to my pc for restarting for each topic? -- This is the same problem as many other PBS programs, like "All things considered", each afternoon. Each item must be clicked separately, even if it only run and minute or two. There's no way to click and listen to the whole program.
My thanks for your help.

Nov. 16 2013 08:33 AM
Marty Siegrist from Michigan

Sorry, but I see the carrying of guns in this situation as having a chilling effect on free speech, rather than being free speech. To claim otherwise is disingenuous, at best. It's reminiscent of those who used to say that certain policies that, in practice, led to racial discrimination, were okay as long as that wasn't the intent. Or of those who claim that increasingly cumbersome voter ID requirements are intended to prevent voter fraud, not to suppress certain voting segments.

Nov. 16 2013 07:33 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.