Guns and Speech, Gunslingers and Writers

Patrick Blanchfield examines some of the troubling constitutional questions raised by the gun-toting folks who showed up to protect Cliven Bundy in Nevada:

According to open carry advocates, their presence in public space represents more than just an expression of their Second Amendment rights, it’s a statement, an “educational,” communicative act  — in short, an exercise of their First Amendment freedom of speech. (See this, from the group Ohio Carry, and this Michigan lawsuit.)

This claim bears serious consideration.  The First Amendment has historically been much harder to limit than the Second, and so extending the freedom of speech to the open display of weapons raises several urgent questions about how we understand the relationship between expressing ideas and making threats, between what furthers dialogue and what ends it.

But are guns speech?  Is carrying a weapon as an act of public protest constitutionally protected under the First Amendment? And if so, what do guns say?

These are very important questions and they deserve a serious answer. Much to the relief of gun advocates everywhere, I will argue the analogy holds quite well.

Guns are pens, pencils, styluses, word processors, take your pick; bullets are their words; gun users are writers. Those who use guns are rightly distinguished by their manner of employing them. For instance, your garden-variety, pistol-packin’ gunslinger is akin to a popular tabloid writer, perhaps emptying a few magazines–see what I did there?–in the direction of the target of his polemics; the sharpshooter armed with a high-powered rifle is a much more accomplished wordsmith, able to use expensive precision equipment with style and delicacy alike to bring down his quarry. (Remember how we used to speak of the ‘cut, thrust, and parry’ of verbal jousters? Swords, foils, and rapiers then, guns now.)

Many words of wisdom, dispensed to writers and sharpshooters, are analogous to each other. For instance, the sage advice that you should wait till you can ‘see the whites of their eyes’ is like telling a writer to wait for the right moment to publish his book or essay or blog post, or share it on Facebook or Twitter (the wise ones always share links during work hours, when you can be sure the salaried worker is busy killing time with social media.) Sometimes, just like in writing, you should show, not tell; let folks know you are carrying heat; there is no need to say any more.

Brevity in gunfire, as in writing, is always appreciated: don’t be profligate in your consumption of ammunition; never use two words to do what you can do with one. After all, a well-placed bullet between the eyes is always better than spraying a whole clip of ammo at the target; you are more likely to go home with a kill that day.

Who are the readers? The targets, of course. A good writer needs good readers. And good shooters need good targets, a fact we are always reminded of whenever we see those wonderful photographs of hunters standing over their dead prey–such noble, brave, beautiful, splendid animals, their brains blown out and splattered all over the ground.

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