What happened in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday was a national tragedy. It was not, however, the work of inflammatory rhetoric from the right, left, or anywhere else. Nor would it have been prevented if Arizona had harsher gun laws. Drawing on these false sources of blame, two congressmen have proposed separate pieces of legislation—one against speech, the other against guns—that will curtail constitutionally protected freedoms without deterring future attacks.
Members of the media and government have been quick to point to Sarah Palin’s now-infamous crosshairs map as an example of the kind of violent, extreme dialogue that may have motivated the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. In response, Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) plans to introduce a bill that would criminalize symbolic speech that threatens or could be perceived as threatening public officials. In his own words, his bill would “make it illegal to put crosshairs on a congressman’s district.”
All evidence suggests that Loughner was motivated by fringe ideas of the left, right, and uncategorized variety—not to mention a sense of rejection and a troubled past. But even if Loughner had seen the crosshairs map, a bill that criminalizes such expression is still unwise, and likely unconstitutional. Crosshairs, targets, and similar terms are common and acceptable ways of expressing certain ideas. They are legal and should remain so. The United States is not in the habit of policing thoughts and words.
As a member of the Congress, Brady is sworn to uphold the Constitution and the free speech protections guaranteed therein. Yet when asked about free speech concerns during an appearance on a local Fox station in Philadelphia, he had this to say: “Let the Supreme Court deal with freedom of speech. Let the Supreme Court deal with the Constitution. Congress passes laws. That’s what we do.” Such a dismissive attitude is worrisome and contemptible. How can people be confident that the bill would respect their freedoms when Brady thinks that’s somebody else’s job?
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) plans to introduce similarly reckless and flawed legislation. His bill would make it a crime to knowingly carry a gun within 1,000 feet of certain government officials. This solution contradicts what we know about Loughner—specifically, that he despised and wished to kill a member of Congress. Should we expect him, or someone like him, to obey the laws of members of Congress, when his goal was to kill them?
Loughner would have had little trouble securing a gun, regardless of the state of gun laws. Making something illegal doesn’t mean it suddenly disappears forever. The U.S. government spends billions of dollars prohibiting the possession, sale, and consumption of marijuana, and yet the substance is easily available to anyone who wants it. More dangerous drugs are only marginally harder to obtain. If there’s a demand for something, there’s a way to supply it. This is true whether the thing in question is guns, drugs, alcohol, pornography, violent video games, or some other disfavored item.
At best, then, King’s ban would do nothing to prevent the shooting. At worst, it could interfere with the rights of law-abiding citizens to carry guns, as recognized by the Second Amendment of the Constitution.
If Congress is truly worried that this attack is part of a pattern and their lives are in real peril, it is welcome to increase its security force. The Department of Homeland Security, if it does anything, should protect members of the government. But the solutions proposed by Brady and King will make legislators no safer and everyone a little less free.
Robert Soave is the assistant editor of the Student Free Press Association. He currently resides in Detroit, Michigan.