Will the Second Amendment Soon Become a Thought Crime?
If you think that the American media’s relentless attacks on the right to keep and bear arms represent a credible threat to the Second Amendment now, just wait until they come to realize that, instead of merely proselytizing against your rights, they can turn your support for them into a “thought crime.”
Over the last few years, politicians from a handful of states have gotten into the bad habit of teaming up with the media, academia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and key parts of corporate America, and of using the remarkable power of their alliance to contrive and promulgate political narratives that, even a few weeks earlier, had been on virtually nobody’s radar. In 2017, this team brought us the Trump-Russia Collusion hoax, which started as a salacious and unsubstantiated rumor but quickly became all Washington, D.C., was interested in talking about. That fake narrative was broadcast during every news program; it was conveyed during a lot of professional sports telecasts; it was featured in corporate press releases; it was appended to the splash pages and login forms of widely used websites; it was woven into the algorithms of streaming services and search engines and online stores. Its scope, in short, was astonishing.
This could also happen with guns and our Second Amendment rights. And when such an orchestrated effort comes, they will work overtime to make it just as all-consuming. They’ve already been trying. Every time a mass-murderer attacks—almost always in a so-called “gun-free” zone—the same cabal of media, entertainment personalities and politicians who want to disarm America’s armed citizens try to create a feverish movement to force through gun bans and more.
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The only reason this trick has not yet resulted in major new national gun-control legislation is because gun owners have organized themselves. Still, the players necessary for such a push—politicians in anti-Second Amendment states; the White House; many in big tech, academia, the mainstream media and the entertainment industry—are all ready and waiting. They believe that this topic lends itself well to revisionism and mass hysteria. And, because the political will to achieve what its practitioners want to achieve simply does not exist, an end-run around the process is unusually tempting to them.
Practically speaking, this play might take many forms. If they wished to, online behemoths such as Google, Facebook and YouTube could demonetize or bar any user (or bury/misdirect searches) who expressed support for the individual right to bear arms, or even anyone who showed a mere interest in it, on the grounds that such support was “ahistorical” (“misinformation”) or “violent” (“unsafe”). If they decided to, universities and TV stations could reflexively append the word “denier” or “hater” to any figure who opposes gun control, and effectively shut a super-majority of the population out of the national conversation. If they were so inclined, America’s streaming services could refuse to carry any material that contained pro-Second Amendment sentiments, while relentlessly promoting content that called for stricter regulation, or even full prohibition.
Does that sound far-fetched? If so, may I ask why? To my eyes, at least, the last few years have made it abundantly clear that if our elite class wished to go down this road with vigor, it could do so at a moment’s notice. Indeed, if we have learned anything at all from the last decade, it is that the cultural power wielded by a handful of American industries is extremely difficult to resist, and that the tools that those industries use in pursuit of their aims are so flexible that they resemble a blank check. Bluntly put, the truth doesn’t enter into it; what matters is what a handful of potent institutions decide the truth needs to be.
During the 2020 election, the news of Hunter Biden’s laptop needed to be treated as “misinformation,” so it was—even though it turned out to be entirely true. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, any criticism of the government’s approach needed to be treated as “misinformation,” so they were—even though much of that criticism proved to be correct. In 2017, skepticism toward the wild claim that the president of the United States was a Russian asset needed to be treated as “misinformation,” so it was—even though that skepticism was so obviously accurate as to defy belief.
“Safety,” likewise, has proven endlessly pliable. For years—on college campuses, in major newspapers and on the big-tech platforms—all manner of words and ideas have been labeled as “unsafe,” but then thrown out as soon as it ceased to suit the politics of the administrators. To believe that these protean weapons could not be aimed squarely at the Second Amendment is naïve in the extreme.
We cannot stop the gun-control movement from attempting to make windows into our souls, but we can board up those windows.
In fact, on a smaller scale, the process has already begun. The press already pretends that the Second Amendment is a far-fetched invention of a “right-wing” Supreme Court; it already insists that the Gun Violence Archive is a reliable source; and it already promotes descriptions of how guns work that have absolutely no relation to reality or elementary physics. Online advertisers already punish websites and content-creators who debate or review firearms. Social-media sites, such as Facebook, already have stricter rules governing the discussion and transaction of legal firearms than they do governing illegal drugs. And a handful of states—the ones in which every bad gun-control idea tends to originate—are already pushing to include individuals’ social-media histories in their permit-application processes.
Together, these developments represent a considerable threat to the future of the right to keep and bear arms. The attempt to cast pro-gun voices out of polite society is a straight-up cultural play, the obvious aim of which is to weaken the ability of pro-Second Amendment figures to make their case in the public square. They thereby want to turn America’s hundred-million-plus gun owners into a fringe group that is relegated to the margins of public life.
Despite the many important legal victories that have been won over the last two decades, the renaissance in the right to keep and bear arms has primarily been driven from the ground up—by the people. Alarmed by the prospect that a key part of the U.S. Bill of Rights was on the verge of being read entirely out of the U.S. Constitution, advocates of the Second Amendment did the work: They did research, made arguments, knocked on doors, joined the NRA, voted in elections and called their elected officials until, eventually, they achieved real change at all levels of government. The attempt to remove these voices from the digital space represents nothing more sophisticated than an attempt to reverse this momentum in any way possible, and to send a signal to those on the fence that, if they seek to join in, they will be penalized for it.
The attempt to punish would-be permit-holders for their political views serves as the practical arm of this push. After the Bruen decision was issued in 2022, the State of New York enacted a law that requires all applicants for a concealed-carry permit to furnish “a list of former and current social-media accounts” to state police. According to the architects of the law, the purpose of this provision is to help authorities judge the “character and conduct” of a given applicant. But this, of course, is extraordinarily subjective. Leaving aside the obvious constitutional problems that attach to any system in which applicants are adjudicated on the basis of their particularized characteristics rather than of their compliance with a neutral set of rules, there is simply no way of narrowing down the definitions to the point at which they would rule out abuse.
“Character and conduct” are in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, they cover real threats. But, in the wrong hands, they could also cover religious beliefs, political views, tone of voice and so forth. The key distinction between a right and privilege is that rights are maintained by those citizens whom the government dislikes and privileges are not. Ultimately, the inclusion of private opinions within the permit-review process helps the opponents of the Second Amendment both coming and going: Not only is the state accorded the opportunity to exclude those it disdains from the exercise of their constitutional rights, but those who might want to exercise those rights in the future are incentivized to keep quiet lest their words be arbitrarily used against them. The effect, by design, is to chill the use of this right.
In California, legislators have pushed for a slightly different approach toward the same end: Instead of attempting to punish thought crimes, as New York has, California has considered experimenting with pre-crime. In 2019, for example, then-Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D) introduced a measure that would have added a new class of non-violent misdemeanors that would have resulted in a 10-year ban on the possession of firearms. Among the misdemeanors were public intoxication, disorderly conduct and driving under the influence. Naturally, one does not need to approve of public intoxication, disorderly conduct or driving under the influence to understand that the logic undergirding this bill is terrifying. In effect, Sen. Jackson was assuming that a person who has demonstrated a willingness to break laws that society considers to be relatively minor will, in the future, demonstrate a willingness to break laws that society considers to be relatively major.
This is not how the law works in a free country. If California wishes to treat public intoxication, disorderly conduct or driving under the influence as felonies, then it ought to treat them as felonies. But it cannot have it both ways—keeping them as misdemeanors in the schedule, except for their effect on the right to keep and bear arms. Vetoing a similar measure the prior year, then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said, “I am not persuaded that it is necessary to bar gun ownership on the basis of crimes that are non-felonies, non-violent and do not involve misuse of a firearm.” Indeed, it is not. Unless, of course, the aim isn’t to police crime, but to provide yet another pretext for disarmament.
Second Amendment advocates ought to respond to these threats in two distinct ways. Culturally, we must continue to discredit institutions that have exposed themselves as dishonest actors; meanwhile, we must back alternatives that can pick up the slack where necessary. When organizations such as Facebook and YouTube demonetize or penalize firearms-based content, they are flying in the face of political trends, which have been toward more Second Amendment freedom—and a more diverse gun-owner demographic—not the other way around. If, in a fit of ideological pique, those companies wish to alienate the majority, that is their prerogative. But they can only do so without hurting themselves if there is no ready substitute to which the dispossessed may flock. Those substitutes exist. We must ready them and use them.
On the legal side, we must keep pushing to institute systems that cannot be hijacked by the would-be thought police. Ultimately, subjective judgments are possible only where rights have not been fully guaranteed. Constitutional carry cannot be hijacked, because there is no permitting process to corrupt. “Shall issue” cannot be hijacked in the way that “may issue” can, because it does not allow space for government officials to insert their own opinions. We cannot stop the gun-control movement from attempting to make windows into our souls, but we can board up those windows.
By now, the outlines of the playbook have been made clear. There is no excuse for us to be unprepared if it comes.
Article by CHARLES C. W. COOKE