The First Amendment Has Restrictions; Why Not the Second?

Photo by author. Art by Yasmin E. Rice, Syncottia, and Ebony Byrd.

“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence”

The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel

This song became the one of the anthems of a protest generation; a generation watching atrocities happen, angry and distressed at the events unfolding in the U.S. and abroad, while the so-called leaders maintained the status quo.

Sound familiar to anyone? Does it resonate with you? In the U.S., we’ve begun a new year riding a wave of mass violence. Surprising? No, not surprising any more. It hasn’t been surprising for a long time now. Horrifying and disheartening? Absolutely. But, there is a way to end all of this. There is a reasonable argument for federal gun control legislation.

At last count, I’ve written at least five articles/essays/insert noun of choice here, about gun violence, most specifically about mass shootings. Numerous others, more famous and probably more erudite than I, have written or talked about, and continue to write and talk about this same topic. All of it seems to fall on deaf ears. We are often only reaching those that already agree with us.

But, according to a 2022 Quinnipiac University poll, nearly three in four Americans support raising the minimum age to purchase guns, 92% support universal background checks for all gun buyers, and over 80% support red flag laws that allow people to petition for the removal of weapons from a person at-risk for violent behavior. But, despite the mind-boggling number of mass shootings that occur in our country, only 50% of Americans polled support a federal assault rifle ban. This is the lowest level of support for a federal assault weapons ban since 2013. Even at its lowest level, it still means that fully half the country supports banning these kinds of weapons. What these numbers seem to show, and I am absolutely guessing about this, is that people clearly support restrictions to the Second Amendment, but find an all-out ban on any time of weapon to be a step too far.

I will end with a humble thought regarding our enumerated rights in the Constitution. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights gives people the right to a free press, free speech, free assembly, the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and freedom of religion (including freedom from religion.) But, and here’s the important part, none of those rights are absolute. They come with restrictions that deal with public safety (incitement of violence, fighting words), victimization of those who cannot consent (child pornography and obscenity), the ability to protect one’s reputation from lies (fraud), and the right to not have any one religion imposed upon citizens by our government.

If those rights exist, but are not absolute, why can we not have reasonable restrictions placed on the Second Amendment via federal gun control legislation, like those suggested in the Quinnipiac poll referenced above? The victims of mass shootings are unable to consent. They are allowed an assumption of safety in public spaces and thus assault-style weapons present a “clear and present danger” to our citizens.

Americans, as we can see from the above poll numbers, overwhelmingly support gun control laws. Our lawmakers don’t seem to care. They talk in circles, send their thoughts and prayers, and blatantly ignore our protestations.