Hardened Targets: How Expansive Gun Rights Make Us Less Free

photo source: Jacksons Fencing - https://www.jacksons-security.co.uk/News/blog/school-access-control-what-to-consider-6893.aspx

The gun control bill signed by Florida Governor Rick Scott in the wake of the Parkland school mass shooting adopts the much-debated policy of arming at least some teachers. Though the Florida law does contain measures to restrict access to guns and also bans bump stocks, the idea of arming teachers and “hardening” schools against attack is a favorite of those opposing actual restrictions on guns. There is much discussion of the practical difficulties and physical dangers of arming teachers. However, there is also a very troubling irony in the calls by gun rights advocates to fortify schools and other public places.

In his defiant speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, shortly after Parkland, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre fulminated against calls for gun control. He attacked Democrats and gun-control advocates for “hat[ing] individual freedom” and trying to impose a “socialist” agenda. LaPierre declared, “Our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever, and the first to go will be the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Yet LaPierre’s seemingly uncompromising defense of individual liberty was strikingly at odds with his proposal to prevent future school shootings. LaPierre urged, in language repeated almost verbatim by President Donald Trump, that “we must immediately harden our schools,” that our “schools must be the most hardened targets in this country.” Fox News’ Sean Hannity similarly declared, “You’re going to have to secure the perimeter of every school. All points of entry must be secure. You’ve got make sure that there is a system that controls who is going in and out of the building. And in addition to that, you will need a strong, physical security presence.”

This language shows how an unwillingness to curtail gun ownership crowds out our other rights and destroys the foundations of democracy. Indeed, the strident defense of gun rights is a fundamentally authoritarian position.

According to a New York Times report, “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.” Pointing to widespread, largely unrestricted gun ownership in the U.S., authors Max Fisher and Josh Keller note that given the choice between stricter gun laws and more mass shootings, our nation has decided to accept the latter.

The argument for loose gun laws is framed as a matter of liberty. Yet freedom of movement and assembly are also essential to individual liberty. Moreover, the ability for people to assemble in public spaces is crucial for the mutual trust and sense of community that underlie a democratic society. Free movement and assembly depend on the knowledge that the places where we gather are secure from mass, unpredictable violence. The relatively large number of mass shootings in the U.S. and the brutal, devastating nature of these events spreads fear into public places — schools, restaurants, malls, concerts, parks, sidewalks.

Absent efforts to seriously restrict gun ownership, there are two responses. The first is to abandon public life and retreat into privatized, seemingly secure spaces. Fear of crime, for example, has motivated people to move into gated communities, a trend that erodes civic bonds, promotes exclusion and inequality, and restricts freedom of movement. As for our remaining public places, they must become the last and first line of defense against mass shooters. We must “harden” such targets, through armed personnel, locked doors, metal detectors, fences, surveillance equipment, searches of persons and belongings, and restrictions on movement. In either case, we trade away our liberty of assembly, mobility, and privacy.

These measures eerily mirror our response to terrorism. It is one thing, however, to endure invasive, time-consuming procedures at the airport. It is quite another when such measures become part of daily life and public places are turned into the virtual equivalent of armed camps and prisons. The rhetoric used by LaPierre, Trump, Hannity, and others is unsurprisingly militaristic. Their vision is not of a peaceful society where people freely and spontaneously gather, but of a virtual war zone. The NRA’s own apocalyptic advertising, warning of civil chaos, only underscores this image. And the NRA’s virulent attacks on Trump’s critics show how such a dire worldview easily morphs into full-blown authoritarianism.

The process of authoritarian militarization has of course already begun, in response to fears of crime and terrorism, with metal detectors, armed guards, and lockdown drills in schools and surveillance cameras in public places. As we now contemplate fully “hardening” public spaces against would-be shooters, we should consider the impact on individual liberty, on our civic life and sense of community, and indeed on the sorts of virtues and characters that are necessary for citizens of a democratic society. Indeed, we might consider what sorts of views about liberty, democracy, and tyranny are incubated in schools turned into hardened targets.

We should also consider who will bear the brunt of overzealous authoritarian measures. People of color, the disproportionate victims of police violence and harassment and mass incarceration, have already been experiencing a version of the militarized state envisioned by gun rights zealots. As Jamelle Bouie points out, proposals to arm teachers may especially endanger students of color: “Groups at the bottom of American race hierarchy receive the brunt of state violence, full stop. And when you increase the avenues for that violence, you make it more likely that a member of those groups will experience it.”

It is indeed ironic, though perhaps unsurprising, that those who defend virtually unrestricted gun ownership in the name of liberty call for policies that practically guarantee the imposition of tyranny. Those who truly love liberty need to recognize that expansive gun rights are zero sum: they do not enhance our other liberties but destroy them. Gun rights make us less free.

Professor of Government at Hamilton College