That Space Between the First and Second Amendment

constitution-day

Today is Constitution Day. Folks at Penn State are reflecting on the space between the First and Second Amendments today. We are also holding a vigil for the 20th anniversary of the HUB shooting. 

This past spring I began serving my four-year term as a supervisor in Ferguson Township. We are the five-person legislative body that deliberates on township governmental matters. While most affairs proceed calmly, we have heated issues too. Our decisions and ordinances aren’t distant in D.C. They are direct. Tempers flare. People insult one another about kids’ soccer, or water, or about land use. This discord can make speech a lot less comfortable and decision-making more difficult. But it cannot silence or destroy our deliberation. The presence or mere threat of a gun can. It does. I submit that the abuse of the Second Amendment threatens our exercise of the First. Here’s why.

Our township meetings are necessarily public to maximize transparency. In the interest of sound decision-making, we speak our minds and listen to presentations from both specialized experts and workaday citizens. We are assembled to listen and deliberate on the matters before us.

I’ve already had the unfortunate experience of wondering whether a citizen was carrying a concealed weapon into meetings. A citizen came to a series of meetings to allege that his second amendment rights had been violated when a gun that he possessed was seized by the police. I learned later that he was a convicted felon who had lost his right to carry a firearm. Without going into too much detail, the first time he spoke, he became agitated, especially as he talked about guns and his alleged right to them. The second and third times he spoke his agitation built up, such that he came very close to threatening us, dangling the possibility that our actions or lack thereof on his requests could lead to some kind of violence. Whether he has a right to a gun or not, the mere threat of a gun is chilling. Right now, I’m questioning whether or not to write this.

Each of the nights that he spoke, he remained in the audience as we deliberated. I watched him. I wondered to myself, Am I going to have to grab my fellow supervisors and run? A woman I know well was in attendance with her five-year-old son. As he spoke I thought, Am I going to have to tackle him so they can escape? Will I die doing that? These are not the thoughts of someone who can deliberate well. These are the thoughts of a stressed person narrowing their decisions because they can’t attend to all of the details. And they are not the thoughts of someone who is safe. These are the thoughts of someone under threat.

I am charged with carrying out transparent deliberation. That charge requires not only the freedom of assembly and speech but a duty to assembly and speech that musn’t be threatened by the dominating tyranny of Second Amendment fundamentalism. I submit, that the right to bear arms must never encroach on our ability to deliberate. A representative republic cannot bear it.

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