There are a number of essential principles that compose the fabric of who we are as a citizenry: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom to wear white after Labor Day. These are the freedoms on which we agree—and many would say the agreement ends there (even if “winter white” continues to be divisive). We are bitterly divided on reproductive rights, on gay rights and on what one might term as gun rights. These topics of debate are united by the same fundamental tension—the pull between freedom and the limitations on freedom for the sake of security. How much of one must we give up in order to receive an adequate proportion of the other?
The answer isn’t easy, and it varies very much depending on whom you ask and where you ask it. There are some (here’s lookin’ at you, Pauls Rand and Ron) who believe in the paramount importance of unfettered freedom, and still others who believe in that same freedom with some key exceptions. And neither gay nor reproductive rights ever threaten physical security; rather, there are certain sectors of the population who see the exertion of those rights as a threat to the security of our national values. But the question shouldn’t be the relative importance of one over the other, freedom versus security. I think it’s fair to say no one’s a big fan of dystopian, Orwellian-Leninist-Huxleian totalitarianism, or that a rabid and chaotic state-of-nature scenario in which we fend each other off with pointy sticks is preferable either. The question can’t be the relative virtue of one side over the other—security or freedom. The dynamic is only relevant when placed in the background of the specific issue in question.
The three key issues in which the freedom-security dynamic is most important are also the issues that are most divisive: gay marriage, abortion and guns. But the reason why context (as always) is king is that the relative importance of both ends of the freedom-security spectrum is entirely different from one situation to another. It is a denial of a woman’s freedom to prevent her from terminating a pregnancy; it is a denial of a gay person’s freedom to deny him or her the benefits of a legally recognized marriage; and yes, it is a denial of a potential gun owner’s freedom to deny him or her the chance to buy one. But the first two issues are radically different from the third—the idea that freedom is freedom in any case doesn’t stand up to reality. It actively harms women and gay people to deny them their freedoms in their respective situations; it does not affect anyone else for a woman to make decisions about her own body, or for a loving and committed gay couple to celebrate their union and receive the same legal benefits as a loving, committed straight couple. Guns, even in their most light-hearted and sportsmanlike contexts, affect everyone. (Dick Cheney and everyone he’s ever gone hunting with know what I’m talking about.)
If you don’t like abortion, don’t have an abortion. If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay-married. But this is not a thread of logic that applies to gun control; non-participation wasn’t really an option if you were trying to catch a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Colorado or go to school in Connecticut. My marrying someone of my own gender or undergoing a medical procedure does not affect you. Your purchase of an assault rifle that can very easily get into the wrong hands, and wind up in a movie theater, elementary school or college campus, very much affects me. It is not enough to simply say that freedom is paramount, and that a restriction of our ability to purchase guns is a restriction of that freedom: Why do you need the freedom to empty 27 rounds in a room crowded with innocent people? Restricting that freedom isn’t retreating from our belief in liberty, it’s confirming our belief in the sanctity of life and the freedom of other people to stay alive.
There are plenty of rights we already suppress: It is suppressing the rights of a crack user to make him stop doing crack, and suppressing the rights of an axe murderer to make her stop murdering people with axes. Sure, these are harmful actions fully brought to fruition—the simple act of owning a gun is not. But can’t we agree that the virtue of preventing senseless acts of murder is worth limiting the gun owner’s rights, just a little? And I don’t want to hear the slippery slope argument, that first we’re limiting guns, now we’re limiting oxygen, now America has transformed into the Third Reich overnight. We have one of the highest rates of gun deaths in the world, one of the highest gun-per-citizen ratios, and the least common sense about the link between deadly assault weapons and our basic civil liberties. We need to fundamentally rethink how we consider security and freedom in this country; without the one, there’s very little use for the other.
Lindsey Barrett is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Friday. You can follow Lindsey on Twitter @lambchop212.