Concerning Colorado and the First Amendment

When tragedy strikes, emotions run high. So does opportunity. When you talk about opportunity, does Texas Republican Louis Gohmert come to mind? Well, it should. He was one of the first (if not the first) from Capitol Hill to speak up on the tragedy in Colorado where over 70 people were wounded and 12 killed during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. Yes, he hit all the talking points his staff put together for him. Attack on religion. Founding fathers’ intentions. Gun control. All part of an opportunity to get firsties on proclaiming the real reason behind this horrible shooting in an Aurora movie multiplex. What struck me hardest in his asshattery was his closing statement in this Huffington Post article:

“It does make me wonder, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy more quickly?”

Fast-forward to the next day where I am enjoying a lovely wine tasting in Leesburg, VA at the Corcoran Vineyard and Brewery.  It’s a nice afternoon with Pip, the Boom, P.J. Schnyder, and Or Draconis (her boyfriend) and good wine. In the midst of Wine #3, another small group joins us. I’m trying desperately not to stare, but one of the newcomers is wearing a tee-shirt nigh impossible to avoid. In huge, black block letters against stark white, his shirt reads:

Where’s Lee Harvey Oswald Now That We Need Him?

Then, on turning around, I get a look at the back design: a generic drawing of a man’s head, a gun sight, and the top portion of the man’s head exploding outward. Complete with blood splatter.

No. Kidding.

This shirt — this douchebag-du-jour shirt — really got to me. It was wrong on many levels, but to wear a statement like this the day after the Colorado shooting took that kind of tact where you cite at an elementary school PTA conference what an upstanding individual JoPa was back in the day.

But I digress…

As angry as this dipshit’s fashion made me, I swallowed my disdain. (I recommend a light dessert wine when chocking on bile.) Why? Because of this:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That is our First Amendment. I love the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. I was always fascinated by it, but grew to love it when I spent a semester studying it at James Madison University. In fact I more than love the First Amendment, I respect it. It is, as my professor told me, the most important of all the amendments of the Constitution. “Why?” he said. “Because of all the items the Founders wanted to add to the Constitution, this one came first.”

So what does the shooting in Colorado, a political opportunist from Texas, and some wingnut whose equally-insensitive friends all looked at him that particular morning and said, “Yeah, that’s perfect to wear the day after a civilian massacre!” have to do with the First Amendment? Hard to see, I know, what with the rage on Facebook and elsewhere concerning our Second Amendment. This newly-fueled “gun control” argument we all had to see coming the moment it was reported that James Holmes legally bought the ammunition and guns used in the shooting.

Point of order here: That’s not what this blogpost is about.

I’m not outraged about my Second Amendment rights being threatened so much as I am outraged at the blatant disrespect people have concerning the First Amendment; and submitted as Evidence D (for dickheads): Westboro Baptist Church is threatening to protest the upcoming Aurora memorial service while praising Holmes’ actions online.

These isolated expressions are all protected by the First Amendment. Period. It’s truly a beautiful thing because there are countries and governments that would go out of their way to quash such sentiments, and it truly is an inspiring thing that we as a country have such a wonderful privilege. However, in light of these cited expressions, I find myself asking because we have that right to speak our mind, does that mean we should?

Even this is protected.

As Uncle Ben told Peter (in a much better Spider-Man film) “With great power comes great responsibility.” and I am astounded at the lack of responsibility with which people handle the First Amendment. There is this understood belief that “It’s there so I’ll use it…” but that’s a belief born of callousness. The truth is, cupcake, you really need to consider what words come flying out of your mouth — particularly now — at such a time when we’re reeling from the actions of one unstable individual. And when idiots from both sides of the political fence wrap themselves in American flags and start quoting the Founding Fathers, that should be the moment to stop and ask “Hold on — were the Founding Fathers smarter than me? After all, they wrote the Constitution and the Declaration. Maybe they knew something I currently don’t?”

I guarantee you: They did.

Speak your mind. Speak your heart. It’s your Constitutional right, but consider how responsible you are with your words. Practice your First Amendment, but practice responsibly. Do you need to choose and pick your words carefully all the time? Of course not. But when the cameras are rolling, yes, you might want to think “Am I ready to share this with the world?” Should I question my taste in clothes? What you wear is an expression in itself. You’re your own. Do you think, though, in the wake of a tragedy like Colorado, a mock-bloodstained tee-shirt that reads “But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” would be appropriate? Exercise your First Amendment right, but have a care. It plays into the debate currently at large.

How so?

Jumping back to Gohmert’s quote:

“It does make me wonder, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy more quickly?”

Allow me paint a scene for you: You are going out to see a movie. Midnight showing. You’re looking forward to the night out and, as it is your habit, you not only wear your best ensemble, you also strap on your Smith & Wesson 38. (It’s quite the conversation starter with your date, it turns out.) You and your date settle in for the movie with popcorn and soda; and, following an onslaught of trailers, the lights dim further. The movie begins. About 20 minutes into the feature, you hear from the front of the theatre a loud noise and few startled screams. Then smoke starts to fill your theatre, and that’s when gunfire starts. You draw your weapon.

You are in a darkened theatre. People are screaming and running for the exits. There’s gunfire, and your target is dressed in black. There is also smoke in the air. (Since no one can confirm tear gas was used, let’s just say it was a smoke bomb.) You don’t dare use your laser sight as it would give your position away…or maybe the laser sight clashed with your shirt —  regardless, you don’t have one. There is chaos around you, you’re in the dark, and all you know is the guy is at the front of the theatre, dressed all in black. That is all you know.

So I ask — Can you put him down without putting down innocent bystanders?

Now before you answer me or call me a “dumbass, tree-hugging, screaming anti-gun Liberal” know this: I have some weapons training. Limited. Less than the basics, and it’s been a while so I’m in need of a brush-up. (And I have a standing invitation to visit a friend’s gun range. Just have to set the date.) I don’t own any guns, but I do respect them. Could I make that shot? No. I most certainly couldn’t.

Now, I ask again — could you get in that clean shot?

Before you answer, check your I.D. right now. If you can’t tell me your name is either “Jason F. Bourne” or “James F. Bond” (you know what the “F” stands for), it’s a safe bet you can’t make that shot. I have friends in the military or have previously served (thank you) in the armed forces. Out of them, I would trust  “Wired Pig”  to make that shot. But I can’t answer for him, so I’ll call him out — Wired Pig, could you?

This is why I won’t be abusing my First Amendment right and screaming “WE NEED MORE GUN CONTROL!” or “GUNS ARE OUR SECOND AMENDMENT RIGHT!” because put in that situation — a darkened theatre, smoke bomb, and a target dressed in black — neither answer makes this situation better. More gun control? Why? Because it worked so well earlier in Colorado, or closer to home at Virginia Tech? More guns? So we can turned a darkened theatre into a gunfight at the O.K. Corral? Yes, I have the freedom and the right to speak up, but should I? Maybe, instead of not knowing what the real solution is and just kicking a wasp nest, I should STFU and think of the victims. Yes, I have the freedom and the right to speak up, but should I, if I know I am talking about something I know nothing about?

So unless you are serving on Seal Team Six or have been under fire before and know without question you can make this call, consider the statements you want to make. Speak loud. Speak freely. Speak knowledgeably.

But above all, speak responsibly. As a writer, I know — words can carry a lasting impression.

14 thoughts on “Concerning Colorado and the First Amendment

  1. I stand corrected.

    There are two friends I would trust to make that call on the “clean shot” in a darkened movie theatre. Due to the sensitive nature of his job, he can’t comment here, but he did give me permission to post here on his behalf:

    “I read your post, and really enjoyed it. We all seem to be wrapped up around the idea that we can say what we want, and either the constitution or the Internets will protect us. No one seems to ever think about what we SHOULD be saying, instead of what we CAN say.

    I know for a fact I couldn’t make that shot, 10 times out of 10. Maybe 8, more or less. It depends on too many factors. I wouldnt take the shot unless that perfect storm of factors aligned itself and I find myself less that 20 yards away with nothing between me and him, and nothing but a blank wall behind him to catch the bullet fragments and brain matter.

    I have pointed a gun in anger at someone, once, and let me tell you it’s a horrible experience. I consider myself quite lucky that I didn’t have to pull the trigger. I think I would have been quite a different person afterwards. But in those seconds that seemed like hours when I’m deciding wether or not I need to end this person’s life, It’s amazing the amount of factors I was running through in my head. Is my gun loaded? Is my gun off safe? am I really sure he’s reaching for a gun? Where’s my fire team partner? Is he safe? what’s behind the target? is there anyone else back there? Why am I not moving to cover? Why am I still screaming at him, he doesn’t speak english? Is that the gun coming out from under his coat? Is my section here yet? Finger on trigger, sights lined up…….

    It’s a business card. He wants a job. Begin shaking like an inbred dog. The idea of taking a shot in a crowded, panicked theatre without the perfect storm lining up to me seems crazy. I could never do it.

    And another point, To the people who think that whole citizenry should be armed to stop crime where they see it: Didn’t we try that in Florida just a few months ago? Ask Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Martin how well that worked out for them.

    And on a technical, geeky note: A projected laser in that theatre would not have worked well. The smoke would have diffracted the light in the beam and filled the cloud with light. Now, a holographic style sight that projects the laser dot onto a small screen or pane would have worked wonders. Just my $0.02.

    Thanks for writing this important article.”

    Thanks for the comment.

  2. Point of order. It wouldn’t have taken a well placed shot to take this idiot down. With that much battle gear on, he couldn’t see except straight in front of him anyway. A well placed dropkick from the rear would have done the trick.

    That being said, I agree about idiots on both sides wrapping themselves in a blood-splattered flag.

  3. From playing paintball I can say I might have a chance of making that shot in a well lit theater with the rest of the factors the same with a paintball marker (which has 0 recoil and less than a 1% chance of killing someone). In the dark where there’s a greater risk of hurting a bystander nope ain’t happening. With a Firearm and the chance to not only hurt but kill a bystander no freaking way. I’d freeze even thinking about touching a gun. That set of circumstances my only instinct would be to move wife and kids behind me and pray if a bullet came near that it’d get stopped in me. The only person I know that I think has a chance at that shot is a tower guard for a state prison but considering he has to qualify as a marksman every year and is trained in case something similar happens I think he’s got an unfair advantage but I don’t think he’d risk the shot unless he had to in those conditions.

    But that wasn’t what I really wanted to comment on. In our age today words are weapons. We can easily cause damage and havoc and just as easily cause the end of human life with the wrong words at the wrong time. The wrong ideas at the wrong time. The wrong shout in the middle of a crowd can turn them into a mob. That’s what people like westboro do. The incite a crowd to mob violence then sue the pants off everyone they can. Another part of free speech is we get to ignore what the asshats say. We don’t have to listen to them we don’t have to let their words incite us to stupidity. We may have to let them talk but that doesn’t mean we have to sit there and listen.

  4. I believe Free Speech was granted so that the citisenry could speak out against the government without fear of reprisal. Doesn’t mean you go about spewing idiocy. Similar to what Richard says, there’s a reason you can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. Good thoughts. It’s why I took that Liam Neeson/Taken meme pic I shared about Dark Knight spoilers. After I found out about the shooting I took it down because at that point it was bad taste.

    • What I don’t understand is that there are “time, place and manner” restrictions on the First Amendment with no problem. For example, you need a permit for a parade, only during certain hours, police detail to control crowds, etc. Try having a parade down your street with your friends at 2:00 in the morning and freedom of speech becomes disturbing the peace. But, everybody’s OK with that because we have the opportunity to speak, protest, wear idiot shirts, etc. within these reasonable well-defined limits. Now why the heck can’t we have similar restrictions for the Second Amendment? You can keep your guns in your home, locked up and loaded for when “they” come to get you, otherwise I don’t want to see them, I don’t want my kids to see them and I sure as shit don’t want a f—ing gunfight when I go to the movies. A permit to own, a license to carry, an ID to buy ammunition are reasonable restrictions comparable to restrictions on the First Amendment. See, now you got me going . . . Thanks, Tee.

  5. First, let’s agree to stipulate that there’s plenty of idiocy, misinformation, and opportunism on both sides of whatever aisle you want to pay attention to, as there will be during a tragedy like this. There are plenty of people who believe you should “never let a serious crisis go to waste”, and the letter behind their name is largely academic.
    People sometimes confuse “free speech” with “consequence-free speech”. As in, “I should be able to say whatever comes into my head, and no one has a right to call me on it or be mean to me about it.” Which is obviously wrong. Words mean things. And they have consequences. Partly, they reveal who the speaker is. And that’s a data point that lets people decide how much we want to associate ourselves with whoever’s speaking. That’s just the way it is.
    Sometimes I’ll read something someone’s said and shake my head and wonder how they ever got that idea and if what they have is contagious. And sometimes I’ll read something and say “your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.” Or buy your book. Happened to me today.
    Meanwhile, I am constantly reminded how wide the chasm is between what I believe and a lot of the people I follow online believes. And I’m also constantly reminded how rare real conversation is.

  6. An alternate view:

    The day after a tragedy, during orgies of opportunism, is exactly when we need people to “abuse” their free speech. Quick consensus in reaction to tragedy and moral panic have historically created incredible problems in this country, including at least two wars that, in retrospect, were unjust wars (The Spanish-American War and the second Iraq war). Americans are at their worst when they move together, as one, in common cause and outrage.

    Americans are best, on the other hand, when the public square is filled to bursting with argument, douchebaggery, satire, thoughtful dialogue, and blog posts like this one. The quality of speech may vary, but the vibrancy of that speech and our stiff-necked sense of entitlement about it is one of the fundamental things that keeps Americans fighting, time and again, against the encroachment of tyranny.

    That said, like you I don’t think a lot of it is particularly pleasant or much less than morally repugnant. I *hate* moral panics, I *detest* people that score political points from the death of other, and I get nauseated to my toes at all the dime-store sociology that every moron with a microphone’s been engaging in the last few days (and will keep engaging in for the next week or two). It’s beyond grotesque, and because it so disgusts me, I’m deliberately avoiding the news for a while.

    But as much as the content and tenor disgusts me, the fact that we’re still a country of belligerent assholes who will speak our minds without fear, no matter who it offends, gives me a great amount of hope.

    Thanks for the post, Tee. Keep giving that Bill of Rights a workout! :-) ::solidarity::

    -Dan

  7. I am surprised that whenever something like the Aurora shooting happens, people come out of the woodwork saying “take away the guns”. Taking away guns won’t stop people from killing. It may not even stop them from shooting into crowds. The problem isn’t the tools that people use, but the purpose to which they turn those tools.

    The more I think on it, the more I find that these kinds of public acts of violence are indicators that America needs better mental health care. As citizens, we need to be more concerned with the well being of the people around us. Someone doesn’t just snap one day and start killing strangers. It is something that builds up over time. Stress upon stress upon stress. Wouldn’t it be better for someone under those circumstances to be able to get the help, the support that they need to stay healthy?

    Many people claim that America is a “Christian nation”, but we appear to have an over-abundance of indifference to our fellow man. Isn’t time for us to learn to care for each other?

    Doc

  8. Generally, people don’t just snap. There are such a thing as psychopaths, though, and better mental health infrastructure certainly would help identify them now that we’re learning how to test for it.

    • People do snap, but it never happens for no reason. If one looks into the person’s history, you almost always find long periods of unrelieved stress that leads up to the final break.

      And, there are usually people who see the signs, but decide that someone else’s stress is not their problem. *sigh*

      Doc

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