After the attacks in El Paso and Dayton, the country should be having two debates: one about gun control, the other about speech control. It’s not enough to know how assailants use firearms. We have to know why they are used.
In a brief speech, President Trump said that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.” And while there’s some truth to that, he completely avoided his own pernicious role in hardening that hatred and aggravating the aggressive tendencies of deranged individuals.
Trump largely avoided another critical factor in explaining what moves people to violence: the growing role of the internet as instigator and incubator of hate speech in general and white supremacism in particular. The so-called “loners” who seem to commit so many of the worst hate crimes are not “loners” at all on the web, but card-carrying members of an online global community that encourages and enables each other’s darkest impulses.
Regulating guns is a lot easier than regulating speech. The right to own a gun does not include the right to harm other people, and the public clearly understands that. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 73 percent of respondents agree that “more needs to be done to address gun violence.” An NPR survey reports that 9 in 10 favor stricter background checks for gun buyers, and 6 in 10 support a ban on assault weapons.
Congress fails to pass these eminently sensible reforms, but these reforms clearly are needed and legally sound.
Policing hate speech is a far more complex problem. Unlike many other countries, the U.S. has a robust tradition of tolerating even the most odious and offensive forms of expression, and we should be proud of that principle. The guns used by the El Paso shooter were a far more tangible threat to public safety than the incoherent manifesto he posted on the scurrilous website 8chan.
No rights are absolute. You cannot use your gun to shoot innocent people, and you cannot use your words to incite violence. But drawing the line between permissible and prohibited speech is excruciatingly difficult. No one pulls the trigger alone.