by Tim Cushing from TechDirt
Legislation arising from tragedies is almost uniformly bad. One need only look at the domestic surveillance growth industry kick started by the Patriot Act to see that fear-based legislation works out very badly for constituents.
A few New York lawmakers are reacting to the horrific Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a gun control bill that makes zero sense. Expanding on criminal background checks, these legislators are hoping to give law enforcement the opportunity to dig through gun buyers’ online history.
Eric Adams, the president of Brooklyn Borough, and state Senator Kevin Palmer are currently writing the proposed legislation, which would give law enforcement authorities the power to check up to three years of an individual’s social media accounts and internet search history before they are allowed to buy a gun, WCBS Newsradio 880 reported. One of the main aims is to identify any hate speech shared by the users, as the politicians noted that such offensive comments are generally only discovered after mass shootings occur.
The facile explanation for this ridiculous piece of legislation is this: somehow the Pittsburgh shooter might have been prevented from buying a gun because he posted anti-Semitic content to a social media platform.
This premise will only make sense to those incapable of giving it more than a superficial examination. First off, gun ownership is Constitutionally-protected, whether these legislators like it or not. It doesn’t make sense to abridge someone’s rights over social media posts, even if the posts contain bigoted speech. That speech is also protected by the Constitution, so combining the two simply doubles the chance the law will be struck down as unconstitutional. Plenty of people engage in ignorant bigotry. Not all of them are would-be criminals.
This law would treat every gun buyer as a suspected criminal who may only take advantage of their guaranteed rights by engaging in government-approved speech. That’s completely the wrong way around. This Brooklyn lawmaker doesn’t seem to understand this inversion even when he directly, if inadvertently, addresses it.
“If the police department is reviewing a gang assault, a robbery, some type of shooting, they go and do a social media profile investigation,” the borough president pointed out.
Yes. But in these cases, a criminal act has occurred and an investigation is warranted. This legislative proposal treats gun buying as a crime and people’s social media history as some weird form of evidence. That’s fucked up, no matter how you might feel about the Second Amendment. Lots of shitposting and venting can look dangerous if viewed solely in the context of finding a reason to deny someone a gun.
Then there’s the still unaddressed question of what law enforcement is supposed to do if it decides someone’s social media posts are worrying enough they should be denied gun ownership. Are officers supposed to head out and arrest this person for being aggressively racist? Is that where this is headed? Are these legislators actually going to enable literal policing of speech?
And how is this supposed to be accomplished? Would potential gun buyers be forced to relinquish account info and passwords to ensure law enforcement is able to see everything purchasers have posted?
These are all worrying questions, none of which anyone involved with this bill seems to have answers for. Sure, it’s still early the legislative process, but these lawmakers are speaking about it publicly using specious reasoning and inapt comparisons. This suggests they like the idea they’ve had, but haven’t really thought about it past the point of “the Pittsburgh shooter posted racist memes, therefore this would definitely work.”
This quote, given to the New York Post, adds more words but no more clarity. And it certainly doesn’t do what Eric Adams claims it does:
Adams said the bills take the First Amendment right to free speech and the Second Amendment right to bear arms into the equation.“We’re not talking about a person advertising ‘I hate a particular elected official. I hate a policy that’s passed,’” Adams said. “If there’s something that a law enforcement officer of a reasonable mind reviewed that shows this person does not hold the mental capacity to own a gun, then he should not be able to get a permit. We should use the same standard that determines whether a police officer can carry a gun.”
It doesn’t take either of those rights into account. It simply says police will now be allowed to view three years of social media history (along with search history from Google, Yahoo, and Bing) to determine gun ownership eligibility. All Adams says is it won’t be used to punish certain protected speech. (And it will be used to punish this specific protected speech because any law that can be abused by the government will be abused by it.)
To add to surreality of the proposal, Gab won’t be included in the social media monitoring despite this being the site where the Pittsburgh shooter posted the comments these legislators point to as the impetus for this terrible legislation.
No matter how it’s pitched, it all comes down to this: no Second Amendment rights for New Yorkers if they don’t use their First Amendment rights in a way their government approves.