Censorship being at its most iniquitous when enforced by men with bayonets, John Stuart Mill’s famous maxim was addressed primarily to the state. “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion,” Mill contended, “and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
Although it is not expressed in legal terms — and it lacks the force of law — a similar principle obtains in civil society, too. After all, a country whose citizens explicitly protected the legality of speech but exhibited no private toleration of the heterodox would soon discover itself a severely dull sort of place. Dissenters, it seems, are vital — not only to shake up society at large but also to ensure that groups composed of similarly thinking members do not stagnate and atrophy. As much as anything, free expression is a cultural habit — and an indispensable one at that.
Thus does the New York Times’ weekend piece on the crucifixion of Dick Metcalf serve as a salutary lesson to us all. Metcalf, a journalist who was summarily dismissed from Guns & Ammo for the high crime of writing an op-ed that deviated mildly from the status quo, was by no means a heretic to his magazine’s cause, nor did he step so far out of line as to render himself incompatible with the movement that the publication represents. A veteran of the gun industry, to which, the Times noted, he “devoted nearly his entire adult life,” Metcalf describes himself as a “Second Amendment fundamentalist.” The man had earned some latitude — a little breathing room in which, his bona fides having been established, he could talk freely. He didn’t get it.
Guns & Ammo is a private outfit, and it can employ whom it wishes. There being no constitutional right to a platform, this is not a First Amendment issue, nor should it be. Nevertheless, it is a cultural issue — and an important one at that. If Guns & Ammo’s business model cannot sustain the publication of a column that mildly deviates from the hardline norm, then its business model is rotten. If the coalition that Guns & Ammo represents is so nervous that it cannot tolerate the expression of an opinion that until 25 years ago was normal even for hardliners, then it is rotten, too. Have it whichever way you like: Either the magazine has an editorial board that makes ugly decisions — firing a man for an article that it elected to publish — or its readers and advertisers are so trigger-happy that the board had no choice but to indulge them. Neither alternative is pretty, and conservatives considering the case might stop and ask themselves whether they are prepared to welcome only absolutists such as myself into their ranks.
Rereading Dick Metcalf’s much-maligned column, I was struck by how neatly his case demonstrates the virtue of keeping around people who are prepared to buck the trend. Metcalf makes some glaring mistakes: He suggests stupidly that “well regulated” means “regulated” in the modern sense of that word; he ventures the fatuous “but we regulate cars!” analogy; and he repeats the erroneous “fire in a theater” line. Nevertheless, his complaint that “way too many gun owners still seem to believe that any regulation of the right to keep and bear arms is an infringement” is not so much controversial as it is absolutely correct. My own view of the Second Amendment is threefold: (1) that it is much broader than most Americans would find comfortable; (2) that a maximalist decision along the lines of Brandenburg v. Ohio recognizing this would be beneficial; and (3) that regardless of the degree to which it is allowed to do so, the state should elect to regulate firearms as minimally as possible — if at all. That notwithstanding, it is an indisputable fact that the right is not infinite, and I am afraid that to argue otherwise is historically and legally ignorant. It is also a fact that, as Metcalf argued, Illinois’s “shall issue” concealed-carry law could not have been passed without a compromise. Why exclude his voice from the debate?
Metcalf is not alone. The Times also briefly tells the story of Jerry Tsai, the former editor of Recoil who was forced out of his position when he averred in a review that the Heckler & Koch MP7A1 was “unavailable to civilians and for good reason.” Both as a matter of law and of constitutional scope, I happen to disagree with Tsai on the question of which guns citizens should be permitted to keep and bear. As I have written before, because the Second Amendment was written at a time when the ownership of muskets by both the citizen and the state was commonplace, the federal government clearly enumerated a provision that protected free Americans’ ownership of the same personal weapons (“arms”) as were owned and used by the government. For my part, I would have no problem whatsoever with extending this principle to present-day firearms, and I’d be happy to debate Tsai on the matter and to find out why he wrote what he wrote.
What I would not be happy to do is to chase him out of the movement for holding this view. Where is the limiting principle here — the point beyond which one must be exiled? The Heckler & Koch MP7A1 is a submachine gun — or “automatic” weapon — that fires continuously with one trigger depression. It is, in other words, the gun that most Americans imagine when progressives use the willfully misleading term “assault weapon.” Since 1934, automatic weapons of this sort have been heavily regulated in the United States. Citizens without criminal records can get hold of them, yes, but they first must obtain an expensive ATF license and then renew it each year, and they are limited to buying weapons that were imported before 1986. The Heckler & Koch MP7A1, which was first produced in 2001, is thus off-limits. Does the fact that I would rather it were not off-limits mean that I should then eschew reading the views of erudite people who are content with laws that have been on the books for 80 years? Hardly.
Explaining why he chose to publish Metcalf’s piece, Guns & Ammo’s editor, Jim Bequette, explained that he had intended the article to “generate a healthy exchange of ideas on gun rights.” A few days later, reeling from the “unprecedented controversy” it had yielded, Bequette cravenly offered a “personal apology.” “I miscalculated, pure and simple,” Bequette sniveled, promising that he would aim in the future to “understand what our valued readers want.” Well, what those readers “want,” apparently, is what so many want nowadays: They want never to be challenged; they want never to hear an opinion with which they disagree — even from a friend and an ally; they want never to hear anything that offends them. And that, I’m afraid, is a problem of national proportions.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.