Despite legal developments that arguably make Americans more free from government censorship than they ever have been before, fewer Americans actually feel empowered to speak their minds. Why? Because, thanks to the toxic combination of online shaming and politicized corporate cultures, all too many people reasonably believe they could lose their livelihoods if they share their opinions in public.
Corporate activism and corporate power combine to achieve results that government cannot. American freedom suffers. We lose a culture that respects liberty even as the law remains (for now) intact.
Smarter gun-control activists have taken note of this fact. In August I wrote a piece noting that corporate gun-control efforts are on the rise. Citigroup and Bank of America both imposed restrictions on their business customers. Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Amazon, and Shopify have all imposed various limits on efforts to speak about or seek firearms.
Some of those limits are modest, but the trend is ominous. And if there is one thing we know about the relatively small world of high-level corporate political fashion, it’s that even one article — especially if it’s in the New York Times — can have a large effect on the debate.
And that brings me to Andrew Ross Sorkin’s most recent reported article in the Times, a long look at how “banks unwittingly finance mass shootings.” The thesis is simple — some mass shooters have bought expensive firearms, ammunition, and military-style gear before launching their shooting sprees. In eight of the 13 mass shootings that killed ten or more people this decade, the killers “financed their attacks using credit cards.”
Yes, some of the killers’ expenditures were extreme and unusual. Sorkin singles out the Vegas shooter, the Orlando killer, and the Colorado theater murderer (I no longer use names of mass shooters in my writing) for particular scrutiny. And there is a surface appeal to the notion that modern tech can ping the police when there’s a clear warning flag for the worst forms of criminal behavior — but increasing corporate surveillance of lawful activity is not the way to stop the rarest (and most premeditated) of attacks. It is, however, yet another way to shame and stigmatize entirely normal Americans who seek to protect their homes and families.
Here’s what I mean: Unless you are abnormally wealthy, virtually every gun sale is going to be an “unusual” and expensive purchase. Sometimes (depending on the weapon), the spike on your credit card will be truly noticeable. For example, if I purchase a nice AR-style rifle, optics for the rifle, a decent amount of ammunition, and a quality rifle case, then I’m spending a considerable amount of money.
Given that I’ve likely saved up for the rifle, you might see a long gap between any gun-related purchases before I suddenly drop, say, $4,000 all at once at a gun shop. And it’s not just the hated AR-15 that’s expensive. Have you bought a good handgun lately? I spent more than $1,000 on a pistol, holster, and ammunition the last time I bought a weapon. And that was my first gun purchase in several years.
What’s the level of expense to trigger the proposed system and cause the bank to either decline the transaction or notify law enforcement? And note that this system could impact law-abiding Americans by the millions when the Times found eight mass killers in a decade financed their weapons and other gear on credit. That’s less than one per year, and many of these individuals were radiating warning signs indicating mental instability or malign purpose separate and apart from any lawful gun purchases.
And while the Vegas shooter brought an arsenal to his hotel room, the typical mass killer is a person on the move, bringing very few weapons to his targeted location.
The worst forms of gun control are mass restrictions that hinder or inhibit lawful activity rather than targeting individuals for specific restrictions based on their conduct. Bans on so-called assault weapons, high-capacity-magazine restrictions, increased age limits — each of these reforms is easily circumvented by those with criminal intent. They’re especially easily circumvented by the kinds of killers who thoroughly plan their crimes, like the deadliest mass shooters.
By contrast, dealer background checks and mental-health requirements are aimed at individuals who have demonstrated through their behavior that they should not own a weapon. The gun-violence restraining order (or red-flag law), when properly drafted, allows law enforcement to act when a person’s conduct is threatening. But note, the alert in a red-flag scenario comes from a person who notices disturbing behavior indicating real danger and only then triggers a legal proceeding that features appropriate due process.
A bank alert, by contrast, labels as “troubling” and may refer to authorities a financial transaction that is entirely legal. But it’s worse than that. It stigmatizes the exercise of a constitutional right — deeming the exercise of the right itself as worthy of sanction or notification to law enforcement. The purchase of a firearm does not communicate any distinct form of intent in the way that, say, an Instagram threat communicates the existence of a disturbed mind. In fact, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the purchase of a firearm is a marker of benign or virtuous intent — the desire to hunt, to participate in shooting sports, or to protect the ones you love.
Yet don’t think it’s far-fetched to believe that the progressive gun-control movement can enlist elite corporations into this new cause. As Sorkin notes in his article, his previous reporting triggered dramatic corporate action in the recent past:
After the shooting last February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and staff members were killed, this column suggested that financial firms had an opportunity to help reduce violence by pushing for more responsible practices by the gun industry. As a result, some banks ended their relationships with gunmakers and some investors pushed manufacturers for more transparency.
Never forget, American corporations often have progressive monocultures, and their elite ranks are often populated by individuals who want to use their considerable power to advance social justice. So while a number of credit-card companies admirably pushed back against Sorkin when he interviewed them for his article, will they show the same resolve the next time a spree killer buys his weapons and magazines with their credit cards?
As I’ve written many times before, we don’t have a good solution for mass shootings. Armed citizens, red-flag laws, improved mental-health systems, and more-effective law enforcement are all pieces of a complex puzzle. It’s understandable and laudable that many Americans are getting creative in the quest for answers. But when fundamental rights are at stake, even well-meaning creativity and activism carries with it dangers to liberty — frequently without providing the increased security that we all seek. In the fight against spree killers, we must not demand that Visa and Mastercard become Big Brother.