Free speech and the freedom to kill

June 03, 2022 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Something is terribly wrong with America when an 18-year-old can buy an assault-style rifle, then uses it in an elementary school to kill 19 children and two teachers. Salvador Ramos legally bought an AR-15 rifle a day after he turned 18. Three days later he bought another one. He bought enough ammunition to go to war.

As an 18-year-old he is not allowed to legally buy alcohol or tobacco but allowed to buy an AR-15 rifle which, like the military version, can load multiple bullets to quickly kill people. It makes no sense that a high school teenager cannot legally drink alcohol or smoke but can legally buy guns.

The May 24 school massacre in the small town of Uvalde, Texas was just the latest in a long list of tragic shootings that have taken so many innocent lives. Just ten days earlier another 18-year-old white supremacist legally bought a rifle to shoot dead 10 African Americans in a New York supermarket. I am not African American but it still frightened me because I am now living temporarily in New York.

I was living in Seattle in April 1999 when I saw the horrifying TV news of two teenagers who shot to death 12 students and one teacher at the Columbine High School in Colorado and then killed themselves. One of the worst school shootings was in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut when a 20-year-old shot dead 20 children and six adult staff members. He then shot himself in the head and died.

There are more guns in America today than its population of 350 million. The US is the world’s only country that allows its people to freely buy guns. That freedom is enshrined in the Second Amendment of US Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. It states the people have the right to bear arms, which means to carry weapons.

The First Amendment gives people the right to free speech, peaceful protests, and to choose their religion. These freedoms are America’s core values which I agree with. Many in Hong Kong believe their rights to free speech and peaceful protests have eroded, especially after Beijing’s imposition of the national security law.

Whenever there is criticism that Hong Kong is losing its free speech rights, government officials deny it with the retort that free speech is not absolute. But they never clarify where the free speech red lines are.

In the US, the right to free speech, peaceful assemblies, and to bear arms is, to a very large extent, clear and absolute. It is apples and oranges to compare free speech rights in the US and HK. Free speech limits in the US apply only to areas such as libel, child pornography, fraud, criminal acts, and violation of intellectual property laws but not political opinion.

In Hong Kong even political opinion could violate free speech rights. Lighting a candle in Victoria Park on June 4 to commemorate those who died in the June 4 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on democracy could land you in jail. In the US only convicted criminals, people under 18, people with mental disorders, people convicted of domestic violence, and illegal drug users have no right to bear arms.

The free speech right in the First Amendment is so protected that even people who claim they have been defamed must prove the libel was deliberate. A US court made this clear earlier this year when the former Republican Alaska Governor Sarah Palin sued the New York Times for defaming her by falsely accusing her of supporting gun violence.

The New York Times had wrongly claimed in a 2017 editorial that a political campaign advertisement by Palin’s supporters in 2011 had indirectly caused a mass shooting in Arizona which killed 16 people and injured a Democrat Party congresswoman. Palin accused the New York Times of ruining her reputation but the judge ruled she had failed to prove the New York Times deliberately ruined her reputation.

That shows how far the First Amendment protects US free speech. In the US those who say free speech violated their rights must prove in court the violations were deliberate as defined by the First Amendment. The New York Times won by arguing its erroneous editorial was not deliberate.

US President Joe Biden said after the Texas school massacre the freedom to own guns as defined by the Second Amendment is not absolute. I always oppose people who say freedom is not absolute, including the US President. But there is a difference between the freedom to say what you want and the freedom to kill who you want.

The freedom to say what you want doesn’t kill people. The freedom to buy guns does kill people, including children in schools as multiple school massacres have shown. As an American I am proud the US values freedom, which I believe everyone who has it wants to protect it and those who don’t have it want it.

But as an American I am also ashamed that so many elected politicians, particularly from the Republican Party, refuse to pass simple laws which do not oppose the right to bear arms but just ensure background checks prevent criminals and mentally ill people from buying guns. These politicians ignore their conscience to make it harder to buy guns because they need campaign money from the gun lobby to get re-elected.

-- Contact us at [email protected]




A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.