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The Only Right That Matters

For conservatives, civil liberties are always negotiable after a tragedy — except for gun rights.

Mourners attend a candlelight vigil at the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard for the victims of Sunday night's mass shooting, October 2, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Drew Angerer / Getty

Our collective response to mass shootings and their aftermath has become familiar. There’s the impotent resort to “thoughts and prayers” in their immediate wake; the demand from the Right that we not “politicize” what is an intensely political issue; the calls for gun control measures and better investment in mental health; the righteous speeches from politicians; and, at last, all of this anger and sorrow slowly dissipating as nothing is done. Soon, we’re ready to repeat the cycle all over again.

One aspect of this ritual is the insistence, again from the Right, that nothing can or must be done to prevent any future mass shootings lest our Second Amendment rights be infringed. Prominent conservatives have weighed in with this message over the past few days, calling for Americans to keep a cool head and not panic, and warning that such incidences of violence are simply the cost of living in a free, open society. One can be totally safe, and one can be free of government intrusion, but one cannot be both.

And to an extent, they’re right. Privacy and civil liberties campaigners have been making this same point for years about the impulse to curtail various civil liberties in the wake of terrorist attacks. We don’t want to live in a world of constant surveillance by law enforcement and arrests for pre-crimes.

Yet despite the Second Amendment’s specific reference to keeping firearms holders “well regulated” — wording not found in any of the other amendments in the Bill of Rights — you won’t hear many of the conservatives now arguing for an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment defending these other, more essential rights with the same fervor. In fact, many of those claiming frequent mass shootings must simply be accepted have spent their careers defending the federal government’s assault on civil liberties when it came to the issue of terrorism.

“We Want To Be Protected Now”

On Monday, Bill O’Reilly explained that the Las Vegas shooting represented “the price of freedom,” as “even the loons” have the right to roam free while arming themselves to the teeth for protection.

“I can tell you that government restrictions will not stop psychopaths from harming people,” he wrote. “They will find a way.”

O’Reilly was singing a markedly different tune in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

“9/11 changed everything,” he said in 2003. “We want to be protected now. We’re willing to give up a little civil rights, a little protection under the Constitution to protect our families from killers.”

O’Reilly then spent the subsequent years viciously attacking anyone objecting to the Bush administration’s constitution-shredding measures civil liberties.

“Every single thing the United States government tries to do to protect us against terrorism, these people oppose and they’ll sue,” he complained in 2005, in reference to the ACLU’s opposition to the Patriot Act, the no-fly list, and Guantanamo Bay. He then called the ACLU a “terrorist group” who were “terrorizing me and my family” and “putting us all in danger.”

“Why do so many Americans fail to see that the primary duty of every elected federal official is to protect you?” he asked in 2006. “Some Americans believe you can’t water board captured terrorists even when thousands of American lives are at stake. That is insane, ladies and gentlemen.”

He strongly backed the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program. When a judge ruled it was unconstitutional, he warned that “the unintended consequences of the opposition [to Bush anti-terrorism measures] was death,” and wondered: “Does she want people to die?”

When the city of Cambridge opted not to cooperate with the Patriot Act, O’Reilly told a city council member on his show that “you’re hysterical in Cambridge,” “you may be seditious,” and that the city was “basically taking steps that could lead to anarchy.”

“You’re protesting and you’re undermining the government and you don’t even know if anybody’s rights are being violated,” he complained.

Years later in 2011, O’Reilly celebrated when the Obama administration continued the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies, and applauded its unilateral, due-process-free assassination of an American citizen — inarguably the most extreme power a government could claim — as “another big victory for the good guys.”

To sum up: when it comes to terrorism, Americans should realize that the primary job of elected officials is to protect them, they should give up some of their constitutionally enshrined civil liberties for this purpose, and anyone who resists simply wants more killing and may even be a terrorist themselves. Putting stricter gun laws on the books in accordance with the Second Amendment’s own wording, however, is a violation of freedom.

Sure, O’Reilly more recently softened his views, opposing NSA surveillance in the wake of the Snowden leaks and saying at one point after the San Bernardino shooting that he didn’t think “you can stop this kind of stuff, totally,” especially in a “free society.” (Though he also endorsed the use of the mythical “extreme vetting” of refugees because “protecting Americans is priority number one.”)

Yet even with this change, O’Reilly has never been as fervent as he was when he insisted Americans needed to give up their rights and hand the government extraordinary powers in order to protect themselves.

Regulating (Some) Evil

O’Reilly is the most glaring hypocrite, but he’s far from the only one. Sean Hannity lashed out at the “shameful,” “exploitative,” and “pathetic” calls from liberals for gun control in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, accusing gun control advocates of “politicizing the tragedy in an absolutely despicable display.” He waved away any calls for further gun control, arguing that “if it wasn’t a gun, it would be a car or a bomb or whatever.”

Yet as one Chicago Tribune reporter pointed out, Hannity had no such compunction with “politicizing” the San Bernardino shooting, immediately (and erroneously) speculating about whether or not the killers were part of an ISIS cell and criticizing Obama for not using the word, “radical Islamists.”

In fact, throughout the Bush years, Hannity was a reliable critic of civil liberties advocates, blithely dismissing any concerns about vesting the federal government with the power to encroach on Americans’ rights.

He complained in his 2004 book that “the greatest threat to our resolve today in the War on Terror is the political liberalism” of the Democrats, who were “inclined toward appeasement, toward dismissing or understating the terrorist threat.”

“Should we even be debating the Patriot Act and NSA wiretapping?” he asked Dick Cheney in 2006.

“It drives you [liberals] crazy when we talk about being weak on defense, you’re appeasers, the NSA [warrantless wiretapping] program you don’t want, the Patriot Act program you don’t want, data mining you don’t want. You want to close Guantánamo Bay,” he complained the same year.

Similar to O’Reilly, he had a city council member from Eugene, Oregon — the fifteenth city to reject the Patriot Act — on his show, and after she explained that citizens were “concerned about liberty and protecting our Bill of Rights,” Hannity attacked her.

“Hope, you know, you may have forgotten, but America got attacked on September 11,” he said. “You’re creating hysteria where there need not be hysteria.”

Megyn Kelly recently said that “even if [gun laws] did change, you would still get people like this guy and we know it.” Yet in 2009, she seemed to approve of keeping detainees indefinitely in Guantanamo and trying them in military courts. She treated the fact that some members of Obama’s Justice Department had previously represented Guantanamo detainees in court as some kind of major scandal, and appeared to suggest racial profiling was necessary following the San Bernardino shooting.

Then there’s publications like the National Review. The outlet has spent the past few days running article after article arguing against gun control, including one titled, “It’s Time To Do Nothing About Guns,” and another that stated, “Regardless of what your personal views are, it’s still true that our Constitution prohibits the kinds of things” the Left wants on the issue of firearms.

This is the same publication that a year after September 11 published a piece by Rita Katz and Josh Devon celebrating the “emboldening Patriot Act” and lamenting it hadn’t been adopted by other countries. It’s a publication whose current editor once defended Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program.

Meanwhile, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin felt the need to criticize “political opportunists” who are calling for firearm regulations on Monday, writing that “You can’t regulate evil.” Yet Bevin blocked Syrian refugees from settling in his state and has been completely silent on the issue of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, not only an attempt to “regulate evil,” but one that flies in the face of the Constitution.

Speaking of the president, the White House’s talking points regarding the Las Vegas shooting warned not to “make sweeping policy arguments for curtailing the Second Amendment,” and that “new laws won’t stop a madman committed to harming innocent people,” but “will curtail the freedoms of law-abiding citizens.”

Yet Trump not only quickly “politicized” the San Bernardino shooting, but used it to propose his Muslim ban. Earlier, after the horrific attacks in Paris in November 2015, he suggested restarting the surveillance of Muslim communities living in the United States.

To be sure, a debate around what type of measures would be both most effective and fair to deal with mass shootings is necessary. There is legitimate concern, for instance, that harsh gun control measures will disproportionately hurt minority communities and feed mass incarceration. And some gun control measures would be completely ineffective, such as the silencer restrictions that Hillary Clinton seemed to propose in a tweet, which was based on the false idea that silencers work the way they do in Hollywood films.

But the Right is uninterested in having a debate that involves any type of gun control. Conservative politicians and talking heads view the Second Amendment, despite its own wording, as an absolutist position, as well as a Trojan horse for wholesale confiscation and, ultimately, tyranny, even though many countries around the world have both strict gun laws and political freedom. This, despite the fact that many of these same figures have, for years, been arguing for the curtailment of core civil liberties after just about any act of terrorism.

The Right’s message is clear: when it comes to stopping political violence, all rights can be revoked. The only one that’s excluded from that logic is the one that an industry worth tens of billions of dollars a year relies on, while leaving public spaces from schools to workplaces to country music festivals awash in blood.