Having clerks or police officers or any other government employees wade through the social media posts of gun license applicants, besides being cruel and unusual punishment for the people forced to do it, would be time-consuming, expensive and unconstitutional.
State Sen. Kevin Parker, a Democrat from Brooklyn, has proposed a bill that would require handgun license applicants to turn over login information so investigators could review three years’ worth of their social media posts along with their internet searches from the previous year.
It’s hard to imagine a more tedious job than scrolling through the thousands of mundanities and inanities on other people’s social media platforms. On that basis alone, this proposal should go nowhere.
The bigger issue is rights. The proposal infringes on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. While the government should be allowed to enforce reasonable gun control laws — and the Supreme Court has said that — it’s not reasonable to revoke someone’s right to own a gun because, for example, he calls people ugly names on Facebook.
Parker’s proposal would have investigators look for threats of violence or terrorism or the use of racial or ethnic slurs. Making certain sorts of violent or terroristic threats is already a crime, and in New York, people convicted of some of these crimes, such as harassment and menacing, are already banned from owning guns.
Threatening to harm someone is different from insulting them, and very different from expressing generalities about groups of people, however ugly. These sorts of statements always depend on context and are always open to interpretation. We don’t withhold constitutional rights from people because we have decided they are ignorant or mean-spirited.
If government officials are reviewing our social media posts, how do they judge what material is offensive and what isn’t, and why would we grant them the power to make those judgments? The First Amendment allows offensive speech.
We understand Parker is reacting to certain horrifying events, such as the recent slaughter at a Pittsburgh synagogue, perpetrated by a man who had ranted online about Jews. We do think people should alert police to that sort of hate speech, and police should take note of it. We have gotten tired of discovering, after every awful event, that the attacker had made his intentions clear in public forums.
Five states — Connecticut, Indiana, California, Oregon and Washington — have passed laws that allow civil gun seizures, also known as red flag laws, in cases where a person has been determined to pose an imminent risk to himself or others. The process proceeds only with the approval of a judge.
New York’s Assembly passed such a bill in March — a gun violence restraining order — and it may have a chance of becoming law next year, after the Democrats take control in the Senate. These laws, requiring due process in court and determinations by a judge, are sensible and warranted. They address the widespread calls to pay more attention to the mental health of gun owners.
We can’t just shrug and do nothing in the face of appalling violence perpetrated by people expressing hate and rage with guns. But we can’t shred the Bill of Rights in response, either. We can find a balance between the rights of gun owners to express themselves and the rights of citizens to be safe.