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Freedom and Fatuity: Why Are Guns Okay But Gays Aren't?

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James Holmes turned himself into a one-man army with the click of a mouse. That's the latest on the Aurora shooter, with authorities reporting that Holmes ordered a high-tech arsenal from America's lightly regulated online arms bazaar.

In addition to buying 6,000 rounds of ammunition, The New York Times reported:

He also bought bulletproof vests and other tactical gear, and a high-capacity "drum magazine" large enough to hold 100 rounds and capable of firing 50 or 60 rounds per minute -- a purchase that would have been restricted under proposed legislation that has been stalled in Washington for more than a year.

It's no surprise that Congress hasn't moved to stop ordinary sociopaths from acquiring combat weaponry -- that is, equipment designed solely for killing a lot of people. The right to arm yourself to the teeth, even to this degree, is equated with freedom by the National Rifle Association and many of its conservative allies in Washington.

That definition of freedom seems extreme, to say the least. Didn't political theorists agree, like, two hundred years ago, that an individual's right to do as they please does not extend to behavior that puts others at risk?

Maybe so, but today's right wing movement is not known for being schooled in the finer points of the social contract and has risen to power in large part by capturing and perverting the concept of freedom, easily the strongest value in American culture.

What is remarkable is the hypocrisy and sheer illogic of conservative thinking on freedom. Just take, for example, where the GOP stands on guns and gays.

As we have just seen -- and, indeed, see every single blood soaked day in a country with nearly 300 million firearms -- the freedom to bear arms comes at a significant cost. There were 31,347 deaths caused by firearms in 2009, according to the CDC. (That's the last year for which the agency has complete data.) Keeping guns as legal as they are is akin to having no drunk driving laws on the theory that people should have the right to drive in any state they choose.

Yet while we have graveyards full of hard data on the negative consequences of an outsized freedom to bear arms, we have zero data on the negative effects of granting gay people the freedom to marry. As John Stewart memorably joked about gay marriage: "And this affects me, um, how?"

Yes, thinkers like William Bennett have mounted elaborate arguments about how gay marriage would help to accelerate the breakdown of the family, and increase the social chaos that has accompanied this trend, but that effect has remained purely speculative. And, in any case, it doesn't make sense: Wouldn't the benefits of marriage be spread wider if gays embraced this institution and its supposedly civilizing effects?

Conservatives will let James Holmes buy a machine gun to mow down people in a movie theater, but won't let him get married to a man and spend quiet nights going to the movies.

Of course, there are plenty of other examples of the grossly hypocritical nature of freedom as defined by the right. James Holmes could legally purchase body armor and tear gas grenades, but not marijuana (at least in most places). Conservatives rail against the dangers to liberty posed by big government, but have led the charge over the past half century to dramatically expand government's oversight of how we are allowed to alter our consciousness through tougher drug laws and more cops and prisons to enforce those laws. And, needless to say, what could be more intrusive than giving government the power over a woman's reproductive choices?

Meanwhile, the right is working overtime to give more leeway to corporations to do as they please even as big business routinely engages in behavior that is harmful to others -- say, for instance, by stealing $1.6 billion from unwitting customers, as the financial firm MF Global recently did.

This overall picture of freedom just doesn't add up. And yet, strangely, the right has a near-monopoly on the concept of freedom these days.

A few years back, we at Demos worked hard to promote a book, Freedom Reclaimed, by a Senior Fellow here, John Schwarz. That book, published in 2004, outlines a progressive vision of freedom and remains required reading -- all the more so if we have another national debate on gun control.