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In a Society Overrun With Guns, How Free Is the First Amendment?

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What's more American than the freedom to attend a religious service?

For the Sikh-American community, that tradition was marred by tragedy yesterday. Two weeks after the shooting in Aurora, Colo., a gunman has again invaded our common, shared -- and even sacred -- space. The details are still unfolding, but it appears that a man armed with a semi-automatic handgun opened fire on worshipers inside a Sikh temple in suburban Wisconsin on Sunday morning, killing six and critically wounding at least three. The police say they are treating the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism.

Inevitably, the Second Amendment will be front and center in the national conversation as we try to make sense of yet another act of mass gun violence. But in the wake of the shooting at the Sikh temple, I find myself thinking as much about the First Amendment as the Second. If indeed it turns out that the gunman's actions in Wisconsin were motivated by a hatred of Sikh religion and culture, the shooting may reveal an unintended consequence of our current interpretation of the Second Amendment: rampant gun violence threatens public safety, which in turn may limit our capacity -- or willingness -- to openly exercise our First Amendment rights to speech, assembly, or religious expression.

Is one Amendment more important than another? We should not have to choose. But the deadliness and frequency of recent gun violence in America -- last year nearly 12,000 people were killed by guns in this country -- makes me wonder whether we haven't already prioritized one over the other. In the gun control debate, we hear a lot about guns as deterrents. But for Sikh-Americans in Wisconsin, or other religious groups all around America, mass gun violence that targets religion might be a different kind of deterrent -- a deterrent to free expression of belief. Freedom of religion is protected by law, but in practice, fear for public safety supersedes abstract rights. That fear unravels trust, the fabric of civil society and a shared culture.

In a society overrun with guns, how free can speech be? How free is religion? In some countries, repression of speech and religion is the policy and practice of the government. Thankfully, in America, our right to freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution. But our crisis of public safety may act as a self-censoring muzzle on free expression. The First Amendment is an afterthought if you're afraid to step out your door because of who you are or what you believe.

The latest news reports from Wisconsin indicate that the gunman in the temple shooting may have had ties to white supremacist organizations. In fact, hate groups have increased in number by 70 percent since the year 2000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. But hate exists in every country. We didn't invent hatred or fear of the Other. The difference is that in America, guns -- even military-grade assault weapons -- are legal and easy to acquire. Hate, plus unregulated guns, is a deadly equation. And one that has the potential to curtail free expression.

Some argue that more guns in the hands of more Americans can increase public safety and actually prevent attacks like the Sikh temple shooting (it's not uncommon to hear that states with "Right to Carry" laws are safer, but statistics show that isn't true across the board).

Is that where we are headed as a country? That vision of America is one of nervous, trigger-ready citizens living in fear of the next man on the street. That vision has us walling ourselves off from our neighbors. That vision is not just metal detectors in every major public space -- it's something worse: empty public space. A society too frightened to step into a shared environment for fear of violence; a society too afraid to interact.

While public safety may not be expressly mentioned in the Bill of Rights, "life" (in the triad of liberty and the pursuit of happiness) gets top billing in the Declaration of Independence. In some ways, public safety is the grease in the wheels of a democratic society. Even Tombstone, the heart of the late 1800s Wild West, had gun regulation -- a distinct contrast with today's Arizona gun laws, the most lenient in the country. If we don't change the way we interpret the Second Amendment to more sensibly regulate access to deadly weapons, it won't mean the First Amendment will go away. But we may have to add this clarifying text at the end: Caution: exercise at your own risk.

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