The fact that there have been numerous instances of people turning up to townhall meetings on health care reform armed with guns has led several commentators to see a kind of face-off between the First and Second Amendments. As David Sirota puts it, in a post at OpenLeft, our First Amendment right to free speech

is now being threatened by, of all things, the Second Amendment.”

The rise of gun-toting protesters at congressional and presidential town hall meetings has put citizens’ right to bear arms in direct conflict with citizens right to attend public political meetings without fear of physical retribution. Indeed, in bringing loaded weapons — as opposed to a sign portraying a gun, for instance — to these meetings, protesters are quite deliberately aiming to intimidate others. They are, in effect, asserting that their Second Amendment rights to bear arms should come before everyone else’s First Amendment rights.

I want to suggest that when we reflect a little on the ‘metaphysics’ of speech, the relation beween these two Amendments cannot be seen as a simple and straightforward conflict.

Usually, when we think of our right to freedom of speech, we think of being allowed to say what we want without interference. And clearly, this is incredibly important. But we must not forget that most speech that we value is not of the private kind but is rather speech that has an audience. And it is the listening end of things, not the speaking end of things, that largely determines the relation between the First and Second Amendments. In a word, the amount of attention that people have to listen is finite. There is a finite (albeit relatively large) number of listeners out there, and a mere twenty-fours a day for them to listen in. When we factor in quality of attention we come up with a much rarer commodity. Whatever it is we want to say, we want listeners who are intelligent, sympathetic, constructive and, especially in the case of political speech, powerful. The attention of such listeners is of very small quantity. Since the amount of speech that people want to produce is vastly greater than can be absorbed by this limited quantity of attention, any speaker faces a situation of acute resource scarcity. How difficult it is to find an ear into which to pour one’s personal troubles; a colleague to read and comment on a paper one is working on; an audience for one’s blog; a Congressperson or President to put one’s case to. Anybody who looks for one of these things is in serious competition with a host of others.

Which brings us to guns. In any fight over scarce resources, the threat of violence is always lurking. In the case of freedom of speech, guns don’t just silence speakers – though of course they do this as well. They are also used in the armed robbery of attention. They work partly through their actual function, in that several townhall meetings, at which powerful politicians offered their attention publicly, and thus potentially to Americans in favor of health care reform, were canceled because of worries over violence. Certain speakers were robbed thereby of an opportunity to address a desirable audience. But guns also help steal attention through their symbolic value since much of the news cycle now gets taken up by covering the incidents at which people turn up to meetings with guns, and in interviewing the people who bring them.

The ways in which the threat of violence in general, and guns in particular, impact the struggle for attention is a structural fact, something that we are likely to find in any competition for valuable things. But that doesn’t mean that the Second Amendment is somehow antithetical to the First. When and whether we see these Amendments as in conflict depends on whose quest for attention is helped or hindered by guns. In 1962, civil rights activist Robert Williams published a manifesto Negroes With Guns. Even if we don’t approve of the threat of violence Williams wanted to pose to the White establishment by encouraging Blacks to own guns, we surely must see his support for the Second Amendment quite differently from how we see that of today’s Rightwingers. At a distance of nearly two-hundred years, it is hard not to feel impatience with the ‘moral forcers’ and sympathy for the ‘physical forcers’ in the Luddite and Chartist struggles for workers’ rights in England. Examples like these could be multiplied freely.

I am certainly not suggesting that there is no objective moral difference between, say, Williams’ desire to carry a gun in the face of oppression by the racist state and the desire of those who want to bring guns to townhall meetings on health care reform. Indeed, I am suggesting just the opposite. In the struggle for scarce resources, we (liberals) tend to favor the efforts of those who have little to obtain some improvement over the efforts of those who have much to monopolize, increase, and hoard. Williams, as a Black civil rights activist in North Carolina in the early 1960s,  would certainly count as someone who was starved of the right kind of attention and whose desire to use guns to get more of it would compare with the use of guns by a starving person to get bread. Even if one thinks that it is wrong, even for the starving person, to resort to violence or its threat to get bread, we know how to distinguish such a case from those in which, say, a gangster uses violence or its threat to enrich him- or herself. Just so with Williams and the townhall vigilantes.

The bottom-line is this. We should not see an absolute conflict between the First and Second Amendments. The First Amendment guarantees us a right to speech but it does not impose on anyone a duty to listen. Attention, like any other scarce resource, must be fought over. The fight should be by peaceful means. But we cannot ignore that violence often insinuates itself into the control of and competition for, valuable resources. How we judge the threat of violence in these cases should depend on the resource in question and the needs of the people fighting for it. In the case of people showing up at townhall meeting armed with assault rifles, it is clear that the attempt to steal the resource of attention is not justified or noble. But my judgment to this effect does not rest on a blind invocation of the First Amendment. It is based on substantive political views about  the desirability of universal health care and the goals and motives of those who are acting to prevent that outcome.

(I should add that I am not saying that it is OK for people to bring guns to townhall meetings as long as they are the right people. There are good reasons for banning such a thing. My point is just about the philosophical aspect of the intersection of the First and Second Amendments. Public policy on gun control is quite another thing, as indeed is public policy on such speech-related things as obscenity and defamation.)

In a follow-up post, I will explore the commodification of attention and its impact on politics through the Supreme Court decision of Buckley v. Valeo.