gun control protest
Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

“Give me liberty or give me death” is not a slogan I expect to hear from the group of teenagers who survived the Parkland shooting and are now shaking up the gun debate. But a variant of Patrick Henry’s famous declaration resides at the heart of their grievance. Either the government does something to protect citizens’ rights or scores more will die.

This may surprise you. Most people I know are not conditioned to think like this. We tend to see in shades of gray, nuanced terms, always mindful to back assertions with verifiable facts. This is liberalism’s strength, but also its weakness. When faced with adversaries jacked up on the myths of the founding fathers, you can’t be heard over the sound of fists banging on the Bill of Rights.

But now, after countless Americans have died in massacre after bloody massacre, with no action taken by the federal government, the gun reformers are taking a turn at freedom-loving fist-banging. That sound was heard Wednesday during a large rally at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee. Florence Yared, who survived the mass murder of 17 classmates, told the crowd: “The right to bear arms…does not and never will overpower the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

It sounded again that evening during a CNN town hall featuring the mother of a slain teacher and Dana Loesch, spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. (The Parkland teens have declared war on lawmakers, namely Marco Rubio, who take NRA cash.) At one point, Linda Biegel Schulman, whose son taught geography at the school, turned to Loesch and said “the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, which gave my son the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So I ask you, why are my son’s unalienable rights not protected as fiercely as the right to bear arms?”

Loesch’s reply tells you a lot about the power of this new freedom-loving, fist-banging rhetoric. She responded with sympathy, and with mild, but warped assertions about what the Second Amendment means—as well as a whopping falsehood about “fully automatic weapons that were available” during the Colonial Era. Ultimately, she had nothing more powerful to say than this: “This issue is about making sure that we’re protecting innocent lives. No innocent lives should be lost. None of them should.”

That sounded reasonable, but it was a tell. Loesch said the issue was “protecting innocent lives.” That was not Biegel Schulman’s issue. She was talking about the right to live fully and freely in the knowledge that such rights are constitutionally protected. As of now, in terms of government policy, someone’s rights are more important than someone else’s. That someone is not her dead son.

What’s happening here, I think, is a fully expressed rhetorical move that has won struggles for freedom in the past. In the beginning, gun reformists tried reasoning with gun rights advocates, demanding only tepid, commonsense, and uncontroversial tweaks to the legal system that were respectful of the liberties enshrined in the Second Amendment. But as we have seen since the Sandy Hooking shooting in 2012, reason fails to persuade those indifferent to reason. Gun reformists, led by these precocious teenagers, are finished with that. They accept that the NRA is the opposition, that defeating it requires a zero-sum game in which their success is defined by its failure. They are fighting fire with fire. No longer will the gun debate be between gun rights and gun control. It will be a battle between equal and competing freedoms.

Loesch signaled another tell. Before appearing on the CNN town hall, she said she hoped that participants would engage in “civil discourse.” That’s quite a turnaround from a time when gun reformists engaged in civil discourse only to be told they were attacking the Constitution. A follower of mine on Twitter shrewdly put it this way: “‘Civil discourse’ is what bomb throwing chaos agents suddenly demand when surrounded by angry people who have had absolutely enough of their dangerous bullshit.”

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John Stoehr

Follow John on Twitter @johnastoehr . John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer. This piece originally appeared in The Editorial Board.