Guns, the First Amendment, and the Bill of Rights

Summary:There is no doubt that both these situations -- gun violence and cyber violence -- require some legislative attention. The world is changing and our laws need to change along with it.

Back when I had better eyes, I received the NRA Sharpshooter award, along with a few bars that indicated I accomplished a few additional tests of skill. I'm not telling you this to brag, but instead to establish my bona fides when it comes to the discussion of guns.

I am clearly not a gun hater.

After the horrible events last month in the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the gun debate has reignited. Gun control advocates claim that America has the most liberal gun possession policy in the world, while traditionalists are worried that Barack Obama himself will come down our chimneys and steal all our guns.

Some argue that if we had better gun control, the attack wouldn't have happened. Others argue if the shooter, Adam Lanza, had gotten better psychological help earlier on, the attack wouldn't have happened. The failings in these arguments are first that Lanza's mother had properly procured and registered guns, and second, Lanza had been receiving treatment, funded in part by his relatively well-off, divorced father.

Some even argue that if all the guns in America were taken away from civilians and reserved simply for the military and law enforcement, events like this wouldn't happen.

And yet, on the very same day, in the Chenpeng Village Primary School, in Wenshu Township in the county of Guangshan in Henan province, in southeastern China, a 36-year-old man named Min Yingjun attacked and injured 22 primary school children with a knife. This was not an isolated incident. A string of school-children stabbings in 2010 injured more than 50 and resulted in the death of 20 innocents.

China is arguably far more restrictive than America, and yet horror somehow found its way into daily life. Laws help provide guidance to sane people, but once individuals reach a certain level of hopelessness or a certain level of nuts, or are just plain evil (a term that's often far too encumbered by religious connotations), bad stuff happens.

And that brings me to the First Amendment. No, I didn't confuse the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) with the First (freedom of speech). Instead, I want to relate the gun control discussion to another area where restrictions are being put into place that could have a fundamental impact on our freedoms: the digital realm.

Cybercrime (and its cousins, cyberwar, cyberterrorism, and cyberespionage) are on the rise, to a level that has reached "epidemic" proportions .

As a way to protect the populace (and take into account that most technology consumers are not engineers), vendors like Apple and Microsoft have begun implementing app stores that provide access to a wide range of apps that have each been subject to prior review and approval.

With the exception of Linux, Android, and Windows (pre-8), our computing world is being ever more locked down.

Of course, the lockdowns (think of it as byte control) aren't just for the benefit of consumers. I can't play ISOs of DVDs I've purchased on my un-rooted iPad because Apple has instituted a level of media DRM that protects content creators (movie studios) at the expense of content owners (those of us who each legitimately purchased hundrds or thousands of DVDs and Blu-ray disks).

Because of the enormous payola-like influence of media lobbyists, Congress can't seem to keep its hands off of dubious legislation like SOPA and PIPA. Worse, they've managed to conflate the limited issues of piracy and copyright protection with issues of cybercrime and cyberterrorism, and then they've flavored the whole thing with relatively extreme privacy intrusions like PATRIOT and the just renewed FISA.

And that brings me back to the First Amendment. As I've said before, we have a fine line to walk between protecting ourselves and our interests online, and protecting our freedoms.

Here in America, and certainly in other far more restrictive countries, lawmakers, plutocrats, and tyrants are attempting to clamp down on Internet-based digital communication. Some use sophistry to excuse their behavior, claiming that "the online" isn't really quite as legitimate as the old-school mainstream media and print, and therefore digital restrictions are fair game.

But there's a flaw to that thinking. It might not happen now, but it will certainly happen in the next 20-50 years: everything will be digital. Newspapers will stop being printed on dead trees. Books will all be digital and read on tablets. Movies will be distributed digitally. Television will come over the Internet as its primary distribution channel.

In other words, free speech, "freedom of speech, or of the press" will be digital. By restricting our digital freedom, our entire society's ability to communicate freely will be damped down and squelched.

We're all horrified by these school shootings and stabbings. Mass homicide is terrifying, difficult to understand, and almost impossible to prevent without restricting some freedoms, somewhere. And yet, while metal detectors and more intrusive gun laws may seem to provide some level of protection, as we've seen in China, rage and crazy always find a way.

Most Americans are far less horrified by cybercrime and cyberattack, but that's because it's less understandable and less visceral. It is, however, very serious. Although we've yet to attribute a death to a specific cyberattack, we're seeing penetrations of medical systems, transportation systems, and more. Worse, thousands of people every day are losing their life savings, the cost to business is enormous, and many of us IT people have found ourselves on the front lines of a cyber cold war between nations.

There is no doubt that both these situations -- gun violence and cyber violence -- require some legislative attention. The world is changing and our laws need to change along with it.

But we also need to be aware that laws generally only control the law-abiding. Laws won't stop someone like Adam Lanza from lashing out, although it might have limited the death count to only those he could reach in his own home. Laws also won't stop nation states like Iran and China from attacking our citizens, and rogue regimes like North Korea from attempting to use cybercrime as a profit center.

Do we need better gun laws? Sure. Do we need better cybersecurity laws? You bet. But that's not because we will solve all our problems by increasingly restricting our law abiding populace, it's because we need better laws, period. And, by "better," I don't mean more intrusive. I mean better thought out, better coded, better debugged.

Our legal system has been subject to the same sort of feature creep that our operating systems struggle under. The code of laws we live under is a spaghetti code of unmanageability and special interests.

If we, as a nation, are to take serious adult action about our serious adult problems, we're going to have to first have to address one of our more serious issues: how we govern and whether we can afford to continue to tolerate the childish behavior of our leaders.

Isn't it about time our politicians grew up and put American interests before Democratic interests or Republican interests, or the interests of the nearest lobbyist with an open checkbook?

Topics: Security, Government, Piracy, Privacy

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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