Editorial: Gun activists’ speech may be legal, but it’s creepy and reprehensible

Illustration by
(Lehel Kovacs / For The Times)

Many gun advocates are opposed to the firearm restrictions passed by California lawmakers this summer, which include a ban on some semiautomatic rifles and a requirement that ammunition buyers undergo background checks.

They have vociferously criticized legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown for what they see as an assault on their 2nd Amendment rights and have launched efforts to repeal the laws. Whether or not you agree with them about the issue, that’s certainly a responsible way to engage in the Democratic process.

For the record:

5:32 p.m. March 27, 2023An August 10 editorial about politicians’ loaded language incorrectly reported that Riverside County GOP official Nathan Miller used his own name when he tweeted out an image of a hooded hangman with the message “I’m ready for Hillary.” In fact, he used @RPRC, the official Twitter account of the Republican Party of Riverside County, to tweet the image.

The irresponsible way was illustrated recently by an anonymous blogger, the Real Write Winger, who compiled the home addresses and phone numbers of 40 state legislators who voted for the gun control laws and posted them on the Web. Publishing the home addresses was creepy in itself, and the accompanying text was equally so. Calling the legislators “tyrants” and “legisexuals” (whatever that means) who had “exercised violence against us,” the post warned that if the legislation wasn’t repealed, the only way off the list was “upon the tyrant’s death.”


The California Office of Legislative Counsel concluded that the blogger had violated the state law regarding online threats to elected officials and demanded that the blog host take down the post. WordPress complied, and the post is gone. At least for now. Last week, gun activists sued Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine saying the law violated the free speech rights of the blogger, referred to in court filings as “Doe Publius.”

In this case, the gun activists are right. The state law that the legislative counsel relied upon says that no one may post the home addresses or phone numbers of elected or appointed officials if their intent is to cause “imminent great bodily harm” — or even if officials only feel their safety is threatened. But while the language of the blogpost is faintly menacing — not to mention juvenile and reprehensible — it never actually calls for action. Furthermore, most of the names and addresses posted by the blogger were already publicly available.

While the language of the blogpost is faintly menacing — not to mention juvenile and reprehensible — it never actually calls for action.

The blogger even addresses the notion that someone might see this as a threat: “Compiled below is [sic] the names, home addresses, and home phone numbers of all the legislators who decided to make you a criminal if you don’t abide by their dictates. ‘Isn’t that dangerous, what if something bad happens to them by making that information public?’ First, all this information was already public; it’s just now in one convenient location.”

The post treads near the line, to be sure, but does not advocate that something bad should be done to legislators. The Supreme Court has said that the legal test for criminally prosecuting someone for incitement is that the advocacy must be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and also “likely to incite or produce such action.”

That doesn’t excuse the Real Write Winger for engaging in irresponsible discourse. And he (or she) is sadly not alone. Nathan Miller, a Republican Party official from Riverside, at least had the courage to use his own name when he sent out a particularly offensive tweet of a picture of a hangman at the gallows saying, “I’m ready for Hillary.” The outrage prompted him to resign, probably under pressure, from his job as an aide to a state Board of Equalization member. Perhaps Miller now understands that just because speech is legally defensible doesn’t mean it is right or appropriate.

Donald Trump hasn’t learned that lesson yet either. On Tuesday he seemed to hint that gun rights supporters might take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton were to appoint Supreme Court justices who opposed the 2nd Amendment. “Nothing you can do, folks,” he said, before adding: “Although the 2nd Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Maybe it seems like a clever joke to him to use such loaded language. Because — hint, hint, wink, wink — he doesn’t really mean it, right? Still, it only takes one unhinged person to see a call to arms in such foolish remarks.

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