The disfavored rights are the ones where it starts. As long as you’re against hate speech, rationalizations to censor speech are understandable, even if still troubling, and you’ll overlook some of the unpleasant details about rights because the outcome seems okay with you. After all, what sort of horrible person doesn’t abhor hate speech? And if hate speech is bad, guns are far worse.
Corporate activism and corporate power combine to achieve results that government cannot. American freedom suffers. We lose a culture that respects liberty even as the law remains (for now) intact.
Smarter gun-control activists have taken note of this fact. In August I wrote a piece noting that corporate gun-control efforts are on the rise. Citigroup and Bank of America both imposed restrictions on their business customers. Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, Amazon, and Shopify have all imposed various limits on efforts to speak about or seek firearms.
If you look closely, you might begin to see dots to connect, and thread that runs from one bad thing to another, but instead of coming back to the government directly, they’re tethered to something else, something plastic (or, if you’re really fancy, metal of late).
There has been a movement afoot to eliminate paper money, cash, which is expensive to create, doesn’t last long and allows for anonymous transactions. Criminals use cash to conceal their dirty deeds. So do regular folks, often poor people who lack the documentation needed to get bank accounts or have a regular place of residence. Cash is great for drug deals and beating the IRS. Plastic, on the other hand, is great for the government, as it provides a record of every purchase.
In an online world, cash is doubly problematic. Try as you might, shoving a bill into a port on your computer will not complete a transaction. You can use a credit card. You can use an online payment processor. You cannot, however, use cash, even if you can still drop a dime. And, as David French notes, people have added two and two.
Some of those limits are modest, but the trend is ominous. And if there is one thing we know about the relatively small world of high-level corporate political fashion, it’s that even one article — especially if it’s in the New York Times — can have a large effect on the debate.
And that brings me to Andrew Ross Sorkin’s most recent reported article in the Times, a long look at how “banks unwittingly finance mass shootings.” The thesis is simple — some mass shooters have bought expensive firearms, ammunition, and military-style gear before launching their shooting sprees. In eight of the 13 mass shootings that killed ten or more people this decade, the killers “financed their attacks using credit cards.”
My initial reaction to the story was to make a joke of it, but the thrust of Sorkin’s thesis is no laughing matter. If mass shooters use credit cards to “finance” their attacks, then credit cards provide a means to thwart their attacks. Certainly, stopping mass shooters is a good thing, and now that a correlation has been established, there’s a wedge available to exploit. What could be wrong with this?
And there is a surface appeal to the notion that modern tech can ping the police when there’s a clear warning flag for the worst forms of criminal behavior — but increasing corporate surveillance of lawful activity is not the way to stop the rarest (and most premeditated) of attacks. It is, however, yet another way to shame and stigmatize entirely normal Americans who seek to protect their homes and families.
Everybody uses plastic to “finance” their purchase of guns, because we use credit cards to buy pretty much everything. And as David explains, guns are expensive and few people have the cash in their pocket to make such purchases. But there’s nothing unlawful about buying a gun, and law-abiding folks buy guns as well as mass shooters. Not to raise an unpleasant thought, but they have a constitutional right to possess guns, and the exercise of a constitutional right, even one that doesn’t appeal to you, doesn’t make them bad people.
There are two reactions to this correlation, the first being that credit card companies could be compelled to report to the government “unusual” gun purchases, much as they report “unusual” currency transactions.
What’s the level of expense to trigger the proposed system and cause the bank to either decline the transaction or notify law enforcement? And note that this system could impact law-abiding Americans by the millions when the Times found eight mass killers in a decade financed their weapons and other gear on credit. That’s less than one per year, and many of these individuals were radiating warning signs indicating mental instability or malign purpose separate and apart from any lawful gun purchases.
Whether that last sentence is intended to suggest that reporting should include people who use plastic to buy guns plus pay for therapy is unclear, but it’s more likely that David is pointing out that there are better indicia of an inclination toward mass murder than gun purchases.
But then, there is another mechanism for credit cards to influence your buying habits, just as they can influence Patreon’s hosting habits. As some have already done, they can refuse to allow their card to be used for the purchase of things about which they disapprove. Whether guns or plastic straws, excess-calorie kids’ meals, marijuana or dues to the NRA, they can just say “declined.”
The modestly thoughtful will note that Mastercard isn’t the government, and so can’t violate your constitutional rights. The even more thoughtful will mutter “third party doctrine,” that these private companies cooperating with the government for the sake of societal concerns is entirely lawful; you gave them the information to be used against you, willingly, happily and mindlessly. As cash fades into oblivion, we become increasingly subject to their requirements, and they become increasingly less responsive to ours.
Whether the use of private enterprise to manage our rights is a bad thing at the moment seems to be subject to your values. Hate guns? Hate speech? Then you will applaud their actions and see them as responsible corporate citizens and excuse their excesses for the good of the people. But since corporations are beyond the reach of the Constitution, and in the pocket of government regulators, their decisions to decline might not always align with your values. By then, of course, the die will have long since been cast.