The First Amendment Weaponized: When Guns Become Public Discourse

38 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2021 Last revised: 21 Feb 2023

Date Written: March 7, 2021


This Article discusses First Amendment challenges asserted against gun-control measures—inside and outside our courts. It explains at length why existing doctrinal approaches to resolving these challenges fail, providing an alternative account of why the First Amendment should not be construed liberally to protect the open carry of firearms. As guns in public spaces and protests become commonplace, we can expect not only continual First Amendment challenges to gun control measures, but also the growing prevalence of First Amendment claims asserted in the public by advocates and gun owners to justify open carry—and the forging of new constitutional meanings and social norms. This Article maps a doctrinal path that judges should take to reject these challenges while providing a conceptual language for bystanders to reassert and reclaim their rights to public safety and participation from open carriers trying to weaponize the First Amendment.

To courts, the Article argues that the practice of open carry is too divorced from the value of democratic self-governance to constitute public discourse deserving of First Amendment coverage. Courts should deny First Amendment coverage to gun carry both because bearing arms in public does not facilitate the formation of public opinion and because doing so preserves the social and legal norms that exclude guns from the public sphere. These norms—encoded in commonplace gun control laws—serve important constitutional values and interests central to the First Amendment.

To non-judicial audiences, the Article calls for advocates of gun control to flip the script on these First Amendment claims and forcefully articulate the ways that guns in public spaces threaten the free and equal exercise of constitutional rights to free speech, assembly, and political participation more broadly. These First Amendment challenges illustrate the extent to which pro-gun rights movements transcend the jurisprudential boundaries of the Second Amendment. Evolving popular beliefs about the right to bear arms trickle down into popular beliefs about other, adjacent constitutional rights like the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Once we consider these First Amendment challenges to gun control measures and look beyond their lack of judicial success, we can begin to see how popular beliefs about the right to bear arms are gradually evolving to incorporate First Amendment values. Guns are transformed into public discourse—symbols and forms of political speech.

Keywords: First Amendment, Second Amendment, Open Carry, Firearms, Public Discourse, Democracy, Political Speech, Gun Control

JEL Classification: K

Suggested Citation

Li, Danny, The First Amendment Weaponized: When Guns Become Public Discourse (March 7, 2021). Danny Li, The First Amendment Weaponized: When Guns Become Public Discourse, 30 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 925 (2022)., Available at SSRN:

Danny Li (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

127 Wall Street
New Haven, CT 06510
United States

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