'Sandy Hook Truthers' Crank Their Gun-Nuttery Up to the Max

There's been no shortage of delusional claims made by the gun manufacturers' lobby and its allies in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. Usually, they revolve around macho fantasies of gun owners heroically keeping their cool during surprise attacks, taking down mad gunmen without killing onlookers or being shot by arriving police. In the real world, of course, these are the kinds of people who tend to shoot themselves while shopping for milk at Walmartrummaging around in their purses for lipstick or sleeping (sleeping can be really dangerous). 

But last week, Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald reported that a far more disturbing delusion is gaining traction on the fringes of the “gun rights” movement. Seitz-Wald calls them “Sandy Hook Truthers,” and he appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss the phenomenon. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion (you can listen to the whole show here).

Joshua Holland: Alex, Talking Points Memo reported this week that Joe Biden has given some hints of the recommendations that his Gun Control Task Force might offer as soon as next week. They're talking about banning high-capacity magazines and mandating universal background checks. Did you know that as many as 40 percent of all firearm sales in this country are done without a background check?

Alex Seitz-Wald: Yes. It’s really unbelievable. This is the so-called “gun show loophole,” but it extends way beyond gun shows. I can go online on Craigslist right now and find a gun and buy it, without any kind of background check or oversight.

JH: Any private citizen who’s not a licensed firearms dealer can just sell a gun to anybody without doing anything. It’s just crazy. 

Anyway, we’re going to have a big fight on our hands against one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, the NRA, which represents the interests of firearms’ manufacturers. That fight is only coming, really, because 20 young children were cut down with a Bushmaster at a Connecticut school. That brings us to your report this week on Salon.com, which I found mindblowing. Alex, tell us about the worst Sandy Hook conspiracy theory out there.

ASW: Yes. This is really unbelievable -- I could hardly believe it myself, but we all know about 9/11 truthers by now. These are the people who thought that 9/11 was an inside job. Now these folks -- I’m calling them the “Sandy Hook truthers” -- these are people, and there’s a surprising number of them, who think that the Sandy Hook massacre either didn’t happen or did happen, but was perpetrated by maybe government agents or crazy liberals.

There are different versions of the theory, all in an attempt to create a national movement for gun control. Obama or somebody killed all these little kids in order to get you and me to talk about guns and get the American people interested in gun control.

This was out there for a little while, but then it really picked up steam after they latched onto a girl named Emily Parker. She was a 6-year-old who was killed, and her father has been pretty active in the media. There was a funeral service in Utah, where the governor spoke, and that got a lot of attention. A photo emerged of her sister, sitting on Obama’s lap when he went and visited the family. The girl is wearing the same dress that Emily was wearing in a photo that the family had distributed to the media. To the Internet conspiracy theorists, it must be the same girl. Emily Parker must be alive! Therefore, the whole thing was a hoax.

There’s a YouTube video that lays this all out, and it’s already gotten over 130,000 views. If you look elsewhere, you can find all kinds of Web sites, and blog posts, and forum messages, where people lay this out. They have all kinds of other crazy things about the car being not the one owned by Adam Lanza, and police audio allegedly suggesting there were multiple shooters in the building.

We all know there was tons of confusion on the day of the shooting and a lot of misreporting happened early on, but instead of them dismissing this as the kind of confusion that happens when a terribly disturbing event like this takes place, they latched onto these little things to create this grand construction.

The worst thing, for me, is that they’re denying the grief of these families, these poor parents who had their kids killed. They’re saying it’s all for show and some of them actually want to prosecute the parents for allegedly being actors and accomplices to this crime.

JH: It’s remarkable that people could be so shameless. Do you not have the basic common decency to leave grieving parents alone? It’s amazing.

The evidence – this is very typical, by the way. I’ve seen it with 9/11 Truthers. In the early moments of a big news story -- a big, confusing, breaking news story -- there are always, always, always conflicting details. 

Alex, who’s behind this? Who started this? Do you know who’s pushing this?

ASW: It’s really hard to tell. That video that I mentioned was actually made by a production company that produced the film, Operation Terror, which was a really popular 9/11 truther film. It’s a fictionalized version of the truther theory. It’s the exact same people that did the 9/11 truther stuff.

The rest of them seem to be just your run-of-the-mill, Internet cranks. I talked to one of the guys, actually. This is the guy who started it, so he’s really invested here, and has rounded up all the different pieces and put them all in one place. I thought I’d email him and see if he'd respond. I figured he wouldn’t, but he did. I was really disturbed, actually, by the response. I should mention, on his Web site in the About section, he gives himself some credibility by saying, “I’m the only person in the World to solve Lost,” as in the TV show.

JH: (laughs)

ASW: When I emailed him, I asked him about that. I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t want to diagnose anybody, but it seemed pretty clear to me that he is having some kind of delusions.

He told me that he launched his Web site on December 21st, which is a significant day. He said – and I’m reading here from his email – “Since I am the new-age Messiah, and the revelation from the Goddess, Tefnut, AKA Ma’at of Egypt, I thought the date was significant.”

This guy, who’s leading this online conspiracy movement, literally thinks he is the new-age Messiah. The word “crazy” gets tossed around a lot, but I think this guy meets a clinical definition of delusions. This is where a lot of this stuff is coming from.

The wild thing, to me, is that you’re only a few steps removed from the other kinds of people that we call “crazy,” but that are intimately involved in the gun debate. Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America, which is a more radical version of the NRA, he hasn’t said anything quite like this about the Sandy Hook shooting. But after Aurora, he told Alex Jones -- who’s a big conspiracy theorist -- he told Alex Jones that there was a really good chance that government agents perpetrated the Aurora massacre, in order to implement gun control. This is a real thing that’s out there.

There’s a professor at Florida Atlantic University who even got involved in this. It’s really easy to dismiss, but I don’t think we should because it can go, really quickly, from the guy who claims he solved Lost to people who are actually involved in the gun control debate.

JH: It starts with someone who has, it seems, mental health issues. Then all these other people jump in because it’s ideologically convenient. Alex, is this like global warming denialism, just pretending that inconvenient realities don’t exist?

ASW: Yes, I think it is. The psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, I think, explains so much of this here, which is basically the idea that you have a belief in your head, and any information that contradicts that belief causes stress, and is immediately discredited. You don’t, for a second, consider the possibility that it could be legitimate. You immediately assume that it has to be wrong because it doesn’t comport with your world view.

That’s how all, pretty much all conspiracy theories work, or things that deny reality in the face of evidence, like global warming. I think you’re just getting an extreme case of it here.

JH: To some degree, a lot of conservative, ideological positions are based on that same thing. People who score high on the scale of authoritarian personality types are especially sensitive to cognitive dissonance. They’re the ones who are most likely to grab onto any straw, which will get them out of that stress. Anyway, this conspiracy is supposedly all in the service of conditioning the population to give up their guns. 

Alex, what do you think the conversation about guns would look like, in this country, if not for the paranoia, widespread on the right, that someone wants to take Americans’ guns?

ASW: Boy, it’s hard to imagine. It’s really incredible how much this tiny faction of people has dominated the debate. If you ask most Americans about the Assault Weapon Ban or High Capacity Magazine Ban, they’re all for it. This is after Democrats and most liberals have ceded the issue for the past 10 years.

We’ve hardly really had much of a gun control debate at all. Most of what you hear out there is misinformation about the Assault Weapon Ban, but Americans are for it, to the tune of 60 percent. Whether we can get something in Congress is a different matter because of the bizarre way that Congress works.

I have to imagine that if these people weren’t out there – even the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, who’s only a few notches more in tune with reality – even if he wasn’t out there, if we had somebody more reasonable in charge of the NRA, I’d have to imagine that we would have a more logical debate.

JH: Wayne LaPierre warned that in a second term, Obama would try to take Americans’ guns. He’s not, this is the mainstream voice of the gun lobby, not the fringe, like Gun Owners of America. I think this is the thing that keeps us from addressing this issue, because, in reality, of course, gun control advocates today aren’t calling for firearms to be banned or confiscated.

If you look at what they do push for, they favor closing the gun show loophole. They favor better background checks. A small majority favors banning high-capacity magazines. I wrote a piece for AlterNet.org called, “Yes, We Can Have Sane Gun Control Without Trampling Gun Owners’ Rights.” That piece has links to a bunch of polls of gun owners. 

Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Rep shot in the head in 2011, announced this week that she’s raising $20 million for a new organization called Americans for Commonsense Solutions. They’re going to go up against the NRA in terms of campaign donations. We see a normally cautious White House, one that usually shies away from progressive base issues, and they are at least talking aggressively about dealing with this issue.

Your view? Any chance we’ll see progress?

ASW: I’m optimistic in the long term. I don’t know if we’ll get anything immediately. I look at the filibuster in the Senate, and with 60 votes needed there it's really difficult to imagine much happening. Of course, you have the House of Representatives, where I don’t think you’ll get any kind of gun legislation even brought to the floor.

But I think there has been a fundamental shift in the political debate, the political consciousness around gun control. Democrats are finally taking it seriously. They’re finally standing up and addressing this, which is long overdue.

I think what’s going to be needed is for somebody like Michael Bloomberg, or somebody with deep pockets -- unfortunately, this is the way our politics work – to finance a powerful movement, because the NRA right now is extremely powerful.

One positive bit of news, I think, on the NRA is they’ve gotten complacent. Because we haven’t had a gun control debate in the past 10 years, I think they’ve become irrelevant in a way that most people don’t realize, in that Republicans are going to vote pro-gun, no matter what, while Democrats are increasingly alienated from the NRA. You have them just appealing to their base, with these crank theories, like we saw in the press conference that Wayne LaPierre gave. I think that’s put them in a weaker position than a lot of people realize, and they just haven’t been tested yet.

Hopefully, if there is some kind of fight and they are tested, we’ll see that there’s actually more support out there, but it’s going to take some time.

JH: Getting back to their nutty arguments, what do you think about the ubiquitous push for more guns, for arming teachers? Wayne LaPierre put it best when he said, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Your view of all of this?

ASW: Yes. I spent a lot of time looking into this. I started getting interested in it after reading an article in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg. This was a 7,000-word piece headlined, “The Case for More Guns.”

He laid it out the argument in pretty convincing terms, but then he conveniently did not quote any actual gun violence researchers. I talked to a bunch of them. Actually, if you look at the data, the empirical evidence that’s out there -- and there is a good amount of empirical evidence – you look at other countries, you look at comparisons between states with different gun restrictions, and it is uncontroversial, completely unquestionable and absolutely false that more guns leads to less crime. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Just one case study that I think is really illuminating here. In Australia, there was a mass shooting, where 35 people were killed. Within weeks, the conservative government passed an assault weapon ban, a much stronger assault weapon ban than we had, including a gun buy back. They actually made it illegal to hold these guns, and they bought them back from the population. Homicide with guns dropped 60 percent in the next decade, and there was no associated rise in crime by other means. This is a common talking point that, if criminals don’t have guns, they’ll just turn to knives or even hammers. There was none of that, and there hasn’t been a single mass shooting in the decade since they passed this law.

There’s no question that gun control is effective, and it’s at least worth trying, but we can’t even talk about it now.

JH: People can also take a peek at a piece in the New York Times last Sunday titled, “More guns equal more killing.” It does seem pretty incontrovertible.

I spoke recently with a Vietnam vet who had seen quite a bit of action. He told me, "Look, when you come under an ambush" -- which is what these things are, they’re always surprise attacks; we’re not expecting people to jump out with Bushmasters at school or in a movie theater -- he said, "When you come under an ambush, the hardest thing to teach troops is fire discipline. The instinct is to start shooting around wildly. You’re under fire, there are bullets whipping around you. That’s the instinct."

If you think about this idea, that if you just have a lot of gun-toting citizens without combat training in these scenes, that that’s going to stop these mass killings, it just defies the experience of military tacticians.

And my friend said that when they set up an ambush, they would expect the enemy to incur friendly fire -- that enemy troops would shoot each other in that mad scramble, that panic when you have the adrenaline pumping. Then you add another element to it in these mass shooting situations, which is that police arrive on the scene -- if you have six different people with guns out, what do they do? Whom do they shoot?

ASW: Yes, in 2009 after the Virginia Tech shootings, ABC News, or 20/20, did an amazing experiment that I would encourage everyone to take a look at. They recreated a situation where you had a gun in a school shooting.

They trained a dozen people, a dozen volunteers. They gave them more training than is required by most states for concealed carry permits. They told them, “Later today, a gunman is going to come in. You have the only gun in the room. You need to fight them off.”

They knew it was coming, which of course is not going to happen in real life. In every single case, even in the cases where they had volunteers who had years of gun experience on the range, every single one of them got shot. Fortunately, they were using paint balls, so they didn’t actually get hurt. Several of them shot other civilians. Not a single one of them was able to shoot the killer.

If you have any experience, even playing paintball, you realize this is totally absurd and not going to work. Just like today, unfortunately, we had another school shooting in California. At that school, there was a sheriff’s deputy there, 24 hours a day, or at least as long as there’s school in session. The shooting still happened.

Having somebody with a gun at the place of a mass killing just doesn’t mean that they can stop the killer.

JH: There was also an armed guard at Columbine High School. There was also a man with a concealed carry permit at the site of Gabrielle Gifford’s shooting. He turned the corner, and he said that he came very, very close to shooting one of the people who had tackled the actual shooter and wrestled his gun away. He actually was extremely grateful that he had shown the restraint to not open fire. In the situation, he had a very limited picture of what had been going on. This is real life.

I think a lot of this is driven by the culture. There’s a culture of gun violence. We’ve all met people who fetishize guns and firearms, as opposed to seeing them as tools, like the responsible gun owner should do.

Obviously it comes from TV, and the movies, and all that. There is a significant culture in this country that just equates gun ownership with machismo. Bushmaster famously had that ad, “Your Man Card Has Been Reissued.”

ASW: Yes, absolutely. One of the gun researchers that I spoke to told me, “It was a James Bond fantasy to think you could fight off a killer.” If you’ll remember, just before the Sandy Hook shooting, there was a shooting at a mall in Oregon, in the Clackamas Mall. You had an almost perfect situation for what the gun proponents imagine.

There was a guy, with a concealed carry permit, he was within range of the shooter. The shooter’s gun had jammed, so he was distracted. The guy ducked behind a column, pulled his gun out, and was ready to fire, had a clean shot at the shooter but then he saw that there was a woman behind him. He was afraid of shooting the woman who was trying to crawl away from the shooter. He said he never regretted that. That’s another case where a guy was on the scene with a gun, but couldn’t do it because it would’ve caused more harm than good.

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