There Are All Kinds Of Myths About Why We Love Guns, But Myths Don’t Help Us Reduce Gun Violence At All.


What is a myth?  According to most dictionaries, a myth is a widely held but false idea or belief.  And if there’s one area where myths abound, it’s in the statements made by Gun-nut Nation to justify their ownership of guns.  Now I have no problem with tall tales – we all learned fairy tales as kids, we then went on to be enchanted by The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, but if you get into a discussion with someone and want to prove a particular point, you’re not about to use a rhyme from Doctor Seuss as your source.

boone1           Unless someone wants to explain why they just went out and bought another gun. Because the one thing that nobody in Gun-nut Nation will ever admit is that they just picked up their tenth, or twentieth, or thirtieth gun because they had a few extra bucks in their pocket and the truck doesn’t yet need a new set of brakes.  But nobody wants to admit that they didn’t have a good reason to lay down some real, cold cash, so out comes the nonsense about they ‘need’ the gun because guns are our American heritage and without guns we would not have ever settled this great land.  Or if that one doesn’t work, they can always trot out the 2nd-Amendment script about how guns make us ‘free,’ and if that one doesn’t fly, let’s not forget that ‘guns protect us from crime.’

These slogans are all nothing but myths but the reason they are so powerful, the reason why people believe them, hold onto them, often shape their views of themselves and the world around them is because every myth has just enough reality within it to appear plausible, logical and true. For example, let’s look at the myth about how guns made it possible to conquer the frontier and turn an inhospitable wilderness into a verdant and rich landscape from sea to shining sea.

The settlers who got off the boats first in Virginia and then at Plymouth Bay came armed with guns.  And they used these guns to hunt game and, on occasion, shoot a few pesky Native Americans who got in the way.  But the forest which started right at the water’s edge stretched clear through to the Great Plains.  And in order to open land for crops and animal husbandry this immense woodland had to be cleared.  And what cleared it was controlled burning, called swidden, and then mechanized farm implements like plows.

Daniel Boone didn’t discover Cumberland Gap by using a gun.  He got friendly with Indians and followed them through the valleys that had been used by Native Americans since prehistoric times.  And there was so much rich, open land that the early settlers didn’t have to rotate crops as they did in Europe in order to keep land fertile; the moment a piece of land became less productive, they picked up, tramped a couple of hundred miles further west, and started a new farm over again.

From earliest times guns were used for hunting and self-defense. But what settled America wasn’t the frontiersman, or the mountain-man, or the hunter.  It was the farmer and then the stock breeder, all of whom owned guns but didn’t use those guns either to clear forest land or fence off the plains. And when guns were used to pacify and exploit the wilderness, this was largely the work of commercial hunters whose furnishing of hides and feathers to urban markets drove many game species almost to the point of becoming extinct.

And that’s what gun myths are really all about: take a tiny bit of evidence and turn it into an explanation for how a whole country developed and grew which then validates the way you behave today. But guess what?  You don’t reduce 115,000+ yearly gun injuries by inventing a myth. You reduce that kind of violence by understanding its true cause – the existence of guns.

A New Book On NRA Myth-Making That You Should Read.

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Dennis Henigan has been a lifelong leader in public policy and public interest research and advocacy, much of his work focusing on GVP.  In 2009 he published a book, Lethal Logic, which presaged much of the growing noise over gun regulations that developed in the wake of Sandy Hook.  In August, Beacon Press will publish an update of that work, “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” and Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control, which I am happy to review here.

gun pic           And the reason I am happy to review it is because one of the tasks Henigan accomplishes is to create a nice roadmap of what he refers to as the ‘tortured mythology,’ namely, the pro-gun slogans created by the NRA which shape and permeate literally every noise made by Gun Nation about their guns.  And if anything, Henigan is too polite when he characterizes the NRA sloganeering as ending “thoughtful, rational discussion,” if only because since 1977 it has never been the intention of the NRA to engage in any discussion about guns at all.

Here’s the way Wayne-o puts it every time he gets a chance: “Either you’re for us or against us.”  He said it in his speech at this year’s annual meeting when he announced the NRA’s endorsement of Donald Trump, but he also said it ten days after the Columbine Massacre in 1999 when he stood up and claimed that the NRA was – ready for this? – in favor of making all schools completely gun-free zones. He then turned around right after the Sandy Hook massacre and argued for armed guards in every school because “only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.”

Henigan does a very good and comprehensive job of comparing these slogans, as well as others, to the realities of gun violence as it has been studied again and again.  The notes include citations to a very representative listing of published research covering all the major issues of gun violence and Henigan stitches these sources together in a readable and engaging way.  Here’s the bottom line: if you find yourself in a discussion with someone who explains their approach to gun violence by parroting a talking-point from the NRA, you can probably find a valid and fact-based refutation within the pages of this book.

Which brings me to the troublesome part of the book, or perhaps I should be more specific and refer to it as the troublesome non-portion of the book. Because although Henigan refers to the fact that polls show a majority of Americans supporting many of the NRA myths, he doesn’t really explain how and why people are willing to invest their feelings and their wallets in supporting ideas that simply aren’t true. After all, it’s not as if folks who think that only a good guy can stop a bad guy haven’t heard the opposite point of view.  We have a President who has loudly and publicly stated that he doesn’t believe guns make us safe, and it wasn’t as if he was elected with less than 50% of the vote.

Last week a big brouhaha erupted because a bunch of diehard gunnies had some of their pro-gun statements deleted from Katie Couric’s great film.  But what was really deleted was an unending recitation of the self-same myths without even a hint of self-doubt.  If these myths were in their heads they were true and correct because they were in their heads. And while Henigan convincingly explains why these myths aren’t true, he doesn’t explain why Gun Nation accepts these myths as proven facts.

Which is not, by the way, a criticism of Henigan’s book.  If anything, the power of this book lies in the fact that it made me reflect and think about my work which largely consists of responding to what the NRA and Gun Nation want everyone to believe. And that’s the reason I like Henigan’s book and you’ll like it too.