Guns are cuddly security blankets: How the media helps right-wing gun nuts push propaganda

The Washington Post "fact checks" Obama on guns. But he was right: More guns lead to more gun deaths

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 6, 2015 8:22PM (EDT)

Conservative politicians and pundits lie and distort far more than liberals do. At the same time, conservatives have a well-known persecution complex, frequently accusing the mainstream media of having some secret anti-conservative agenda. This puts mainstream media fact-checkers in an unenviable situation, trying to seem balanced in an environment where one side simply has more enthusiasm for lying than the other. Now the pressure to overemphasis or even exaggerate claims of liberal mendacity, in an attempt to seem more balanced, has infected Glenn Kessler's coverage of the gun debate in the Washington Post.

Our tale begins with a speech by President Obama where he said, "We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns is not borne out by the evidence." This is, as Kessler's investigation demonstrated, a true statement. The statistics are complicated by demographic and social factors, but overall, the data shows a direct correlation between how easy it is to get a gun and how many people die from gunshot wounds. But Kessler gave Obama two "Pinocchios"---out of of four Pinocchio scale---to this claim.

"Many readers requested a fact check of this statement, believing it to be untrue," Kessler writes. I'll bet they did! Conservative fetishization of guns is at a point where even suggesting that guns might be unsafe is treated like you're insulting their mother, so of course they're going to be outraged that Obama dare suggest that objects created for the sole purpose of killing might be very good at making people dead. It's understandable that, deluged by all that conservative outrage, one might give into the urge to show that you're not biased by giving them what they want. But unfortunately, Kessler, despite being a fact-checker, ends up heavily massaging the statistics to give conservative readers those Pinocchios they desperately want.

To get to the conclusion that Obama fudged the facts, Kessler starts by manipulating the data that Obama used for his claim, by removing suicides from the number of overall gun deaths. He justifies this by arguing "the president’s policy proposals are aimed at mass shootings, not suicides." But that is, in and of itself, a false statement. While Obama did focus heavily on mass shooting in his speech, it's clear that he was making a larger point about how the proliferation of guns in our society leads to more gun deaths. "There is a gun for roughly every man, woman, and child in America," Obama said right before the sentences in question. "So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer?" It's clear that he was speaking about how a gun-fanatical society is one where people get shot to death a lot, and not just in the context of mass shootings.

In addition, while the president's proposed policy agenda on gun violence focuses heavily on preventing murder, many of the policies are about preventing gun deaths generally, including those from suicide. The White House policy proposal for reducing gun violence repeatedly mentions suicide. Many of the agenda items, including more funding for research and better mental health services, would have suicide prevention benefits as well as murder prevention benefits.

There's no reason to exclude suicides from the gun death count, except to pander to opponents of gun control. For one thing, suicides are just as dead as people who are murdered. Suicide has major effects on families and communities. Plus, the gun suicide and gun murder rate are heavily intertwined. Laws aimed at reducing gun murders appear to lower the suicide rate. It's a myth that suicidal people will kill themselves no matter what. Most people who attempt it and survive don't try again. Easy access to guns makes suicide more likely because it means you're more likely to die than people who try through other, less deadly means.

But what makes Kessler's article particularly frustrating is that all this quibbling over a couple of outlier states that defy the trend or whether or not suicides "count" ends up serving not the truth, but the Big Lie about guns: That they are not only safe, but that they somehow make people safer. Conservatives want to distract from the larger fact that soaking a society in guns means people are going to use them more, whether on themselves or on other people. So they claim, instead, that guns actually induce safety and if people keep getting shot, it's because they don't have enough items with which to shoot people with.

The Big Lie is everywhere in the wake of this most recent shooting in Oregon. This week, Ben Carson argued that putting guns inside kindergarten classrooms is the best way to protect small children from guns. "Gun-free zones" are being blamed for the shooting all over conservative media. The message from the right is clear: Far from being deadly weapons, guns are cuddly security blankets!

The Big Lie is what Obama was calling out in his speech. Conservatives keep pushing this notion that guns keep you safe, and Obama was, well, fact-checking them. Kessler should be applauding him for that instead of pandering to conservatives who want to deflect attention from the larger argument about  the irrational enthusiasm some Americans have for arming themselves like they're the about to face the zombie apocalypse.

All of which is why two eyebrows should be raised at the eagerness for conservatives to exclude suicides from the gun death rate. Of course they do, because, in a lot of ways, suicides prove exactly how dangerous it is to cultivate a gun-nut society. Take, for instance, the debate over gun-free zones on campus. Conservatives like to argue that allowing guns on campus will keep students safer, on the grounds that there might be someone around to stop a mass shooter in his tracks. Even if that were true---and there's no reason to think it is---it doesn't actually follow that stuffing college campuses, which are full of young people and alcohol, with guns is a great idea. Most gun deaths are, after all, the result of accidents, suicides, or interpersonal crime, not mass murder.  Suicide rates for college-aged men are particularly high, in part because they have so much access to guns. Giving them more is not going to help.

Look, conservatives are going to deflect, quibble, and use "liberal media" accusations to try to distort coverage of major issues like gun control. It's understandable to feel temptation to throw them a bone, even if you have to massage the facts, in hopes that they will shut up. But fact-checking ceases to be fact-checking when it's in service of distorting the truth instead of illuminating it.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fact Checking Glenn Kessler Gun Control Gun Deaths Mass Shootings Obama Guns Suicide Washington Post