Until my daughter was born, I never truly understood what Alex Jones was doing by calling the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School a hoax.
Back in December 2012, Jones hadn’t yet harnessed the political power that made a future president vow not to let Jones down. But he was a well-known conspiracy peddler. And when Adam Lanza used his AR-15 to kill 20 children and seven adults at a school in Newtown, Jones insisted that the massacre was “staged.” It seemed like a reflex from a hustler determined to exploit his marks, unconcerned with the ghoulishness of it.
As I help my toddler clean up the flash cards and puzzles we bought so she can be ready to enter Montessori in the fall—all while my phone keeps flashing with Marjory Stoneman Douglas notifications—I suspect I have a better sense of why Jones’ disgusting misinformation found purchase.
When confronting the preventable deaths of children from gun violence, gun rights advocates face a choice. Some of them will contend that additional legislation, however well-intended, presents an unacceptable infringement on a constitutionally guaranteed liberty. Some of them, as evidenced by the Vets for Gun Reform hashtag, will consider additional legislation appropriate when measured against dead children. And some of them, like Jones’ listeners, will prefer to dodge the choice entirely, clinging to a comforting fiction in which they need do no introspection about the real-world implications of easy access to legal guns.
Conspiracy theory is the homage fake news pays to real horror. Jones and his ilk’s insistence that the Newtown children were not murdered testifies to the raw human impulse to do whatever is necessary to save children from needless death. It tells people, instead, that what they feel is an evil manipulation concocted by far-off tyrants. Gun rights advocates are not the ones using babies as human shields in an abstract discussion of freedom. Their enemies are.
Nothing is as precious to me as my daughter. Before she was born, the nightmare of a gunman walking into a school, from Newtown to Parkland and everywhere in between, was, in an important sense, not something I could fully feel. Now I experience it as a sickening rush of warmth spreading from my spine outward until my body is in a state of panic. To think of so many parents losing so many children to something fundamentally preventable is shattering in its weight. If this indicts my moral imagination before my daughter’s birth, so be it.
I feel no particular hostility toward guns. I first shot one on assignment for a story about vets who homebrewed a vehicle armor plate to save the lives and limbs of servicemembers from IEDs. It felt, in a visceral sense, incredible in its power. Those of us who report on national security tend to be around weaponry. To our credit and our myopia, we tend to be willing to analyze weapons of war as we would any other tool. When there were calls to sync terrorism watchlists with prohibited gun ownership, I wrote a piece about the civil rights implications of treating those watchlists as reliable. I mean this not to falsely posture as a gun enthusiast, but rather to demonstrate that I have no real animus against guns, and a journalistic track record to back that up.
With respect to those who neither have nor want children, before I became a father, I didn’t appreciate the political potency of parental fear. There is a reason politicians invoke the safety of your children when proposing everything from asbestos regulations to wars: There is nothing you will not do to protect your kids. Your task as a citizen is determining your comfort level with the trade-offs—trade-offs that might, for instance, reasonably prioritize manifested threats (PDF) and scale down to hypothetical ones. People who responsibly own guns to protect their families, operating from the same motivation I am, have my instinctive understanding and I suspect are the most willing to look for reasonable gun control compromises.
In a fundamental way, parenting is about choosing and mitigating risks—weighing the potential for expanding a young mind against the prospect of experiencing emotional or physical harm. With years yet to go before my child enters school, there is no gun control I won’t support. Gun control opponents will argue this-or-that proposal won’t end the threat of gun violence, and point instead to cherished family traditions of safe, guided, hunting or target shooting. They may even, in any particular case, be right, because the NRA has succeeded in making gun confiscation beyond the realm of the politically imaginable. But I’m not looking for a panacea. If a gun control micro-measure can mitigate by even 1/64th the chance of my daughter being murdered in her school, I am for it.
The rage and activism that the Parkland student survivors are experiencing is the result of living their entire young lives in the shadow of mass shootings—something that should indict the news judgment of those of us national security reporters who spent the last 16-plus years covering the demonstrably-less-deadly threat of domestic terrorism. By contrast, Australians who passed what we would consider stringent gun control laws and offered cash for illegal guns in a mass buyback have experienced no mass shootings for going on 22 years. Now, a recent Quinnipiac poll found 66 percent of voters, the highest percentage the poll has ever recorded, back tougher gun laws, up from 47 percent in December 2015. Gun owners, the poll found, favor stronger legislation by a 50-44 percent margin.
I suspect the most enthusiastic opponents of gun control also understand the potency of what those Parkland students and their supporters are saying. It’s on display in their ever-more exotic dodges, like the psychopath who proposed drone strikes against school shooters because he doesn’t understand that a missile strike would kill everyone inside. It likely explains why Donald Trump’s eldest son is warning about the political risk of letting down the Alex Joneses of the country. It certainly explains why the NRA, backed into a corner by an accumulating stack of bullet-riddled bodies, has transformed into a culture war organization gleefully pushing Trumpian propaganda. And it most definitely explains the nascent push on the right to accuse the Parkland students of being crisis actors or FBI plants.
There is a grim Facebook group called Sandy Hook Hoax. Its logo is a sepulchral, blue-eyed white child photographed in a hush motion. It has turned its attention, inevitably, to pretending as if Marjory Stoneman Douglas was also a hoax. But a post today featured a comment noteworthy for its willingness, however tentatively, to bring down the whole edifice of lies now that the pain is no longer something experienced vicariously:
“You guys are nuts. This actually happened. I live here. Children died. Maybe the FBI set it up I give you that, but CHILDREN did in fact DIE. It is horrific. The community is broken.”
The FBI did not “set up” Marjory Stoneman Douglas. A gunman who used the lax gun control environment that a generation of Republican politicians created and Democratic politicians acquiesced to is responsible for this and every other mass shooting. No tyrant is coming to steal the guns of the white overclass. The real recipients of state violence are the black and brown people at risk of persecution, incarceration, deportation, and execution whom the NRA and its political supporters so rarely defend. Barack Obama was wrong to say these people cling to their guns. They cling more fundamentally to their cherished myths of victimhood that license them to look the other way while children bleed out around them.