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Disinformation is a root cause of gun violence
It should be treated as such
By: Devin Hughes, President and Founder, GVPedia
Ethan Song was visiting his long-time best friend’s house on a chilly winter day in 2018. Unbeknownst to his parents, Ethan’s friend had been showing off his father’s unsecured handguns to his classmates for over 6 months. On that fateful day, Ethan was shot in the head and had zero chance of survival. Ethan’s friend was charged with manslaughter. The father, who owned the gun and was responsible for its storage, faced no criminal penalties. Ethan had just turned 15.
The fault for Ethan’s death lies squarely on the irresponsible gun owner who negligently stored his firearm. But, another factor also contributed to Ethan’s death: disinformation. Had the irresponsible gun owner not believed the myth that firearms make us safer, there likely would not have been an unsecured firearm for teenagers to find and play with. Had the gun lobby and its allies not spent the past five decades misleading the American people about the need to own firearms for self-defense, there likely would not have been a trigger to pull.
Over the past five decades, the gun lobby has used a strategy that relies on disinformation and confusion, called a Firehose of Falsehood, to convince Americans that guns make us safer – and it has proven remarkably successful.
This campaign is more than a mere marketing strategy and deliberately blocks legitimate research about firearms while touting a handful of unethical “researchers” who have been broadly discredited by the academic community. The success of the campaign in promoting the myths about gun violence has resulted in disinformation becoming a major root cause of gun violence.
We often talk about treating the root causes of gun violence and examining the structural reasons behind why someone picks up a firearm and pulls the trigger. Root causes include poverty, underperforming schools, and easy access to firearms by high-risk people. It’s time to add disinformation to the list.
The majority of Americans say the primary driver for their purchase of a firearm is to keep them and their families safe. The gun lobby has long touted this as an important reason for owning a gun. According to a 2021 Gallup Poll, 88% of gun owners list self-defense as a primary reason for ownership. More than 60% of Americans, including both gun owners and non-owners, believe that a firearm in the home makes them safer, with 56% believing more people carrying concealed firearms would make society safer. As The Trace reported, the past three years have broken gun sale records, with more than 16 million guns sold last year (which is down from a peak of nearly 22 million guns sold in 2020).
This surge in buying firearms for self-defense has corresponded with a surge in gun violence. Since the Gun Violence Archive began tracking gun violence in 2014, mass shootings in which four or more people are shot have increased by 137%. Deaths and injuries of children and teenagers aged 0-17 (not including suicides) have increased by 115%. CDC data from 2014-2021 that includes suicides reveals that gun deaths have increased by 45% from 33,594 in 2014 to 48,830 in 2021. Tens of thousands more people are injured by guns each year, and guns are used to threaten and abuse hundreds of thousands more. Further, more than 200,000 guns are reported stolen every year by individual gun owners. These are guns that all too often find their way to crime scenes.
In addition to the raw data, the overwhelming majority of legitimate academic research debunks the myth that guns make us safer. A firearm in the home doubles the risk of homicide and triples the risk of suicide for everyone in the home. These risks do not end at the door either. In 2005, the National Research Council released a report rejecting the claims of gun rights advocates that more guns equal less crime. In fact, the majority of academic research has found that weakening concealed carry laws increases violent crime.
The chasm between beliefs about the safety firearms provide and the research showing their risks can be traced back to the gun lobby’s Firehose of Falsehood campaign. The reason people purchase firearms is to protect themselves and their loved ones, but the belief that it will make them safer is based on disinformation. While most of these firearms will never be used outside of recreation, far too many will be used to harm family members, be used in suicide, or will be stolen and end up at crime scenes.
Disinformation needs to be treated as seriously as other root causes of gun violence and we all have a role to play in fixing the problem.
Personal conversations about gun safety and the risks such weapons pose is essential. Such conversations are difficult in today’s polarized times, however, it’s our best weapon in the fight against gun violence. Successfully countering disinformation requires us to bridge divides, not burn bridges.
The Firehose of Falsehood has encouraged irresponsible gun ownership and warped the public conversation around firearms. Conversations dispelling disinformation will save lives like Ethan’s.
Devin Hughes is the President and Founder of GVPedia, a non-profit that provides access to gun violence prevention research, and data.
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