My dictionary defines a “shibboleth” as a “saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.” In response to the latest mass gun murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has trotted out its usual shibboleths.
First, divert attention from guns onto something else. NRA executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said on December 21, “There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.” Sounds like he’s describing the American gun manufacturing and sales business, but actually he’s trying to blame the video game and movie industries, and American culture in general, including music videos which he says “portray life as a joke”.
But the whole world watches American movies and American television and plays American video games. So how can our movies, video games, and music videos explain America’s high gun-related death rate, the highest among all developed nations?
By the way, the NRA has been caught glorifying the particular guns used in violent movies and video games, and has removed those links from its website since the Sandy Hook massacre.
Second, LaPierre also condemned “our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill”. And in response to President Obama’s gun control proposals, LaPierre on January 16 more broadly proposed “fixing our broken mental health system.”
Actually, most states already authorize or require consideration of mental health records in background checks for firearms, and most authorize or require reporting mental health records to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as “NICS”.
But states and mental health experts do not agree on which mental health records should be maintained and shared by governments. The number of Americans who experience some degree of mental illness is large, but the number who constitute a physical threat to others is small, and difficult to identify.
There’s nothing wrong with paying more attention to the challenges of the mentally ill, but the NRA’s concern is clearly more focused on turning attention away from guns.
A third distraction of the NRA is its bold assertion that more guns make us safer, that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”, and that the proper solution to the Sandy Hook massacre is to put more guns in schools. But if more guns make a society safer from gun violence, as the NRA asserts, the United States would have the lowest level of gun violence in the developed world instead of the highest.
On the same day as the Sandy Hook massacre, there was an attack on elementary school children in Chengping, a city in Henan province, China, where guns are strictly controlled. A deranged attacker stabbed 22 school children. But here’s the difference: All those children survived. The difference was the available weapon, a knife instead of a gun.
If President Obama’s gun control initiatives are to gain any traction, the NRA shibboleths must be refuted, and our concern over gun violence properly focused on the accessibility of guns.
Jan Ting is a Professor of Law at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and a former Assistant Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum and Parole, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice. Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.