Following the mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, conservative lawmakers and political pundits are telling the American people that the availability of guns is not the issue. From their perspective the blame lies elsewhere. Examples have included the inability to properly address and treat persons suffering from mental illness; the constant depiction of violence in film, television, and video games; the erosion of Christian values; and a lack of adequate security measures at schools. The latest scapegoat is the news media. On Thursday, the National Rifle Association released a video arguing that journalists are more responsible for school gun violence than the ease of access to guns: “Over-reporting on school shootings inspires other shooters. … Ignoring shooters and not giving them any attention will do more to stop school shootings than any gun control measure ever will.”
This is, of course, not the first time that the American people have been told the problem is everything but guns. It happened following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida; the mass shooting in Las Vegas; the mass shooting before that; and so on, and so on.
The “blame everything but guns” line of argument is not a 21st-century phenomenon. It has been going on for more than a century, again, largely at the behest of the NRA. For instance, in the early 20th-century, when the country was plagued by a rise in gun violence by organized gangs, the NRA pointed the finger at automobiles, not guns. The NRA also argued at the time that because criminals already did not follow the law, it was nonsensical to pass controls that in any way impeded the average person from acquiring a firearm. From this point onward the gun rights mantra “punish criminals, not firearms” was forever etched into America’s political discourse.
Fast forward to just after World War II, when the country was suddenly flooded with overseas firearms—firearms that were later connected to both criminal and accidental deaths. Despite law enforcement officials urging Congress to pass legislation addressing the problem, no new laws were passed. The reason for legislative inaction was that the NRA persuaded lawmakers, including President Harry Truman, that the foreign influx and ready availability of firearms was a nonissue. Rather, according to the NRA, the problem was that the American public was not properly educated on the safe handling and use of firearms. “Firearms education, not firearms legislation” was the new gun rights mantra.
Enter the 1960s, a decade when the NRA was facing intense public scrutiny for its calculated opposition to most firearms controls. It was during this time that the NRA became creative at pointing the political finger. In addition to advancing the mantras “punish criminals, not firearms” and “firearms education, not firearms legislation,” the NRA claimed the real problem was changes in American values and culture along with a failed criminal justice system that was too lenient on crime.
Additionally, the NRA began blaming the depiction of violence on television for gun violence. In a 1968 editorial that appeared in the American Rifleman, the NRA claimed that “never before in the long history of mankind has the human mind been subjected to the explosive effect of so much violence, viciousness and depravity before its eyes” or have the “goriest crimes been projected into the American home in gruesome detail as news, and then warmed over to regale as ‘entertainment’ in fiction form.” The NRA urged “communications media” to “make an immediate contribution … toward reducing violence” by “refraining from sensationalism.” This Cy Hungerford cartoon appeared in the June 14, 1968, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The cartoon features a title declaring “no gun controls” and depicts three small children watching a TV screen showing a cowboy shooting someone. The text of the cartoon proclaims “Daily Program Featuring Gun Violence BANG! BANG! BANG!” It clearly portrays the NRA’s 1968 opposition to gun control, as well as the organization’s desire that something be done regarding the amount of violence shown on television.
The 1960s are also when mental illness, not guns, became a gun rights manta. It began following the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas, where Charles Whitman took an arsenal of firearms to the observation deck of the main building tower and over a period of about 90 minutes shot and killed 16 people. Rather than having a discussion on how easy it was for Whitman to acquire an arsenal, the NRA highlighted other key facts regarding the shooting, particularly Whitman’s having disclosed his propensity for violence to a psychiatrist, Whitman’s having possession of the drug Dexedrine at the time of the shooting, and Whitman’s autopsy revealing the presence of a brain tumor. To the NRA, these facts indicated that the American people were wrong to focus on guns and should instead focus on the “early identification, cure, and treatment of 2½ million mentally ill.” “Certainly the time is at hand to seek means by which society can identify, treat, and temporarily isolate such individuals,” wrote the NRA in a 1966 edition of American Rifleman.
The “blame everything but guns” argument is something that the American people have been hearing for more than a century. For much of that time, the argument has worked. Time and time again the gun violence conversation has been redirected away from guns and toward something else.