Why Sandy Hook Massacre Spawned Conspiracy Theories
White roses with images of the victims of the tragedy in Sandy Hook on a telegraph pole in the town center after the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn.
Aug. 13, 2012 --
The shooting deaths of three people near Texas A&M University today, making this the third major act of gun violence in the United States within the past 30 days, is bound to reignite a debate about gun control. The country was still reeling from the deadly tragedy at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., which left 12 people dead, and another act of domestic terrorism at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, leaving seven dead including the shooter. Colorado, Wisconsin and Texas aren't the only states to have their gun laws come under scrutiny following a shooting tragedy. Other states with even more lax laws have also drawn fire.
The killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student who was unarmed at the time, stirred controversy over the application of justice in the shooting. Florida's gun ownership laws came under scrutiny. George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old shooter and self-described neighborhood watch captain, had a concealed carry permit, easily obtained in the state. Florida also has laws in place the protect the use of firearms. A 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law allows the use of deadly force if there's the reasonable expectation of a threat, even if the supposed attacker is unarmed.
Following a shooting in Tuscon, Ariz. on Jan. 8, 2011 that left congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded and resulted in the deaths of six people, Arizona's gun laws, considered among the nation's most lenient, drew widespread media attention. The state of Arizona allows anyone over age 21 to not only own a firearm, but also conceal a handgun without needing a permit. In fact, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill in January 2010 repealing a law requiring concealed-carry permits, according to NPR. Twice already this year, Arizona state lawmakers have considered two bills loosening gun ownership restrictions. One bill brought before the Arizona Senate would have allowed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on university campuses, a measure that stalled because of the controversy that ensued from the idea of allowing guns in schools. A second bill drafted in the Arizona House would allow gun owners to carry in public buildings, and is "quietly moving toward passage," according to the Arizona Republic. This photo shows ammunition being sold at the Pima County gun show in 2011 one week after the shooting in Tuscon.
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Nearly five years ago, 32 people at Virginia Tech were killed when a mentally ill student went a on a shooting spree before turning the gun on himself. Virginia's laws are similar to restrictions imposed by other states on gun ownership. The state requires permits for concealed carry, which is subject to a review process. The state also has a 22-year-old law requiring criminal background checks on gun sales -- a law which the current governor, Bob McDonnell, says he's evaluating in a January interview with the Virginian Pilot. The state, however, does have what gun control advocates call a major loophole: private dealers may sell firearms at gun shows without a background check. Without a background check, according to gun control proponents, criminals have ready access to weapons at gun shows. In 2011, an American-born al-Qaeda spokesman even encouraged potential terrorists in a video statement to take advantage of similar loopholes in the United States. In this photo, mourners hold a vigil following the Virginia Tech massacre.
Mississippi not only has some of the most permissive gun laws of any state; it also has the second-highest number of firearm-related fatalities per 100,000 people. A new law passed in Mississippi in December 2011 allows residents to carry guns in public places, including "bars, courthouses and college campuses," according to a UPI report. Mississippi also has highest "export rates" of any state, that is the number of guns sold in Mississippi to criminals who use them in another, according to a study led by a coalition called Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Mississippi might have the second-highest rate of gun-related fatalities, but Alaska leads the list -- and also has even more lax gun laws than Mississippi. Nearly 21 people in 100,000 die as a result of a firearm in Alaska. Like Arizona, Alaska law allows for anyone over 21 to purchase a firearm. The state also permits concealed and open carry. There are some restrictions in Alaska, however. While Arizona is currently considering a law allowing guns in public buildings, carrying weapons in these areas is prohibited by Alaska laws. Private business owners also are allowed to use their discretion as to whether they allow firearms in their establishments.
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Like its neighbor Arizona, New Mexico's lax gun ownership laws make it a prime location for buying guns for the purpose of interstate arms trafficking. New Mexico doesn't require permits for purchase, possession or open carry. Concealed carry permits require the completion of a gun safety course. Weapons used by drug cartels in Mexico often originate in the United States due to the ease with which criminals can buy guns and smuggle them across the border, as reported by CNN. These firearms are usually purchased in border states, like New Mexico.
Montana has limited restrictions on gun ownership, requiring permits only for concealed carry. In 2009, Montana passed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act (PDF), a bill that challenged federal authority of the state to regulate guns made and sold in Montana. The move proved controversial, and the bill has been tied up in the court system.
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One month after the Sandy Hook school shootings, the list of victims continues to grow. One man, Gene Rosen -- who found six children and a bus driver in his driveway, brought them into his home, fed them and called parents to assure them that their children were safe -- has been harassed by telephone, email and online by those who think he is lying about his actions, and is part of a conspiracy.
Rosen is not the first hero to be assaulted and insulted by conspiracy theorists with doubts. In 2002, when conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel confronted astronaut Buzz Aldrin and called him a "coward and a liar" for faking the moon landings, the 72-year-old promptly punched Sibrel in the face.
A group called the Sandy Hook Truther movement has emerged from the dust and chaos over the past weeks to claim that the school shooting was all a staged event. Though many Americans are outraged and incredulous that anyone could doubt that the tragedy even happened, the Sandy Hook school shootings follow classic conspiracy thinking. Here are a few reasons why.
Poignant political implications
Shootings -- even child murders -- happen every day, several times a day, in America. According to UNICEF, America has the worst record of child abuse and homicide in the industrialized world, with an average of 27 children killed every week by their parents and caregivers. But those child murders don't have implications for enacting a national policy on gun control.
Most events producing conspiracy theories have important social and political implications, and the Sandy Hook shootings are no exception. No one, regardless of what side of the gun control issue they are on, can deny that guns played a key role in the Sandy Hook killings. So the conspiracy theorists must instead challenge the claim that the attack even occurred. They believe it's all a hoax to scare people into supporting more gun control and a step toward an outright repeal of the Second Amendment. (5 Milestones in Gun Control History)
'Holes' in the 'official story'
A common theme running through conspiracy thinking is that if you're smart enough, and just look closely enough at all the news coverage and available information, you can see lies and contradictions in accounts of the event. Truthers claim that they have found "absolute proof" that the shootings were a hoax, pointing to a 6-year-old girl named Emilie Parker, who was shot to death in the school massacre.
Or was she? They claim that the smoking-gun photographic proof that Emilie is still alive is that she was photographed after the shooting with President Obama during a visit with the families. The girl is actually Emilie's sister, wearing the same dress that Emilie wore in another photograph.
In the topsy-turvy world of conspiracy thinking, any little girl who resembles Emilie and is wearing the same dress as one she owned must be her. It could not possibly be her sister, who could not possibly be wearing either Emilie's dress or an identical one. Instead, it's obviously proof that the whole shooting was faked.
But this claim, even if it were true, raises more questions than it answers. For example, if Sandy Hook was indeed a "staged event" as claimed, with Emilie Parker alive and the president part of the conspiracy, why would the government be so careless as to release a photograph of Emilie, knowing that she had been reported dead in a carefully orchestrated national hoax? Is a widely published photo opportunity with the president of the United States really the best place to hide someone who is supposedly dead?
Conspiracy theorist websites offer dozens of other examples and pieces of evidence, ranging from real or perceived contradictions in eyewitness accounts to conflicting news reports. And indeed there are some contradictions. (The 10 Most Bizarre Conspiracy Theories)
The minds of conspiracy theorists
But what the conspiratorial mind sees as misinformation and lies, others see as merely perfectly ordinary incomplete and inaccurate information following a multifaceted tragedy. Especially in the hours and first days after such a chaotic and horrifying event, witnesses can be confused and mistaken. Police officers and reporters can misspeak, or be given incorrect information.
Not every single statement about what occurred, from dozens of different people in different places at different times, will agree in every detail. Three different witnesses to a minor car accident will often give three slightly different accounts of what they saw, so it's unrealistic to expect dozens of people who were involved in a chaotic school massacre to report exactly the same things.
Part of the reason that conspiracy theories linger is that any contradictory evidence no matter how conclusive or compelling -- can just be dismissed by claiming that it's part of the cover-up. There is ultimately no evidence that would satisfy most conspiracy theorists. Those who distrust the government will use any excuse to support their beliefs, logical or not. Conspiracy theorists prefer complex mysteries over simple truths, and find mystery where none exists.
White roses with images of the victims of the tragedy in Sandy Hook on a telegraph pole in the town center after the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn. Corbis
Research has shown not only that a person who believes in one conspiracy theory is likely to support others, but also contradictions don't deter conspiracy theorists.
The idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked is not only absurd, but also an insult to the victims of the tragedy. The victims are really, provably gone; they are not safely hidden away somewhere until the Sandy Hook shooting has served its ultimate goal of taking away America's guns. The bullet holes are there. The children and adults are dead. Toxic conspiracies, however, will live on.
-- Ben Radford. This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com.
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