Conspiracies are everywhere. Prosecutors use them all the time in court. And the Internet … well, ‘nuff said. Conspiracy theories are like animals. Even within a single species, they come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. You need a taxonomy to keep them separated in your mind.
A conspiracy is a plot by two or more people to do something unsavory. A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain something unusual. Some conspiracy theories are false, some are unproven, some are unprovable, and some have turned out to be true.Attacks on Conspiracy Theories Are a Conspiracy
Categories of Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories can be categorized in many ways. This is useful for understanding that they are not all the same, just like all animals are not the same. Characterizing QAnon-based theories as typical conspiracy theories is like saying a Komodo dragon is typical of all animals. Any fifth-grader knows that’s just silly.
Here are seven ways that conspiracy theories can be classified.
People forget that many of the conspiracies that have been proven to be true began as disbelieved theories. That makes them useful for understanding the fundamental characteristics of the theories without getting caught up in all the emotional baggage of extraterrestrials operating a sex-trafficking ring from Area 51. Proven conventional conspiracy theories tend to be not too unusual and fall into five groups:
- Government conspiracies, those perpetrated by governmental organizations rather than by rogue individuals, tend to be nationwide, aimed at controlling information, involving thousands of participants organized in a hierarchy, and not uncovered for years. Examples include the Holocaust, Operation Paperclip, Prohibition poisoning, Operation Clearview, War on drugs, Gulf of Tonkin, My Lai, Fruit Machine, Indian residential school system scandal, Military Nuclear Accidents, weapons of mass destruction, White phosphate in Iraq, Enhanced interrogation (torture), Tuskegee experiment, Human experimentation in the US, Project SUNSHINE, MK ULTRA, COINTELPRO, warrantless wiretapping, and High School spying.
- Political conspiracies, those perpetrated primarily to acquire power, tend to involve only tens of individuals in a group, operating in secret but manifesting on a national scale. They continue for months before being discovered. Examples include the FDR coup, Watergate burglary, Koreagate, Reagan’s hostage fraud, Iran-Contra conspiracy, Clinton-Lewinsky affair, CIA-leak scandal, PRISM, Coingate, Debategate, Bridgegate, and Ukraine quid-pro-quo.
- Business conspiracies, perpetrated by organizations for financial gain, tend to be organized in a hierarchy, compartmentalized so that only the top tier of conspirators understand everything. They can continue for years before they are uncovered by investigations. They are often mistaken for capitalism. Examples include Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, Tyco, Volkswagen, Lehman Brothers, and Bernie Madoff.
- Sports conspiracies, perpetrated by either organizations or individuals to gain some competitive advantage, tend to be national in scope, group activities that may fall apart in days or persist for years. Examples involving teams include Patriots spying, deflategate, Saints bounty hunting, Black Sox Scandal, Houston Astros sign-stealing, and Olympic badminton. Examples involving individuals include steroid scandals, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Tanya Harding, and Skategate.
- Crime conspiracies come in varieties—small, local conspiracies that prosecutors handle in court and huge, well-organized, activities that are carried out overtly for years before being exposed, usually by whistleblowers. Examples include pedophilia in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, USA Gymnastics, and Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring.
Russian-Doll conspiracies are those in which a simple, readily-apparent conspiracy theory serves as cover for one or more much more complex conspiracy theories. The challenge with Russian dolls is that you don’t know which doll, if any, holds the truth. Often the whole purpose of a Russian doll is to cast doubt on which of many alternative theories might be true. There are quite a few examples, and as you might expect, the government is associated with many of them.
Take the conspiracy behind the 9/11/2001 attacks. Was it a small, privately-run conspiracy involving a few dozen people operating from a cave on the other side of the world (the cover doll), or was it a huge, compartmentalized set of concurrent conspiracies involving hundreds of people from government and business interests (the inner dolls), or neither?
Was the 1947 incident near Roswell, NM the crash of an alien spacecraft as originally reported (the inner doll) or a simple weather balloon (the original cover doll) or a top-secret intelligence-gathering device (a revised cover doll)?
The huge election-fraud conspiracy of 2020 (the cover doll) turned out to be no more than a few isolated cases (inner dolls) of individual voters voting, intentionally or unintentionally, more than once.
While there aren’t a lot of Russian dolls, there are probably more than you might imagine.
Sometimes it’s not the original event that captures everyone’s attention, it’s what happens after the event that spawns notable conspiracy theories. Look no further than Watergate. One simple, local, political conspiracy to commit a burglary turned into a HUGE national conspiracy that led to the first resignation of a U.S. President.
Governments are the leading raison d’être for rebound conspiracy theories. In trying to suppress scrutiny of a conspiracy, they instead draw attention to it, called the backfire effect. Actions taken that often cause the backfire effect include:
- Denialism—maintaining that a conspiracy is unlikely or even possible. This is the universally-accepted first response to any questions about a conspiracy theory.
- Cover Up—withholding incriminating evidence.
- Whitewash—releasing misleading evidence.
- Mischaracterization—making a strawman argument that focuses on one interpretation or aspect of a theory while ignoring more relevant parts.
- Misdirection—focusing on obfuscatory details instead of the gist of a conspiracy. Misdirection is sometimes called red herrings or whataboutism. South Park fans know it as the Chewbacca Defense.
- Debunking—using facts and data to erroneously disprove a theory. The issue is that sometimes the debunkers are biased and unqualified, and their analyses are faulty, but they create the perception that the theory is invalid when it is not.
- Defamation—attacking critics by making ad hominem arguments.
Almost all government conspiracies have a rebound component. The CIA at one time paid operatives, called mockingbirds, to spread false conspiracy theories and other misinformation.
Most conspiracies involve a single event or a series of occurrences; only a quarter or so target an individual or a group. Any theory that targets people instead of events is probably suspect. They are too often just gossip, products of bias, bigotry, or hate. Still, they are repeated because people forgo critical thinking and surrender to their worst failings. Emotionally charged conspiracies can be:
- Individual Conspiracies. A theory with an individual at the center of the conspiracy. It seems like Hillary Clinton is involved in many of them. Other individual conspiracies include Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Valerie Plame, and Alexander Litvinenko.
- Cohort Conspiracies. A theory with a small, well-defined group at the center of the conspiracy. Many conspiracies fit this category, mostly in which the cohort consists of the conspirators rather than the targets. Examples include Bernie Madoff, the Watergate burglary, the Clinton-Lewinsky Affair, Debategate, Bridgegate, the Harding-Kerrigan Attack, School spying, and the Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking ring.
- Class Conspiracies. A theory with a large class of individuals at the center of the conspiracy. Examples include Trump-supporters are all racists and Liberals hate guns. There are also a variety of theories involving political ideologies, genders, and religions.
It’s important to distinguish whether an emotionally-charged theory focuses on the conspirators or the targets. Theories that target specific individuals or groups should be treated with skepticism.
- Event conspiracy theories—conspiracies related to specific events, like political assassinations, murders of celebrities, and 9/11.
- Systemic conspiracy theories—conspiracies having broad goals to infiltrate and subvert existing institutions. Examples might include Jews, Freemasons, Communism, or the Catholic Church.
- Superconspiracy theories—combinations of multiple alleged conspiracies. His cited examples are the ideas of David Icke and Milton William Cooper.
Barkun’s classification is aimed at some of the more speculative conspiracy theories.
Theories with Many Interpretations
Proven conspiracy theories are straightforward. All the facts are pretty much established. But unless all the details are known, a conspiracy theory can mean different things to different people. They’re like Russian dolls except that instead of there being a limited number of separate, complete theories, there are a seemingly infinite number of minor variations. It’s difficult to debate a theory because people who agree on major elements may disagree on details.
Theories about the 9/11/2001 attacks are a good example. One person might believe that Flight 93 was shot down by a military jet and another might believe that the jet crashed because the passengers fought the hijackers. One might believe that the Twin Towers fell because of structural deficiencies and another might believe it involved explosives. One might believe that Building 7 fell because it was hit by debris and another might believe it was intentionally demolished. One might believe that the Pentagon was hit by a passenger jet and another might believe it was a missile. There are many variations.
Vaccines are another example. Most people no longer subscribe to the conspiracy concerning autism that was exposed in 2004, but there are other reasons people have for avoiding vaccines. Some people believe that some vaccines are no longer needed because of natural immunity or because the diseases they are supposed to prevent are disappearing. Some people believe that vaccines can be harmful because they contain potentially harmful ingredients (thimerosal, aluminum, formaldehyde) and are administered too early in a child’s life, too often, and in too many combinations. They believe vaccines can cause side effects and allergic reactions, and even weaken the immune system. Or, they believe they should have the freedom to choose whether their child get vaccinated. They may just mistrust the government, “Big Pharna,” or science in general. Some people have religious beliefs that say they should avoid vaccines. You can’t just lump everybody who avoids vaccines into one group.
I won’t even get into the variety of theories involving secret societies ruling the world … they might read this.
You have to understand what the details of a conspiracy theory that a person believes are before you can discuss it with them. If you don’t, you are just an arm-waving bully.
Theories with Many Instances
Some conspiracy “theories” actually represent many separate instances of the same phenomenon. The interesting aspect of theories with many instances is that if you can prove that one instance is true, it may follow that all or most of the other instances are likely to be true.
UFOs are a good example. There are thousands of photos, videos, eyewitness accounts, and other types of evidence supporting the notion that extraterrestrial craft have visited Earth. None of that evidence, however, is considered to be definitive. But, more than 700 cases, described in the U.S. Air Force’s 1947-1969 Project Blue Book UFO investigation program, could not be explained. If even one of those cases could be proven to involve extraterrestrials, the others would be worthy of further evaluation. Surely, the proof has to be incontrovertible. The Navy’s video of a UFO doing unearthly things won’t do it. We need to see a real alien.
Cryptids are another example. They can be considered to be a conspiracy theory in the sense that their existence has been claimed, without acceptance, for years. Some legends of cryptids go back hundreds of years. The coelacanth was thought to be extinct for 66 million years until one was caught in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. The 13th Century legend of the Kraken was solved in the 1850s when giant squids, unknown before then, washed up in several parts of the world. The gorilla, the manatee, the Komodo dragon, the kangaroo, the platypus, and many other animals used to be classified as cryptids. We’re just one Yeti away from having Netflix move Harry and the Hendersons from the comedy section to documentaries.
Hunting a Craze
Like the animal kingdom, you can learn a lot by observing conspiracy theories. For instance, how did a particular theory come about? The Moon-Landing-Hoax started as a NASA joke. The vaccines-cause-autism theory started with an article in the medical journal Lancet. The Russia-assassinated-Alexander Litvinenko theory started when they found plutonium in his tea. None have been proven so why do these theories persist? What are the grains of truth that keep a particular theory from collapsing into a pool of absurdity and disappearing from our consciousness?
Evaluating conspiracy theories can reveal much about both the individuals who hold them and about the segment of society that supports them. Such evaluations benefits from understanding how theories, proven and unproven, compare with each other. This is no different than comparing competing scientific theories; you examine evidence, reasoning, and predictions. Doing this benefits from having ways to classify conspiracy theories.
The collective noun for many conspiracy theories is a CRAZE.
Forget the politicians, how do Americans want to change the Constitution?
From 1789 to 2019, approximately 11,770 measures have been proposed to amend the Constitution. Congress sent 33 of the proposed Amendments to the States for ratification. Of those, 27 have been ratified: 11 in the 1700s, 4 in the 1800s, and 12 in the 1900s. The six Amendments that were never ratified are:
- Congressional Apportionment Amendment, 1789
- Titles of Nobility Amendment, 1810
- Corwin (pro-slavery) Amendment, 1861
- Child Labor Amendment, 1924
- Equal Rights Amendment, 1972
- District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, 1978.
I had just turned 18 in 1971 when the 26th Amendment was ratified giving me the right to vote for George McGovern. Richard Nixon won, resigned after Watergate, and the country hasn’t been the same since. But, I learned how a change in a 200 year old document could change lives.
What Could Go Wrong?
Amending the U.S. Constitution is a difficult task. The usual method requires that a proposed change be adopted by two-thirds votes of both Houses of Congress, and then ratified by 38 State legislatures, usually within a stipulated time period.
In today’s divided government, there is little chance of this happening. Both sides fear what might happen when a proposed Amendment that they favor is exposed to the machinations of their opponents. They believe that the dysfunction of the status quo is better than the evil that might come from a change.
What Could Go Right?
But there are quite a few issues that do need to be addressed by Constitutional Amendments. We don’t all agree on what the changes should be, but most of us agree that changes should be made. The status quo is not working. That said, here are 18 ideas for amending the Constitution. Two have been adopted but not ratified — the Congressional Apportionment Amendment in 1789 and the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Ten of the others have been proposed multiple times in different forms but never adopted by Congress. Six of the Amendments have never been proposed to Congress, as far as I know.
1. Balanced Budget Amendment. This amendment would require Congress and the President to balance the Federal budget every year. This amendment has been proposed many times.
2. Campaign Finance Reform Amendment. This amendment would place limitations on how candidates for Federal office could raise and use funds to be used in their campaigns. This has been proposed in many forms at many times.
3. Congressional Term-Limit Amendment. This amendment would limit Senators and Representatives to three terms and change the terms of Representatives from two years to four years. This amendment has been proposed several times in different forms.
4. Corporate Personhood Amendment. This amendment would prevent the government from providing any right specified in the Constitution to a non-organic, non-living, non-sentient entity.
5. Economic Bill of Rights. Proposed by FDR in 1944, this amendment would guarantee all citizen the rights to employment, a fair income, freedom from unfair business practices, housing, medical care, secure retirement, and education.
6. Electoral College Replacement Amendment. This amendment would replace the current Electoral College with either a simpler two-round system or abolish it entirely in favor of a direct vote for the Presidency. This amendment has been proposed several times in different forms.
7. Equal Rights Amendment. “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” This was originally proposed in 1972.
8. Federal Elections Amendment. This amendment would require the Federal government to expand voter participation by providing tax deductions for voting and funding States to provide adequate polling places and voting equipment, allowing vote-by-mail, and clarifying the schedules for voting and vote counting. This Amendment has not been proposed to Congress (AFAIK).
9. Government Funding Amendment. This amendment would require the Federal government to fund its operations from a national tax on all financial transactions including consumer sales, stock purchases, corporate mergers, estate transfers, capital gains, and so on. The income tax would be abolished.
10. Gun Ownership and Use Amendment. This amendment would repeal the 2nd and 3rd Amendments and replace them with a clear statement requiring the government to research and regulate gun ownership to minimize violence without unnecessarily restricting the ability of qualified individuals to own and use firearms. This Amendment has not been proposed to Congress (AFAIK).
12. Military Constraint Amendment. This amendment would require the Federal government to limit all spending on defense, including interest from prior military engagements, to less than 50% of the Federal budget. This Amendment has not been proposed to Congress (AFAIK).
13. Minimum-Maximum Income Amendment. This amendment would require the Federal government to implement a national basic income with a minimum wage tied to it, eliminate all Federal taxation of individuals with incomes below the poverty level, and establish a surtax for those in the top 10% of wealth. This Amendment has not been proposed to Congress (AFAIK).
14. Opportunity to Govern Amendment. This amendment would allow naturalized citizens who have been U.S. citizens for at least twenty years, to become President or Vice President of the United States. This Amendment was proposed in 2003.
15. Representation Realignment Amendment. This amendment would require the Federal government to apportion votes in the House of Representatives to States according to their populations determined in the latest census (e.g., 1 vote for every 250,000 constituents). Federal office space for individual representatives would be allocated by tax income from the States.
16. SCOTUS Reorganization Amendment. This amendment would expand the Court to 15 members — 6 selected by Republicans, 6 selected by Democrats, and 3 selected by members of the Court. The Chief Justice would be elected annually by the 15 members of the Court. This Amendment has not been proposed to Congress (AFAIK).
17. USPS Enablement Amendment. This amendment would require the Federal government to remove restrictions and provide conditions that will enable the USPS to achieve and maintain a revenue-neutral position. This Amendment has not been proposed to Congress (AFAIK).
What Do You Think?
Which of the following 18 proposals for Amendments to the U.S. Constitution would you most like to be considered by Congress for adoption? Indicate your preferences as:
- FAVOR — Definitely would support.
- NO OPINION — Ambivalent. Don’t care. Figure it out when it gets adopted.
- OPPOSE — Would NOT support.
Mention in the comments which of the proposed Amendments is your favorite. Also comment in what other Amendment you would propose.
What if a crazy conspiracy theory turned out to be true in 2021?
In this decade of ceaseless improbabilities, what else can happen to add a little more chaos to society? What if a well-known conspiracy theory were proven to be true? Conspiracy theories are usually ridiculed because they are not supported by sufficient evidence. Sometimes, though, they turn out to be true (e.g., tobacco causes cancer, asbestos in baby powder, pedophilia in the Boy Scouts, Iran-Contra, Gulf of Tonkin, and Watergate). So, for the sake of something different to talk about, suspend your disbelief for a moment and vote for the conspiracy theory that you believe would cause the greatest societal upheaval if it were shown to be true.
In the comments, speculate about how you think most people would react. Which conspiracy would be hardest for people to believe? Would there be widespread panic and unrest or would people just shrug and go about their lives? Is there something else that would make 2021 even crazier than 2020?
If he were alive today, James Madison would have had to send ten tweets to publish the Bill of Rights. Here’s how he could have done it in just four tweets.
Amendment I. The Federal government may not obstruct a person’s ability to:
- Express and publish opinions
- Protest in a group
- Ask the government to fix problems
- Practice any religion.
Amendments II and III. The Federal government may not interfere with any State militia’s weaponry or provisioning.
Amendments IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII. The Federal government may not hamper the fair treatment of accused criminals by:
- Banning unreasonable searches of an individual or their property, or seizures without just compensation.
- Requiring that a grand jury initiate serious criminal charges, and that accused persons be informed of charges, be allowed to avoid self-incrimination, face accusers, present witnesses in defense, be represented by a lawyer, and not be tried twice for the same offense
- Requiring trials that are fair, timely, open to the public, and decided by an impartial jury of peers
- Forbidding excessive bail, fines, or inappropriate punishments.
Amendments IX and X. These are not the only rights of individuals and States that the Federal government may not interfere with.
Does it really matter?
There is no topic that generates quite as much hysteria as gun rights. Not even the quality of soccer clubs. Opinions cut across age, race, religion, and even political ideology. If you were raised with firearms in your home, gun ownership is a God-given human right as important as freedom of thought, speech, assembly, and religion. If you weren’t raised with firearms in your home, gun ownership is something that needs to be regulated in order to protect society, just like automobiles, dangerous chemicals, tobacco, and playground equipment.
If you ask people what they believe the Second Amendment of the Constitution means, or should mean, they’ll tell you bluntly with total certainty. Cut through the high-tension rhetoric and you’ll find rationales that expose much about our society.
One approach to assessing the attitudes of society about firearms is to ask people how they would rewrite the Second Amendment. That question was asked by the Los Angeles Times in 2017 and by Quora in 2018 via the internet. No adjustments were made for demographic information in these surveys (i.e., they are not statistical polls). The responses were all open-format.
Responses from the LA Times did included information on whether the respondent said they owned any guns. 64% of the comments came from individuals who said they did not own any guns and 36% came from individuals who said they were gun owners. (For context, other surveys indicate that about 30% of American adults own one or more guns.) The tenor of some of the responses suggested that the gun-ownership data are not entirely reliable.
All of the responses were categorized into six common themes plus a separate category for unique responses. Although neither of the sources represent a statistically-designed survey, the comments are interesting. Results are summarized in the following table.
The proportions of responses in the seven categories are similar for both sources. Furthermore, the proportion of responses that want to expand gun ownership (EXPANDED and TYRANNY) is about the same as the proportion of responses that want to limit gun ownership (REPEALED, REGULATED, and MILITIAS). About 13% of responses indicated that no change in the Amendment was needed.
Of the 270 responses (in the LA Times survey) from individuals who said they did not own a gun, 28% would clarify the need for regulation, 23% would clarify or expand gun ownership rights, 21% would clarify the role of a militia, 10% would leave the Amendment as it is, and 9% would repeal the Amendment.
Of the 153 responses from individuals who said they owned a gun, 41% would clarify or expand gun ownership rights, 18% would keep the Amendment the same. 17% would allow some regulation, usually for mental illness or criminal history, and 7% would repeal the Amendment.
The “unique” responses were unique; they couldn’t be categorized. Two responses said that the right-to-vote and the right-to-an-education should not be infringed. I can’t argue with that. One response said that the Amendment should be limited to water pistols. Another said the Amendment should prevent men from owning guns.
Respondents who would repeal the Amendment say it has outlived its usefulness. Like the Third Amendment, it no longer applies in today’s society. The late SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia said, it is “debatable” whether the Second Amendment as a whole is “outmoded” in a nation “where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem.” 7% of the respondents didn’t think it was so debatable.
Guns aren’t essential survival tools needed to defend against wild animals, Indian attacks, and most importantly, invasions by foreign armies. Those functions have been replaced by local animal-control, law-enforcement, and the U.S. military. Personal firearm ownership now has nothing to do with the defense of the nation. There are no more militias that need individuals to bring their own guns with them in the event that their States call them into service. Today’s militias, National Guards, provide all the firearms and provisions necessary.
Moreover, membership in an 18th century State-militia wasn’t all voluntary, like modern militias. You could join independently but most participants were conscripted. Each State militia had geographical subunits, all under government control. Citizens were required to register with their local officers, and the officers were required to maintain the lists of eligible white men. Militiamen were required to participate in training and musters during peacetime, and report for active duty when needed. They were under considerable government regulation.
Respondents reasoned that because there is no current need for militias, the Second Amendment should be repealed.
23% of respondents want to rewrite the Second Amendment so that it is easier for governments to regulate gun ownership, and thereby, safeguard its citizens. Types of regulation that were mentioned include:
- Individuals who have been convicted of a felony should not possess firearms
- Individuals with a history of mental illness should not possess firearms
- Firearms may be used for training, marksmanship, and hunting at any time at authorized locations. Use of a firearm for self-defense should be restricted to in one’s own home.
- Weapons must have a safety device that will allow usage only by the owner.
- Arms should be limited to no more than 7 bullets.
- Every weapon should have a 4-year-term registration. Any weapon without a valid registration should be confiscated by law enforcement.
- All gun owners should be required to obtain and carry a photo license. Any gun owner without a valid license should have his firearms confiscated by law enforcement.
- Households should be limited to one weapon of a given type and a limited amount of ammunition.
- Gun manufacturers, sellers, and owners should be liable for any harm caused by a weapon they manufactured, sold, or had possession of, including weapons that were stolen and not immediately reported to the police.
- Firearms should be designated for one primary use, such as personal defense or hunting.
- All members of a household in which a gun is stored should complete a sanctioned safety and gun-usage course
- Weapons should be stored, unloaded, in a locked depository when not in use.
Individuals Are Not Militias
Comments involving militias mostly involved the debate over whether the Amendment applied to militias or to individual citizens. 17% of all the responses involved this concept.
At the time the Second Amendment was written, a militia was an official government institution under state authority. Membership in the militia was not a matter of an individual choice or open to everybody as it is today. If you were a fit, white, male, of an appropriate age and the government needed you, you were required to participate. States didn’t have the funds to outfit everyone so you had to bring your own clothes, bedding, personal items, and, of course, weapon.
Furthermore, James Madison, who wrote the Constitution, was proficient in Latin rules-of-grammar and used that knowledge to write the Amendment. The Latin construction of the Amendment requires the first part of the sentence—A well-regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State—to be inseparably connected to the second part—the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. One part cannot exist without the other. Therefore, the Amendment was originally written to mean that one has the right to keep and bear firearms if, and only if, one is a member of a well-regulated militia.
For 200 years, the courts held that the Amendment referred to the rights of states to maintain militias. The Amendment was the Founding Fathers’ way of telling the new central government not to mess with State governments. That changed in the 2008 case of District of Columbia vs. Heller when the court reinterpreted the Amendment to provide individuals the right to keep a firearm in their homes for purposes of self-defense. That decision was championed by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He was ignorant of Latin rules of grammar and thought that the first part of the Amendment was merely “introductory” and that it could be ignored. The full court voted 5-4 in favor of what has been characterized by historians and legal scholars as a blatantly erroneous interpretation.
There was agreement from many survey respondents that militias had long ago been replaced by standing armies maintained by States or the Federal government. Commenters took this to mean that either:
- There is no longer a need to raise a citizen militia so there is no need for citizens to own arms, or
- There is no longer a need to raise a citizen militia so that part of the Amendment can be ignored.
The first group follows the interpretation of the Amendment from its ratification until 2008 and the second group follows the Scalia interpretation in the case of District of Columbia vs. Heller. Individuals who do not own firearms tend to be somewhat more likely to want to clarify that the Amendment refers to enabling States to arm their militias while gun owners want to delete any mention of militias.
The second interpretation of the Amendment doesn’t make any sense. Imagine if Madison wrote, “A well-funded franchise, being necessary to the establishment of a baseball dynasty, the claim that the New York Yankees are the greatest team of all time shall not be disputed.” No one (except a Yankees fan) would think the second part of the sentence could stand without the first part of the sentence.
Some respondents don’t think there is any problem with the Amendment, based of course on their own interpretation of what it means. About 13% of all respondents thought the Amendment should stay as it is. 10% of respondents who said they didn’t own a gun and 18% who said they did own a gun thought the Amendment should stay the same.
35% of respondents want to rewrite the Second Amendment to clarify or expand the rights of gun owners. Some of the comments suggested simple edits:
- Remove the reference to militia from the present version of the 2nd Amendment.
- Change “well-regulated” to “in working order
- People shall be able to own whatever they want as long as they don’t harm others.
Some rewrites were more involved:
- The people shall have the right to form well-regulated militias, and possess any type of weapon they choose, in any way they wish, anywhere they see fit.
- All citizens and legal residents, eighteen years of age and older shall have the right to possess firearms. This right shall not be infringed by any State, Local, or Federal government by regulation, statute, law, ordinance, or order.
- All persons shall have the unalienable, natural, and god given right to keep and bear arms and to use force in defense of themselves, their families, their property, and the state.
- The government shall make no law limiting the amount or type of arms, the amount or type of ammunition, nor the capacity thereof, nor shall they make any law requiring the registration thereof, nor any law limiting the possession, manufacture, or transfer of arms to others.
- Any man or woman who is of rational and sound mind and has the right to vote shall have the right to keep and bear Arms after being trained with them in a conscription system intended to establish a trained citizenry to later form militias.
Some of the comments were meant to explain or introduce ideas:
- The Founding Fathers never intended for the American People to be without arms, nor did they intend to restrict ownership of any class of arms.
- Weapons are a category of property and as such shall not be regulated.
- Any object can be used as a weapon. Objects should not be regulated.
- Firearm ownership is about personal freedom.
- Bearing arms means to have one on your person at any and all times
Quite a few comments mentioned what firearms people should be allowed to possess. A weapon was defined by one commenter as “any item, tool, munition, ordinance or apparatus intended to be used in the commissioning of Civil Defense activities, defending of the self, another person or property, hunting game, recreational activities, militia activities, or collecting.” Other commenters said that weapons should include: all type of guns and accessories, regardless of size, caliber, ammunition capacity, or functionality, even guns that haven’t been invented yet; arms in common use by our military including automatic weapons, anti-air missiles, and fully armed attack helicopters; gun powder and explosives; any form or type of propellant; and firearm manufacturing capabilities like 3D printing.
Some of the ideas to expand gun rights defied categorization:
“Those who use their 1st Amendments rights to try to take away the 2nd Amendment rights of others shall lose their 1st Amendment rights.”
“Every man, woman, and responsible child has an unalienable individual, civil, Constitutional, and human right to obtain, own, and carry, openly or concealed, any weapon—rifle, shotgun, handgun, machine gun, anything—any time, any place, without asking anyone’s permission.”
“Firearms shall not be subject to Federal or State regulation in any form. No license, permit, allowance, or certification shall be required by any government body. The penalty for government infringement, whether attempted or real, is subject to penalties of up to life imprisonment and fines of your entire government salary.”
“I would make the Second Amendment first. And it should mention that God and Jesus are both pro-Second Amendment, and that they don’t like abortion.”
“All male American citizens, the people of God, the members of His Christian Race, the American Christian Soldiers, may own and freely carry any firearm of their choosing, anywhere, at any time. There is no restriction on type of firearm, age, or ammunition. This right shall not be infringed by background checks, waiting periods, or any liberal laws.”
5% of the comments involved the idea that the Founding Fathers’ aim in ratifying the Amendment was to provide citizens with means to overthrow the government should it become tyrannical. Three ideas that were presented include:
- The government shall have NO weapons in excess of that of the People.
- Elected officials should have term-limits as they are the reason that we really need guns in the first place!
- Any judge who rules that this amendment may or has been superseded, or otherwise attempts to alter this amendment, will be guilty of Supreme High Treason punishable by summary execution.
Actually, no. It doesn’t matter. The Nation is divided on regulating firearms, though not evenly divided. More importantly, the NRA is spending too much money for any amendment to the Constitution to happen. The conservative SCOTUS gave them what they wanted in 2008 when they rewrote 220 years of history in District of Columbia vs. Heller.
History suggests that, without the need for militias, the Founding Fathers would have ignored gun ownership. There would have been no reason to mention guns any more than any other consumer good. Everyone had guns and needed them for hunting and protection. There were already hundreds of laws that regulated their use to ensure the safety of all citizens.
The surveys conducted by the LA Times and Quora indicate that 49% of respondents favor gun-control positions (repeal, regulate, militia) compared to 34% of respondents who favor gun-rights positions (expand, tyranny). Of the respondents to the LA Times survey who said that they did not own a gun, 57% favor gun control and 29% favor some gun rights. Of the respondents who said that they did own a gun, 45% favor gun rights and 34% favor some gun control. It seems that considerable portions of both gun-ownership camps are amenable to the other sides’ positions.
Extremes of individual opinions reflect facts, influencer opinions, sometimes informed and sometimes not, and the media. No one stays on the sidelines. Some individuals want personal freedom. Some individuals want personal safety.
ProCon.org summarizes prevalent arguments about gun rights and gun control. Most of the country’s population favor gun-control. However, gun-rights proponents—gun manufacturers and gun-rights groups—have spent eight times more to advance their cause. It skews peoples’ perceptions of the mood of the country.
Our perception that the divide in gun-ownership positions is hopelessly wide is a product of the most visible proponents—the NRA, the Boogaloo Movement, Chuck Norris, and Ted Nugent for gun rights, versus Gabby Giffords, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence for gun control. These voices are the ones that are most amplified by the media,
Does the second amendment facilitate any of this? Again, no. In some ways, it accentuates the divide by giving people fake targets to argue about. What the Founding Fathers meant by what they wrote over 200 years ago is irrelevant. We don’t care that the Third Amendment is irrelevant yet can’t recognize that the Second Amendment is also. What’s important now, though, is to understand the nature of the divide and stop yelling past each other so something effective can be accomplished.
Our national religion isn’t Christianity, it’s weaponry.
Growing up in the 1950s, we played with toy pistols and rifles made all the more realistic by caps. And why not? The TV shows we all watched were westerns—Lone Ranger, Rifleman, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and many more. Then there were all those war movies meant to resurrect World War II patriotism during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
My father served in WWII, So did my nine uncles. One died in the war. One was an avid hunter both before and after the war. None of the other seven ever touched a gun again. By the time I got to high school, I had lost any interest I might have bad in guns. Now I wonder, why are some people obsessed by guns, either for or against, and others not at all?
Legal Gun Ownership
Americans own more guns per capita than any other country, 1.2 guns for every individual. That’s more than Russia (0.12), China (0.04), North Korea (0.003), Iraq (0.20), Iran (0.07), and Afghanistan (0.12). Only about 0.3% of America’s guns are registered. Half of America’s 265 million guns are owned by just 3% of American adults.
In 2017, the Pew Research Center (PRC) surveyed 3,930 U.S. adults, randomly selected from prior PRC landline and cellphone surveys, on the topic of gun ownership. PRC found that:
- Overall. 30% of American adults own a gun and another 11% live with someone who owns a gun. (For comparison, Gallup independently found that between 1996 and 2020, 29% of Americans own a gun and another 13% live with someone who owns a gun. Those are virtually identical results.)
- Location. 16% of adults who live in the Northeast own a gun, as do 36% of adults in the South, 32% of adults in the Midwest, and 31% of adults in the West. 46% of those who live in rural areas, 28% of those who live in the suburbs, and 19% of those who live in urban areas own guns.
- Firearm Characteristics. 66% of gun owners own more than 1 gun; 29% own 5 or more guns. 72% of gun owners own a handgun or pistol, 62% own a rifle, and 54% own a shotgun.
- Owner Characteristics. 39% of men own a gun compared to 22% of women. 36% of whites, 24% of blacks, and 15% of Hispanics own a gun. 31% of gun owners have a high school diploma or less; 34% have some college education. 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents own a gun compared to 20% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. 44% of veterans own a firearm. There is no difference in gun ownership based on income level except for Americans who make less than $25,000/year who are less likely to own guns.
- Owner Mindset. 73% of current gun owners can’t see themselves ever not owning a gun. 15% of those who own just 1 gun, 21% of those who own 2 to 4 guns, and 42% of those who own 5 or more guns say gun ownership is very important to their overall identity.
- Ownership Rationale. 67% of current gun owners say protection is a major reason they own a gun, 38% say hunting, 30% say sport shooting, 13% say gun collection, and 8% say job requirements. Although two-thirds of current gun owners say protection is a major reason they own a gun, a study of crime victims during 2007-2011 found that the use of a gun for self-defense occurs in only 0.9% of interpersonal crimes. It was more common among males, in rural areas, away from home, against male offenders, and against offenders with a gun. It did not reduce the risk of victim injury; 4% were still injured.
Most gun owners don’t become interested in firearms casually. It is a passion that they develop early in life. 67% of current gun owners had guns in their household growing up. In contrast, 40% of non-gun owners grew up in a gun-owning household. 37% of gun owners were younger than 18 when they first got their own gun. 76% report that they first fired a gun before they were 18. Furthermore, 72% of gun owners grew up in a rural community compared to 52% who grew up in a small town, 37% who grew up in a suburb, and 39% who grew up in a city.
Nearly half of gun owners have only one or two guns but14% have between 8 and 140 guns. Their average is 17. Americans who own at least 17 firearms are sometimes “… dedicated collectors with special rooms to display their assortment of historic firearms. Others are firearms instructors, gunsmiths, or competitive shooters, who need a variety of firearms in the course of work or competition. Some gun owners have a survivalist streak, and believe in storing up weapons, as well as food and water, in case of a disaster scenario. Others simply picked up a handgun here, a shotgun or hunting rifle there, and somehow ended up with dozens.” Some Americans also inherit guns from their parents and grandparents. The ownership of so many guns by so few individuals is thought to be similar to patterns for just about any consumer collectible. There are, in fact, more than 120 gun collectors’ clubs across the United States.
I can appreciate this. I’m not a carpenter but I have more than 15 hammers—1 was my father’s, 3 are rock hammers I got in college, 3 are sledge hammers for gardening, 2 are mallets, a is a small hammer I use for crafting, and the rest are claw and ball peen hammers of various weights. Don’t even ask me about my screwdrivers.
So, a current gun owner might have lived in a rural area where he learned about guns from his family, neighbors, and friends. Gun ownership was part of his cultural identity that might have involved hunting, marksmanship, and family traditions. It’s no wonder that belief in gun rights is so deeply ingrained in some people, almost like a love infatuation or a religion.
At the same time, there are people who hate guns and campaign to control them more effectively. They may have been, or known someone who was, the victim of gun violence. They may be deeply affected by gun violence that is reported every day on the news, especially mass murders, serial killings, and school shootings. They might worry about their friends and relatives who may be exposed to gun violence because of where they live or work. They may just not like living in fear of other people who own guns, especially those in their own households and neighborhoods.
Fear breeds hysteria; hysteria breeds irrational behavior. It may cause an otherwise level-headed person to purchase a gun “for protection” despite evidence that guns are not useful for that purpose. It may cause some individuals to purchase more guns because they believe that the government will try to take their guns and their gun-rights away. It may cause a person to assemble an arsenal of military-grade weaponry as defense against a tyrannical government or societal dysfunction. It may cause people to demand that the government enact and enforce rigid gun controls even though the number of deaths attributable to firearms is small compared to the numbers of deaths attributable to drug overdoses and medical malpractice.
Illegal Gun Ownership
The information from PRC’s survey is quite revealing. The survey itself is intriguing, too. It is both statistically-sound and yet deficient. It thoroughly characterizes the ownership of LEGAL guns but doesn’t shed any light on the underworld of ILLEGAL weaponry. Those data are harder to come by.
In 1997 and 2004, the US Department of Justice conducted national surveys of state prison inmates that asked how they obtained the guns they used in their crimes. 52% of the inmates obtained the gun they used in their crime legally (39% from family or friends and 13% from commercial sources). 39% of the inmates obtained their gun illegally (23% off the street, 8% from the black market, and 8% by theft).
In the 13 states with the fewest restrictions on gun ownership, 40% of inmates illegally obtained the guns they used in their crime. In the other 37 states with more restrictive laws, 60% of the inmates obtained their gun illegally. Gun-control does appear to be associated with increased ownership of illegal guns.
For perspective, of the 98 mass-shootings in the U.S. that occurred between 1982 and February 2020, 84% involved weapons that were obtained legally and 16% involved guns that were obtained illegally.
The Religion of Weaponry
The culture-of-the-gun is much bigger than the 3 in 10 Americans who own a gun. It is part of our national identity.
The Military-Industrial-Complex runs our economy, just as President Eisenhower warned it would sixty years ago. The United States was the largest exporter of major arms from 2015-2019. Our country sold about 35% of all the world’s arms exports during that period Our weapon sales was 76% more than the next largest exporter, Russia. 70% of Americans believe that selling weapons to other countries makes the U.S. less safe, but U.S. businesses do it anyway. That’s capitalism.
Weaponry is a cult, both figuratively and literally. It has a system of beliefs relying on the interpretation of an ancient text, the Second Amendment. It has a charismatic leader in the NRA. It has a process of indoctrination through family traditions and peer pressure that is reinforced by organized (military and law enforcement) training.
Weaponry has a very small yet devoted group of followers who want to impose their beliefs on the rest of society. Followers do not tolerate opposing opinions or even critical inquiry. They are convinced that only their beliefs are true even when presented with contrary evidence.
Being members of what appears to be a cult, advocates of gun rights are often ostracized, humiliated, persecuted, and even prosecuted for their beliefs. This makes them even more entrenched in their beliefs and wary of what gun-control advocates, governments, and society might do to them. Their fear is as real as the fear of people who worry about gun violence.
Whether we like it or not, weaponry is the religion that rules us all. Until we learn to respect everybody’s beliefs, both for and against guns, we won’t live in a free country.