Saturday, June 23, 2012

Gun Control Conspiracy Theory in a Nutshell

I'm going to start this out by stating flat-out that I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. But I've done quite a bit of research on the nature of them over the last several years. I can admire a well-constructed one without believing it. Here are some simple ones I know to be false:
  • The Jews control everything. Actually, they're just people wanting to live their lives without getting shot, burned, or gassed.
  • Freemasons control everything. Actually, they provide free healthcare for children, and look out for each others' widows and orphans.
  • Republicans want to starve your children. Actually, they want you to feed your children.
  • Democrats want to undermine marriage. Actually, they don't care who you want to marry, and think you should extend others the same courtesy.
A lot of conspiracy theories are loony even at first glance. So there is a general tendency of those who would disprove a conspiracy to dismiss the theorists as "nuts" or simply idiots. If you really think that, then it must be frustrating as all Hell to be stymied by an idiot. And that happens a lot. That attitude results in complacency, inattention to detail, and failure in a debate.

The truth is that conspiracy theorists aren't necessarily stupid. Distrustful, yes. Quick to draw conclusions from weak correlations (as opposed to causes), yes. But not stupid. It's their intelligence that allows them to recognize these correlations and knit them into a tapestry illustrating a plausible story.

There's also a general tendency to believe that facts disprove a conspiracy theory. Far from it. A 'good' conspiracy theory always incorporates facts into it. In my experience, the theorists are often better armed with facts than their critics. They depend on facts. Facts are the poles; the conspiracy is the tent. A conspiracy deals with motivations, ideology, and power. You have as much chance of disproving a good conspiracy theory as you have of disproving the existence of God to the Pope.

Let's look at one current one: Operation Fast and Furious as a gun control scheme. I'm not advocating the theory... this is an illustration.  Please keep that in mind if you want to get crazy in the comments.

The basic background of Operation Fast and Furious (and its Bush-era predecessor, Operation Wide Receiver) is given in Wikipedia. I may edit in a sidebar with other links, but they're not really necessary to this discussion.

The basic proposition of the theory is this:
President Obama's administration supplied guns to Mexican drug cartels in order to frighten the American citizenry into supporting strict gun control laws. 
There are variants involving greater or lesser involvement by the President himself, but that's the basic premise. This conspiracy would implement the following stages:
  1. Make Second Amendment defenders complacent by relaxing gun regulations.
  2. Provide guns to Mexican drug cartels.
  3. Wait for an increase in violent gun crimes committed with American-sourced weapons.
  4. Use the crimes as a reason to pass stricter gun legislation in Obama's second term.
The theorists argue that the first three phases have in fact occurred, therefore the third is imminent. Since this is scheduled for Obama's SECOND term, it is a rallying point to not re-elect Obama, in a bid to retain the full rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

THIS IS A GREAT THEORY. I'm not saying it's true... but it's a brilliant theory on aesthetic and logical grounds.
  • It's simple. At its core, this is a classic fake-out. Anybody can understand it. It's like sacrificing the Knight in Chess to capture a Queen in return.
  • It sounds plausible. Three out of four points are objectively true. To a casual listener that sounds compelling. At the introduction the details don't matter. If it sounds plausible then the listener will stay for the details. And once that's done the theorist has control of how the details are presented. He can weave his tapestry.
  • It's non-disprovable. Since the coup de grace occurs in Obama's second term, in the future, then it's nearly impervious to counter-arguments. If the Administration relaxes gun control, it's part of the plot. If they increase it, it's because they hate guns, just like the theorists believe, and don't have all their eggs in one basket. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.
  • It's shifty. The theory has some logical judo built in. The President doesn't have to have personal involvement. There can be increases or decreases in gun control. etc. This enhances its non-disprovability. And there's plenty of room for irrelevancies. Correlations don't have to strong if there is a mountain of them. The more stuff you cover a theory with, then the easier it is to defend. This doesn't make the theory more complex, though... it's like chaff thrown from an aircraft to confuse enemy radar.
  • It's OLD.  One of the best things that can happen to a conspiracy theory is longevity. For instance, Robert Farago floated the theory a year ago in his blog. In April 2011. Without mentioning Operation Fast and Furious (news that was just breaking at the time),  John Boulton spoke to the NRA about Administration plans to save gun control for Obama's second term. Age enhances plausibility. The theorists can say, "Hey, look, before this was news, we knew about these kinds of plans. And Fast and Furious fits right into place! We thought they were using existing violence as an excuse, but it turns out to be a even more widespread!" They can point to Fast and Furious as the iceberg of which their original suspicions were just the tip. 
A little history
The origins of this theory go back to April 12, 2009, when Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) was interviewed by Leslie Stahl on CBS' 60 Minutes after the 1994 assault weapons ban expired. Feinstein didn't think that the time was right for gun control and stated "I will pick the time and the place, no question about that"  Here's the full story. The relevant quote is at 2:38, but view the whole thing:

This lead to speculation that the "time and place" would be Obama's second term. So you're looking at a three-year old conspiracy theory, embellished through time. Although Obama's track record indicates a dislike for guns and strong gun-control tendencies as a senator, this 60 Minutes piece clearly indicates why he would steer clear of the subject as a first term President.

Its longevity and organic construction make it a very difficult theory to argue against. It started small and evolved, and each new piece fit the rest neatly:
  • The Left want to ban assault guns.
  • BUT the time is not right -->; April 2009 Pelosi says "I'll pick the time" --> speculation that this will be Obama's second term.
  • BUT public sentiment is against the Left -->; change public sentiment
  • Mexican violence exists 
  • AND Operation Fast and Furious is started in October 2009, shortly after Pelosi state's she'll "pick the time".
  • AND Operation Fast and Furious gives American assault weapons to drug cartels.
  • THEREFORE The Left is behind Mexican violence. And the circle is closed.
You start putting printing this stuff out, putting it up on a corkboard, and thumb-tacking red yarn all over the place, and you've got a very coherent picture. At all times the subsequent information fuels the earlier speculation. At all times the focus is clearly on assault weapons. The desire for an assault weapon ban by the Left is incontestable. Obama's reticence to do so is the thing that the theorist finds unusual and needing explanation, given Obama's own voting record.

And so the conspiracy grows.

How to argue against it.

Well, first you don't waste time on the ways that won't work.
  1. Claiming Obama hasn't pushed gun control, therefore he won't. This is an absolutely doomed argument. As you can see from the 60 Minutes video, there are good political reasons why gun control was left alone, and it's not due to preference. It's political poison. 
  2. Claiming that it makes "no sense" for Obama to delay gun control. As the 60 Minutes story shows, it does. So by this false appeal to logic, you're giving the theorist a free pass in this and future arguments. He can accept it, and then claim that his theory doesn't need to make sense because you personally have pointed out a strategy, factually confirmed by the then-Speaker-of-the-House on national television, that "makes no sense."
  3. Claiming Obama's past actions as President indicate his future actions. Again, doomed, for the same reason. The political pressures of a first-term President include re-election. That pressure is lifted for the second term. Obama's past actions pre-date his Presidency, and that includes exceptionally strong advocacy of gun control. Plus, Pelosi undermined the credibility of this argument with her "I'll pick the time and the place" quote.
  4. Blaming Bush. It's irrelevant, and therefore doomed. The salient points of the conspiracy theory have nothing whatsoever to do with losing control of arms. According to the theory, this is by design. So saying that Bush had a similar program -- even saying that it also lost weapons -- proves absolutely nothing. The counter-argument is that the Obama Administration used it as a model because it fit the need and because it provided plausible deniability.
  5. Focusing on details of the Operation Fast and Furious investigation. Doomed because it misses the point. The investigation isn't the conspiracy. It's not even about this conspiracy, either. It's about a cover-up... a completely separate animal. Even if you were to convince someone to halt the investigation, you've still wasted your time with respect to the gun-control theory, because the theory incorporates the motives behind Operation Fast and Furious, which are not addressed by the investigation. And even though the publicly stated motive has always been to track down drug lords, the theorist will hold to the hidden motive of gun control, which remains completely untouched.
  6. Focusing on other gun-control conspiracies. For instance, the United Nations gun control treaty that Dick Morris describes here. This is another doomed tactic. Presumably the purpose of bringing it up would be to paint the theorist as a fear-monger jumping at shadows. It doesn't work. All you're doing is adding yarn to his corkboard. For one thing, he may not be aware of the other conspiracy theories you're bringing up, and this undermines your implication that he was influenced by them. But worse, it is likely to be interpreted by the theorist as evidence of a multi-pronged effort to get a gun ban enacted. The theorist will reply that the conspirators are too intelligent to trust everything to a single plan. 
What does work?

Before you can answer that, you have to recognize that a conspiracy theory is about motives, ideology, and power; not facts.  In every case, there are facts and speculation. Bad theories speculate about facts. Strong theories present facts and speculate about motives. And the motives are always negative. There's never a conspiracy to cure cancer, for example. The same actions can be interpreted completely differently, depending on the quality of your tin foil hat. For example:
  • Scenario A: Mr. Jones closed his unprofitable plant in Duluth because he's obsessed with profit. He doesn't care about the workers. He destroyed 200 jobs.
  • Scenario B: Mr. Jones closed his unprofitable plant in Duluth because if he didn't the company would go bankrupt, forcing closure of five other plants. He feels an obligation to save what jobs he can. He saved 1,000 jobs.
The facts are not in dispute. Mr. Jones closed an unprofitable plant. Only his motive is in question. Whether it's a conspiracy theory is determined by whether many people are thought to be involved in the "plot". Whether it's a nut case depends on whether the ascribed motive matches the actual motive, and we can't necessarily get that from Mr. Jones, as he may be lying. Just remember, the facts are rarely in dispute, so arguing them is largely pointless. You have to go to motive.

Then you have to remember that any motive you give is already matched by a counter motive (as in our Jones example). So your motives must be simpler and more believable than that of the theorist. For Operation Fast and Furious, for example, here's an example that's better than a conspiracy theory (and why it's better):
Law Enforcement wanted to catch drug lords. (positive!) So they implemented a strategy that was useful in the past (positive) But they got too ambitious (still positive... at least they were trying) and screwed up. (believable!) It was a mistake.
"I screwed up" is always effective because conspirators rarely expect it. It's way too honest for them to anticipate.

But Operation Fast and Furious is only one point of a much larger conspiracy theory, as we've seen. To get rid of the larger theory, you have to do this at every node, offering positive, believable alternate motives that fit the facts of every case, and show that the links between cases are correlation, not causation. Cut every single strand of yarn. And then you have to be prepared for the derisive criticism, "You have an answer for everything, don't you!"

In other words, it may still not work. At some point you have to recognize that you're arguing religion with the Pope, and just shrug and go play Jenga instead.

"If this theory is so good...

...why don't I subscribe to it?" Yeah, I knew you'd ask that.

First of all, when I say it's a "good conspiracy theory", I simply mean it's effective. It convinces a lot of people. I'm not making a value judgement on it.

I don't subscribe to it because I see too much correlation and not enough causation. Although there is a lot of motivation and plotting listed, there is a lack of hard evidence that actually links that motivation to actions. Remember, a conspiracy theory is about motives, not facts. If you can ascribe other motives that fit the facts there's no compelling reason to believe in the theory. Also, I subscribe to Hanlon's Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. - Robert J. Hanlon
Sometimes "stupidity" replaced with "incompetence". The point is, it's extremely tough for the Administration to pull off such a well-orchestrated, visionary plan. When you look at all the high-profile things that they've botched, it becomes difficult to believe they'd be successful, and highly unlikely that they'd even try. Also, in order to believe the conspiracy you have to accept that people are working in secret for nefarious motives. I don't believe that anybody gets into politics because they're some diabolical mastermind. They do it because they sincerely want to make a change for the better. Diabolical motives are a bright red flag that a theory is likely to be false (there's an exception to that, which I'll save for another post). People believe that the other guy is evil simply because they think they have the best solution; and the other guy is working on something other than the best solution. Because of their differing perspectives, each side sees the other's attempts as countermanding "good"; and therefore declare them "evil".

And because I don't believe in the conspiracy, and I "have no dog in this race" I'm not concerned with either defending or crucifying the President; so I have no really good motivation to pursue it further. I'm certainly not inclined to play "whack-a-mole" with fanatics.


  1. I like Hanlon's Razor. It correlates with Occam's Razor: when faced with competing hypotheses, the simpler one is generally true. And gross incompetence is a much simpler explanation than a convoluted conspiracy theory.

    Plus, at the this point, the Congressional Committee doesn't believe that the White House had anything to do with the planning or execution of Fast and Furious. But they want to investigate to see if the White House discussed a cover-up, or the possibility of politically using the crisis to push for gun legislation.

    My theory (based solely on my fevered imagination, don't ask for evidence or links for this) is that when stimulus money began to flow in 2009, some douche-canoe in Phoenix thought they could grab a chunk of it by ramping up the gun walking program. 2000 guns ain't cheap. Did somebody have a friend in the gun sales business who made several hundred thousand dollars off of this poorly thought out deal?

  2. That's a good blog post. Good analysis of the nonsensical thinking behind these conspiracy theories.

    I've cited this post in my recent one about the pro-gun Sandy Hook shooting conspiracy theories, here:

    Also related, other pro-gun conspiracy theories:

  3. It's been a long while and now Obama has been re-elected. I should probably point out that this theory is still alive and kicking. Obama has increased calls for gun control in his second term. That's enough for the conspiracy nuts to claim a successful prediction.

    As a bonus, that United Nations gun control treaty of Dick Morris' that I mention in point 6 got a leg up as well. Secretary of State Kerry signed the treaty. So... score one for Dick.

  4. I don't understand why people continously lend themselves to conjecture and conspiracy when there are plenty of facts from which to draw "conclusions".

    1. Drugs, guns and money have gone hand in hand for a long time. Literally tons of money to be made dealing either.

    2. "Governments" seeking to fund programs where they want no oversight or if morality or ethics to such are questionable have consistently had a hand in such "programs". The means justifies...

    3. Declassified US and FOI documents have proven beyond a doubt that "factions" in the US government have been involved (complicit)in many such programs over the last fifty decades, at least. And these are just the ones they got caught at.

    So at this point, Holder has been indicted for his part of this and resigned his office of the "Big Dawg" law officer of the US government.
    So if this guy is a crook and takes the fall you have to be really stupid NOT to understand how high up these "thing" happen, who is involved, how often and why.

    If it looks like, sounds like and walks like, given the facts there have been so many that have come before it, it it probably your own damn duck (government) being complicit in yet another criminal enterprise. Oh and if it furthers that other agenda, great.

    Gentlemen, please, remember your recent history, wake up, the future needs you.

    Oh crap! I got off on a rant and let those damn facts creep in, sorry guys.