I spent a big chunk of 2010 talking to people in the Tea Party Movement, and during that time I heard various things that were simply not true, starting at the top with the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and working its way through the rank and file. But there was no lie that was more wrong and yet spread more widely among more people -- with more dangerous effect -- than this one:
President Obama is going to confiscate your guns.
I heard this repeatedly, especially during my first major road trip for what eventually became my book "The Backlash" -- a visit to the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky back in October 2009. Typical was one of "The Bazooka Brothers," Brian Kitts of Indiana, who was selling a Photoshopped picture of a young Barack Obama with Adolph Hitler and who told me this:
"At the very core, he's un-American," the gun merchant says of Obama. "The rest of the world sees him as weak and that's going to bite us in the ass." Kitts says he's been selling his brand of heavy firepower at Knob Creek for more than two decades, and -- despite nary a word from Obama in support of gun control in the initial months of his presidency -- he doesn't think it's far-fetched that his government would someday come knocking for people's weapons.
"There will have to be an emergency, or to compare it to Germany, a Reichstag event," Kitts continues, referring to the 1933 blaze at the German Parliament that Hitler blamed on Communists and used as an excuse to suspend civil liberties and consolidate power. "So here's a problem...we've got to declare martial law and suspend the Constitution indefinitely...Will that happen? I don't know. It's possible. That's what a lot of people are afraid of. A lot of people here are really into military history, and history can repeat itself."
I heard this not once but again and again in the fall of 2009, that Obama had a secret plan to confiscate guns or at least ammunition, that if he wasn't doing it in his first year in office then he was biding his time until after the 2010 election (which seemed just as silly than as it does now, knowing how the 2010 election actually turned out). Meanwhile, the fear of the coming Obama gun confiscation was having real-world effects. A rumor that Obama wanted to tax or seize people's ammo caused the price of bullets to skyrocket in 2009 way past what the government's ability to tax them would have been. Gun manufacturers -- who were supposedly going to be crushed by the Obama administration -- reported record profits. The worst impact was several lunatics whose mounting fear of the looming firearms crackdown caused them to go on shooting sprees -- most notably Pittsburgh's Richard Poplawski, who fatally gunned down three police officers.
In the reality-based world, Obama is doing nothing and saying nothing about guns. It's been that way for a long time; in the 2008 campaign, when he had occasion to be pressed on the issue, he blandly noted that he supported the Second Amendment (PDF file) just as any elected official from a duck-hunting prairie state might do. What's happened with guns on the federal legislation since he became the 44th president in January 2009? Obama signed bills that made it easier -- that's right, easier -- to bring guns into national parks and even on board Amtrak trains. That's the Obama gun confiscation, folks.
It's Big Lie -- and the sad truth is that the Big Lie still works.
Rather than combat the falsehoods, Obama and his underlings are so scared of playing into the stereotype (which is held, by the way, mostly among people who would not vote for Obama if he showed up at their front door, Publisher's Clearinghouse-style, with a tax-free check for $1 million) that they won't tackle common-sense policies that might kick the hornet's nest that is the National Rifle Association. Most recently, that fear has prevented any move to crack down on gun smuggling for Mexico's drug wars:
"That was the shift of the tectonic plate for the Democrats on the gun issue," said James Cavanaugh, former ATF special agent in charge in Nashville. "The thing that really, really, really scared the Democrats was Al Gore losing his home state, and the reason was the gun issue. They all know it."
The gun lobbyists are well aware of their power. "The White House is sensitized enough to understand it really is the third rail of American politics," said Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the NRA and a gun industry trade representative who has discussed gun policy with White House officials. "They have figured out that it is a lightning-rod issue, and they don't want it to injure them."
In the meantime, expect two more years of looser and looser gun laws from both Washington and state legislatures, no matter how many die in the crossfire, and then watch ultra-conservatives show up in droves in 2012, warning that Obama is actually really just waiting for his second term for that confiscation that everyone knows is coming. Because what they've really learned is that nothing works better -- even in America -- than the Big Lie.