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Can We Make a Commitment to Educate the Public with Facts?

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NBC’s evening television news presented a story about a surge in threats to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offices following statements by certain elected officials, media figures, and partisan operatives about the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act and the funds it provides to hire more IRS personnel.  On the August 25th broadcast of the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, the broadcast showed clips of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), and a FOX News anchor excitedly warning Americans that the IRS will hire tens of thousands of new agents to come after them (NBC Nightly News, 2022). Many of those trafficking in such inflammatory statements have dishonestly indicated that the IRS will hire 87,000 new armed agents. In communications to the public, Cruz warned of “Biden’s shadow army of 87,000 IRS agents” and Grassley raised the specter of large numbers of new IRS agents who might come with “loaded AK-15s [sic] …ready to shoot some small business person in Iowa” (Rappeport and Hsu, 2022). The minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has told the American public, “Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents will be coming for you” (Cortellessa, 2022). In fact, the small number of new enforcement personnel are supposed to focus almost exclusively on the biggest problem area of tax evasion: noncompliance by corporations and the wealthiest Americans (i.e., the top one percent of Americans by wealth are estimated to be responsible for 36 percent of all unpaid individual income taxes) (Lipman, 2021).

Unfortunately, the NBC News report fell into the pattern that we have seen for years: carrying out a misguided, self-imposed obligation to treat each side in a disagreement as if their statements are equally valid. The NBC News report effectively spread the false statements by Cruz, Grassley, and the FOX News personality, but did not refute those false statements with facts. Viewers were given no information about how the IRS will actually be hiring. The story served as a reminder that the news media should not worry about being accused of taking sides. Instead, they should worry about clearly advancing the only side that matters: the truth, backed up by facts and evidence. Frankly, either the reporter on the story or anchor Lester Holt should have said, “these officials are lying to you” and followed up by presenting the facts about the planned use of the funding to expand the capacity of the IRS.

The political interests in Congress that have sought to incapacitate the IRS and prevent it from enforcing tax laws have largely succeeded over the past decade. The agency has 20 percent fewer employees than it had a decade ago, its rate of audits for corporations and wealthy individuals has fallen precipitously, and its understaffing has rendered it almost completely ineffective in responding to questions from taxpayers in a timely manner (Cortellessa, 2022). The new funding is intended to restore the IRS as a capable agency. The IRS expects as many as 50,000 retirements among its current 80,000 employees in the next five years. Thus, the new funding for IRS hiring, which will stretch over the next decade, will largely be replacing departing workers and adding additional workers, nearly all in unarmed occupations such as customer service, accounting, and information technology. The IRS has a small number of armed law enforcement officers, since they must investigate tax crimes by organized crime, drug traffickers, and others who are dangerous. The new funding is expected to increase the number of enforcement agents from 6,500 to 13,000, but only one-third of those enforcement agents are armed special agents in the Criminal Investigation division (Kelety 2022; Rappeport and Hsu, 2022).

What does this example have to do with the effort to reduce gun violence?

There are two points to highlight here. First, we need the news media to focus on facts and truth in order help the public understand the nature and complexity of gun violence, including the actual meaning of the Second Amendment as defined by the Supreme Court. Too often, news reporters seek quotes from gun rights ideologues and then uncritically repeat false claims about the meaning of the Second Amendment and the nature of gun violence problems. We need news reporters to confront and correct inaccurate statements. We need them to provide better information about the positive benefits of gun safety laws and programs that exist in other states, but not (yet) in Michigan. For example, do we ever see news reports telling the public about research studies that show reduced levels of teen suicides and accidental shootings of both children and adults in those states that have “safe storage laws”? (RAND Corporation, 2018). Typically, news reports take a non-informative and potentially deceptive “balanced approach” of reporting uncritically what one side’s advocates say and what their opponents say. We need journalists to be more self-conscious and assertive in reporting facts as well as refuting falsehoods.

Second, we should recognize a troubling potential effect of news reports spreading false assertions about tens of thousands of armed IRS agents coming after individual families and small businesses. What impact is that likely to have on certain people’s inclination to believe that they need more guns in order to fend off this imaginary threat from the federal government?  Many politicians know that there are segments of the American population who can become preoccupied with fear and that fear can drive their decisions about how to vote. The peddling of falsehood-based fears for political purposes is not cost-free. It can increase people’s suspicions about their fellow Americans, about government agencies, and about civil servants. It can trigger people to make threats against others. It may accelerate some people’s belief that they need more guns to defend themselves. As a result, these falsehoods may contribute to additional gun purchases—that result in additional unsecured weapons in some homes—that result in more possibilities for suicides and accidental shootings—as well as more opportunities for guns to be stolen and used in various kinds of crimes. In sum, risks can be needlessly increased when there is insufficient commitment to illuminating the truth, especially as news reporters—through habit or avoidance of conflict—focus on appearing “balanced” and uncritical in their reporting.

This is what we face in our current era of rampant disinformation spread on social media; misinformation that is sadly complemented by the passivity of too many news reporters. What can we do? There is a void to fill. There is a need to educate our fellow citizens (AND our elected representatives), especially as they contemplate making decisions about how to vote in elections. Thus, all of us who care about policy issues, especially the problems related to gun safety and gun violence, need to educate ourselves and be prepared to share fact-based information with friends, neighbors, and relatives whenever we hear misguided assumptions or see evidence that others have absorbed false information.

What kind of fact-based information is useful to know and share?

  • The American public expresses broad bipartisan support for stronger gun safety laws. To quote a news summary about the University of Chicago poll conducted at the end of July 2022, “71% of Americans say gun laws should be stricter, including about half of Republicans, the vast majority of Democrats and a majority of those in gun-owning households” (Burnett, 2022).  Furthermore:

The poll shows bipartisan majorities of Americans support a nationwide background check policy for all gun sales, a law preventing mentally ill people from purchasing guns, allowing courts to temporarily prevent people who are considered a danger to themselves or others from purchasing a gun, making 21 the minimum age to buy a gun nationwide and banning those who have been convicted of domestic violence from purchasing a gun.  (Burnett, 2022)

  • The legal definition of gun rights under the Second Amendment, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, only: (1) protects the keeping of a handgun in the home for self-defense by law-abiding adults (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008) and (2) prohibits states from requiring otherwise qualified gun owners (who fulfill background checks, licensing rules, etc.) to provide a reason for seeking a permit to carry a gun outside the home in permissible public locations (New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. v. Bruen, 2022).
  • That’s it. That is the extent of the Second Amendment right as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court (thus far). Therefore, a wide range of possible gun safety laws can be discussed and considered without any risk of violating the Second Amendment. We can consider laws on safe storage, universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, limits on the types of weapons that can be sold, and many other gun safety ideas—all without violating the Second Amendment, notwithstanding the false claims by certain individuals and groups that somehow any and all gun safety measures automatically violate constitutional rights.
  • Gun violence data and social science studies show that gun safety laws can reduce the risks and harms of gun violence. As mentioned earlier in this essay, there is evidence from studies indicating that safe storage laws are associated with reduced numbers of suicides by young people and accidental shootings that injure or kill both children and adults. Studies also provide evidence of beneficial effects from background checks, prohibitions on gun purchases by youths under age 21, and restrictions on gun ownership by persons with certain mental illness conditions (RAND, 2018). In addition, existing gun data should cause us to take note of potential benefits from gun safety laws. According to an examination of gun violence data for 2020 by Johns Hopkins University:

The researchers note that the states with the lowest gun death rates have stronger gun laws. Each of the five states with the lowest gun death rate had both of the following gun laws in place in 2020: 1) a firearm purchaser licensing law or a waiting period; and 2) an Extreme Risk Protection Order law. Purchaser licensing laws require an individual to apply for and obtain a license before purchasing a firearm. Extreme Risk Protection Order laws are mechanisms to temporarily remove firearms from individuals at risk for suicide or violence against others.

Conversely, states that had the highest gun death rates in 2020 had stand-your-ground legislation, or laws that authorize individuals to use lethal force even in situations they might have otherwise been able to walk away from, and three of the five had permitless carry laws, which allow individuals to carry a concealed gun in public without a permit. (Johns Hopkins University, 2022).

There is no miracle cure for gun violence problems in the United States, especially because there are an estimated 400 million firearms in the hands of civilians. However, that does not mean we should accept claims from those who say, “nothing works—new laws don’t matter.” We cannot count on the news media to provide the information that people need to understand either the complexity of gun violence problems (e.g., the lack of public awareness about the significant proportion of gun deaths that are suicides) or the potential for reductions in risk and harm from laws that have already been implemented in states other than Michigan. We need to educate ourselves in order to educate others. If we want our fellow voters to prioritize gun safety in choosing between candidates in the upcoming November election, we need to recognize that each of us can play an important role in educating those around us with fact-based information that they cannot expect to hear from either the news media or political candidates.

Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President

SOURCES

Sara Burnett, “AP-NORC Poll:  Most in U.S. Say They Want Stricter Gun Laws,” U.S. News & World Report, August 23, 2022 (usnews.com).

Eric Cortellessa, “Trump Allies Are Attacking Biden for a Plan to Hire 87,000 New IRS Agents That Doesn’t Exit,” Time Magazine, August 9, 2022 (time.com).

Johns Hopkins University, “New Report Highlights U.S. Gun-Related Deaths,” April 28, 2022 (publichealth.jhu.edu).

Josh Kelety, “IRS Special Agent Job Ad Misrepresented Online,” Associated Press, August 15, 2022 (apnews.com). 

Alexia Lipman, “How the Top 1% Evade Taxes—And Get Away with It,” Chicago Policy Review, November 15, 2021 (chicagopolicyreview.org).

NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, August 25, 2022 (nbcnew.com). 

RAND Corporation, The Science of Gun Policy:  A Critical Synthesis of Research Evidence on the Effects of Gun Policies in the United States, Santa Monica, CA:  RAND (2018), pp. 119-126.

Alan Rappeport and Tiffany Hsu, “More Money for IRS Spurs Conspiracy Theories of ‘Shadow Army,’” New York Times, August 19, 2022 (nytimes.com).