On January 5 (yesterday), the President spoke to the nation about possible executive actions to address gun sales and safety. Memes began circulating immediately (see right), likely dusted off and reshared from previous second amendment “debates” but recycled for this moment. Do they accurately reflect the content and intent of the speech? Or, are these just ad hominem attacks and red herrings meant to distract the public or reinforce the echo chamber around certain rhetorical claims? The short answer is that they are the latter. But what did the President actually say, and how does this compare to the memes? If memes are an application of the first amendment being used to address issues of the second amendment, let’s see how the two have played together.
There has been a LOT of misinformation propagating on Facebook about what the President said yesterday in his speech on executive action regarding gun sales. A lot of people are circulating memes that use ad hominem attacks and red herring fallacies as a substitute for meaningful dialogue. I don’t have any real skin in the second amendment game one way or another; I have read (many times) the Constitution but do not pretend to know the precise legal meaning and history of each sentence in it. However, I did listen to the President’s speech  and I do know how to read and comprehend. As a scientist, I like to see how data compare to interpretations.
So, here is what he actually said he would try to do with executive power:
- If you have a business that sells firearms, you will be required to have a license to do so and you will be required to conduct background checks on people wishing to purchase a firearm. This would apply to internet and gun show sales.
- Background checks will be expanded to include other categories of violent or potentially violent criminals (e.g. the so-called “no fly list”). The background check system itself will be improved technologically and via personnel.
- Try to do better at enforcing gun safety laws already on the books. This would include adding more ATF agents and investigators, requiring gun sellers who are victims of theft or loss to report this in a more timely fashion, and work with victims’ groups to help protect people who feel threatened already.
- Try to expand support systems for the mentally ill. 2/3 of gun deaths are reportedly due to suicide; this is a place where prevention can be focused.
- Try to find ways to support improved gun safety technology, for instance: owner identification mechanisms or safety locks.
That’s it. Strip away all the anecdotes and other rhetoric and this is all the President said. He made ZERO mention of any specific kind of weapon, except where he needed to use an example (e.g. reports of gun sellers who already require a thorough background check before selling a high-capacity magazine or a semi-automatic weapon). But in terms of action items, no action item made any mention of specific weapons classes. Memes that make claims to this regard are just ignorant.
So before you share a meme, read the speech. History tells us that those who fail to understand the first amendment of the Constitution are doomed to misapply the second. I don’t care how you feel about the President, but I do care that you think before you post or comment.