“I cannot tell a lie, Pa,” said young George Washington — or so many Americans have been led to believe. The author of this quote was actually Mason Locke Weems, the Washington biographer who was seeking to create a noble mythology about the nation’s first president.
The durability of this simple quote about lying conveys a kernel of truth: Humans have a tendency to regurgitate spurious information, anecdotes and words associated with influential people.
The Internet is a breeding ground for this. Phony quotes from America’s Founding Fathers especially run rampant.
The latest example comes from a small band of state legislators pushing a give-no-quarter gun-rights agenda in Olympia. Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, has sponsored House Bill 2975, also known as the “Washington State Firearms Civil Rights Act.” As News Tribune reporter Melissa Santos first reported, Shea’s bill cites quotes allegedly from Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton — despite a general agreement among historians that they’re bogus.
A staffer said Shea will amend the bill to take out any inaccuracies. But one wonders why the national gun-rights lobby, more than any other interest group, continues to traffic in apocryphal quotes, despite the cottage industry of academics that has emerged to debunk them. There’s no end of authentic statements defending the right to bear arms that were penned by early America’s brightest thinkers — from Washington to Jefferson, from James Madison to Samuel Adams — without having to recycle the discredited ones.
Gun-rights supporters can rest their case, and their quotes, on the Second Amendment. If they want a contemporary affirmation, they can lean on the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia vs. Heller, which unequivocally backed the individual right to bear arms apart from a well-regulated militia.
But the Heller ruling also said the approval of the Second Amendment conferred a right that “was not unlimited, just as the First Amendment’s right of free speech was not.”
Alas, some lawmakers can’t seem to accept this. Among a passel of other firearms bills in Olympia this session, one calls for a complete repeal of universal background checks for gun purchases. Thankfully, this and other legislation offered by Shea and his friends appear to be going nowhere. Still, the very suggestion of killing the background-check law is an affront to the nearly 60 percent of voters who approved state Initiative 594 in 2014.
Better to fix the background-check law in modest ways. That’s what moderate legislators are trying to do by making noncommercial firearms transactions easier for museums and nonprofit groups.
It’s good to know that smart, bipartisan firearms measures are still possible in a superheated political environment. One such plan this year would require felons to sign a registry if they’ve been convicted of serious violent gun crimes.
Sensible ideas like this don’t require sham quotes to sell them.
Washington state doesn’t need ultra-conservative politicians frittering around the edges of established gun-rights principles. It also doesn’t need them perpetuating false words from the Founding Fathers — although it’s easy to see why they do.
As the great showman P.T. Barnum once said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Except, as it turns out, Barnum probably never said that.