Last month, I received emails from two people I know but who don't know each other: one a close friend and Second Amendment supporter, and the other a regular reader who sends me news items she believes the "liberal media" are willfully suppressing.
Each sent me a link about recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security purchases of huge stockpiles of ammunition, including hollow-point bullets. A Forbes.com column penned by Larry Bell suggested the Obama administration is up-arming itself while trying to disarm the citizenry. Fox News ran a story about recent congressional inquiries into these purchases.
Bell wrote a book denying climate change, and I'm always a bit skeptical of anything Fox News "reports." But the stories were based on DHS press releases, and the ammunition totals - reported in some places as 1.6 billion rounds - seemed high.
It turns out the order is closer to 750 million rounds and covers a five-year period and the 70,000 federal officers who require firearm certification or retraining. That's roughly 2,200 rounds per officer per year; recreational gun users often dispense several hundred rounds during a single firing range visit.
I dug around and found another press release, published in 2012 that explained the ammo purchases as follows: "Some have cited the purchase of hollow-point ammunition as evidence of the federal government's evil motives. Hollow-points are the defensive ammunition of choice for federal, state and local law enforcement officers across the country, just as they are for private citizens. ... The attacks also ignore the fact that federal agents, unlike average taxpayers on more limited budgets, normally train and qualify with their duty ammunition."
The words of a George Soros-funded left-wing think tank or some gun-hating liberal congresswoman? Nope. They belong to the National Rifle Association, which concluded the release by stoking the public's fear levels anyway, reminding its members that "there are more than enough actual threats to the Second Amendment to keep gun owners busy," including the Fast and Furious gun-walking operation and President Barack Obama's agenda to ban assault weapons. The release was issued before the Newtown school shooting and omits the fact that the only two gun laws Obama has signed actually expand gun access.
The NRA doesn't call itself The National Self-Defense Association. That's because the NRA cares about gun owners only insofar as they are gun buyers. Like a bookie who hedges the bets on both sides of any proposition, takes a cut off the top and cares nothing about the outcome so long as betting volume is high, the NRA wants both the government and the citizenry to be heavily armed.
Because fear is such a powerful - and profitable - motive, the NRA benefits when paranoid Americans nurse dark fantasies about arming themselves against the near-zero possibility that jack-booted, night vision-goggled, federal agents will descend from helicopter ropes to haul us all off to prison camps. And so it goes: Armed gun owners plan to hold a Washington rally on July 4; Glenn Beck warns that nothing short of the freedom of all mankind is at stake in Second Amendment battles; a "truther" movement insinuates that federal agents planted the Boston Marathon bombs.
I support gun ownership. But is it too much to ask that gun advocates more often aim their anti-government suspicions at real examples - rather than absurd fantasies - of governmental abuse of power? It's a target-rich environment, including everything from drone strikes that kill American citizens without a trial to felons falsely convicted based on police-coerced witness testimonies.
I received another email a few days ago, this one from a college friend whose 22-year-old nephew died last week. Convinced the Obama administration is planning a tyrannical takeover, the young man's mother and stepdad bought their son a firearm.
Less than a month later, he was the victim of the type of fatal gunshot that is far more likely to occur in American homes than the rare cases of menacing intruders or imagined invasions by government agents: Tragically, he turned the weapon on himself.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. He wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.