The Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting was not a Television Production

On December 14, 2014, at 9:34 A.M., Adam Lanza “shot his way into” Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he had previously been a student. He shot and killed 26, and then took his own life. While most people would agree that this is a true account of what happened that December morning in Newtown, Connecticut, some claim that the Sandy Hook school shooting didn’t actually happen this way. As a Snopes fact check explains, “misinformation, innuendo, and subjective interpretation” produced many conspiracy theories surrounding the devastating shooting.

Some claim that there was more than one shooter in this Newtown elementary school. Others argue that “shooter Adam Lanza couldn’t have killed students with a semi-automatic rifle because it was found in his car by police officers.” Yet another group of people suggest that Emilie Parker, a little girl who was ruthlessly murdered that morning, is still alive. The most prominent argument is that the Newtown shooting didn’t happen at all, but rather “was staged by the White House as a prelude to disarming America” and that the victims were actually actors. The people who believe in this conspiracy theory are often referred to as “Sandy Hook Truthers.” This false claim went viral, and has harmed many people. The other arguments are fairly easily explained and disproved—the “second shooter” was a man trying to pick up his son whom police questioned before releasing him, police found a semi-automatic rifle in a classroom of the school and an additional shotgun in the car Lanza had driven, and Emilie Parker has a sister—but the fact that people still believe them proves just how convinced conspiracy theorists can become. For this reason, as well as its greater intricacy, the final theory that the shooting never happened at all has proven difficult to debunk. 

Conspiracy theorists began relentlessly harassing the parents of shooting victims among others who were connected to the tragedy. Eventually some members of the victims’ families sued the conspiracy theorists and won. Leonard Pozner, who lost his six-year-old in the massacre, won a suit against deniers claiming that the shooting had never happened. The deniers had written a book titled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook arguing that the shooting was all just a ploy staged to promote gun control and that Pozner had committed a crime when he “fabricated his son Noah’s death certificate.” The lawsuit focused mainly on this theory but also mentioned other similar arguments including that Noah was not Pozner’s son. The court ruled that these deniers had acted with actual malice. While, Pozner was the only legal plaintiff in the suit it is clear that this decision will be “significant for nearly all of the families of Sandy Hook victims” since the book accused and verbally attacked many of them. This wasn’t the only lawsuit Pozner was involved in though. He reportedly joined “at least nine lawsuits in multiple states.” One of the other major lawsuits targeted Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist best known for his website InfoWars. Jones held, for many years, that the “tragedy was a ‘giant hoax.’” 

It is debatable whether or not these lawsuits are beneficial in fighting conspiracy theories. They surely aren’t appropriate restitution for the pain and harm that has been inflicted on grieving parents by greedy conspiracy theorists. But is there any way to debunk a conspiracy theory? Arguably, attempts to thwart harmful conspiracy theories might only bring further attention to them, even encouraging people to believe them by making them more familiar with the topic. Others may argue though that in the vein of appropriate restitution, some compensation is better for these suffering families than none at all. 

Unfortunately, the Sandy Hook School Shooting conspiracy theory was just the first of many which would follow claiming that mass shootings were covert operations staged to deceive the public. In this way, it is exemplary of broader trends. In twenty-first century America conspiracy theories have become prominent, and attempts to thwart them are largely unsuccessful, likely, at least in part, due to the politically polarized nature of the United States. Similar theories claiming the government had staged the tragedy have circulated for nearly every recent major shooting, including the 2019 El Paso, Texas, Walmart shooting and another 2019 shooting at a Dayton, Ohio, bar. In the case of these two shootings, conspiracy theorists have asserted that the “deep state,” a group of people colluding within the U.S. government, staged the shooting. In all three of these cases, conspiracy theorists believe that the stagers made up the shooting “to push for gun control.” Experts refer to these theories as “false flag conspiracies,” and say that Sandy Hook was the first major false flag conspiracy about a mass shooting. Researchers with the help of Google Trends have shown the significant uptick of search queries for “false flag” in the periods following major mass shootings. 

In the 1980s, Neil Postman argued in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death that America was imprisoned by its own desire to be amused and entertained. In an article from The Atlantic entitled “Are We Having Too Much Fun,” Megan Garber highlights Postman’s argument. Garber states “Many Americans get their news filtered through late-night comedy and their outrages filtered through Saturday Night Live. They—we—turn to memes to express both indignation and joy.” Postman critiqued television and blamed it “for what he termed Americans’ ‘vast descent into triviality.’” If Postman is right and Americans are so distracted by entertainment that they are unable to think for themselves, what would Postman say about conspiracists who regard the devastating Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting as a production? These conspiracists lack the ability to differentiate between news and entertainment. As a result of this, they analyze all events, even those as tragic as Sandy Hook as if they are some kind of Hollywood production created for their benefit.  

Conspiracy theories which perpetuated the idea that shootings were “false flags” began on fake news websites like Alex Jones’ InfoWars because of early reports which did not have all of the details straight. These stories spread rapidly, especially on social media. They were appealing because, in a twisted way, they seemed to be entertaining. They also spread because of the polarization of politics in America. It appealed to people who strongly believe that their Second Amendment right to bear arms should not be altered. These people helped to perpetuate and further spread the theory. They have every motivation to believe deeply in these theories despite a lack of evidence, while ignoring any facts which point in the opposite direction.