Author’s note: The book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen was assigned to me during my senior year of high school. I still reflect on its lessons and have found them applicable not just to the past, but, in some cases, to the future.

The book analyzes 18 different U.S. history textbooks and is scathing in its assessment. As stated on the back cover: “Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies, these [text]books omit almost all the ambiguity, passion, conflict, and drama from our past … From the truth about Columbus’s historic voyages to an honest evaluation of our national leaders, Loewen revives our history, restoring the vitality and relevance it truly possesses.”

Below, I channel Loewen’s style and envision what a chapter might look like if an updated edition is published around the year 2130. The following is hypothetical (for now). It’s a work of pure imagination.

The textbook American Pageant called the Guaranteeing Unanimous Nourishment and Safety (GUNS) Act of 2023 “a necessary measure,” and Land of Promise called it “common sense” gun legislation. The law implemented a nationwide requirement for criminal and mental health background checks before the purchase of any firearm, and it rendered most handguns and assault rifles illegal for the majority of citizens — that is, any kind of firearm that could shoot more than one shot before being reloaded.

McGraw Hill’s American History made a passing attempt at neutrality by saying, “Despite controversy and strong pushback on the part of many Americans, especially an organization known as the National Rifle Association, the GUNS Act was a critical step toward establishing a safer world, particularly for children.” This tone is representative of how all 18 textbooks in our survey described the law. With hindsight, they imply, it was an obviously good and morally correct action for the government to take. 

But beyond the rhetoric, the actual results of the legislation, which became clear over the following decades (though rarely reported in the mainstream), tell a different story. They revealed the law’s deep-seated motivations, originating from the largely wealthy and privileged legislators responsible for it. Most of them likely had never contemplated what it was like to want or need a gun for protection. Those motivations, on further analysis, highlight an apparent lack of respect for minorities, disdain for the working class, and scorn for women.  

Because, as the arc of history has demonstrated, in yet another of the seemingly countless such examples, with the GUNS Act — and contrary to the dominant political rhetoric at the time — the U.S. federal government systematically incapacitated poor people, women, and minorities of various strands. In a stroke of bitter irony, although at the time it was the political left — Democrats and progressives — who led the charge for the GUNS Act, nowadays it is also the political left that is quick to raise these points about the law’s disastrous and deadly effects on the underprivileged.

For years, gun reform had been a tenet of left-leaning politicians’ platforms. They had planted the seeds for legislation by pushing a narrative of fear around mass shootings, which a compliant media further amplified, ensuring that each incident became front-page headline news for days afterward.

Legislators used these shootings to convince poor people, minorities, and women that stringent gun restrictions and background checks were in their best interest. However, history has shown that this systematically racist, classist, and misogynist effort to disarm the very people who most needed to protect themselves was downright sinister — even more so because it was the people in the most impoverished communities who were already receiving substandard levels of protection from police, as tax money naturally funded good police services in wealthy areas, and poor service in poor areas.  

Every single textbook we analyzed omitted an iconic and ironic photograph that was published in the New York Times the following day but was never run again, showing the final votes being tallied in Congress on the GUNS Act.

This photograph captures the moment when the lawmakers had just voted to make handguns and assault rifles illegal for anyone on U.S. soil who was not an active or former police officer or member of the military. As historical statistics show, the law made personal protection — especially for minorities, those living in dangerous inner cities, and women in abusive relationships — much more difficult.

So, while the privileged members of Congress celebrating their historic vote were situated in the center of the photo, in the corner of the picture, clearly visible, are 11 security guards. Each of them had handguns holstered on their hips — the very handguns that had just been made illegal for most of the country.

The photo sparked outrage and protest in many American cities: “These rich, most elite of the elite members of society just told me I can’t buy a handgun?” Antonio Williams, a Black man from Washington, D.C., asked rhetorically. “While they’re literally protecting themselves with a bunch of handguns?” That sentiment was echoed throughout the country, to varying degrees, although none of the textbooks we reviewed mentioned it.

All of the textbooks included at least a page detailing mass shootings in the U.S. in the 30 years leading up to the GUNS Act. Most of them included a timeline that stretched from 1999’s Columbine High School school to the 2023 incident in Allen, Texas. Notably, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, in particular, dedicated four pages to mass shootings, with its timeline spanning an entire two-page spread.

America the Beautiful quoted no fewer than six American citizens, who all told a similar story: how, by 2023, they lived in daily fear of getting shot. They were hesitant or fully refused to go out in public. Based on these quotes, today’s history students might believe the U.S. of 2023 had become a kind of warzone, despite the fact that it actually became safer and less violent throughout the decades. The following is representative of the sentiment:

“Everywhere I go, I worry about a mass shooting. Grocery stores are unsafe; I do all my shopping online now. I don’t go to sporting events anymore — these days, there’s a shooting at baseball games every night. I don’t think I’ll ever go to another parade or meeting at City Hall. And, of course, my children are home-schooled. Just too dangerous out there.”

Cindy C., Rochester, NY. 

The textbook implied that the sentiment represented in the above quote was widespread in 2023. However, none of the textbooks mentioned that, for instance, in 2020, guns in general killed approximately 0.02 percent as many people as heart disease, and that perpetrators of mass shootings were responsible for less than 0.001 percent of the deaths caused by cancer and traffic accidents.

The years immediately following the GUNS Act began to make clear who came out on top — and who on bottom — of the legislation, although again, none of the textbooks made much mention of the negative social phenomena that developed in its wake.

No longer worried the people they pulled over or accosted on the streets were armed, beatings and killings by police officers had tripled by 2035 from their rates in 2020, when mass protests broke out across the country over police violence.

Underprivileged areas, including impoverished, drug-ridden, inner-city neighborhoods, and opioid-ridden rural areas, became subject to increased organized crime. Mafia members, who could arm themselves through the black market and afford the increased costs, found it easier to extort the underprivileged, whom they now knew were unarmed. With a pronounced return to the age-old “protection” scheme immortalized by the Don Fanucci character in the 1974 movie The Godfather, Part 2, various syndicates could force poorer citizens to buy mafia “protection.”

Perhaps most disturbingly, the GUNS Act put women in abusive relationships in even greater danger. Previously, women had the option to own handguns as a means of self-defense, leveling the playing field against their physically stronger male counterparts. However, with guns no longer easily accessible, fewer women were able to escape the brutality of their abusers.

The more disadvantaged you were, the worse the GUNS Act made life for you.

Inspired by the May 2023 strangling of Jordan Neely, a Black man with mental instability, by a former Marine, a trend of violent bullying and harassment broke out across the country, targeting those with mental health issues. Former police officers, Marines, and Navy SEALS (whose ownership of state-issued firearms was grandfathered in), as well as martial-art athletes and bodybuilders who were physically stronger and more gifted than almost anyone else, were empowered to treat the weak however they saw fit. Due to the section of the GUNS Act stipulating mental background checks, the mentally unstable were especially at risk.

Anyone who ever had been convicted of a crime, too, suddenly had great reason to fear the newly government-sanctioned, gun-toting, bullying class of former police and military, in addition to martial art practitioners and the mafia. Former convicts, though having paid their debts to society and no longer in prison, were prohibited from the purchase of even single-shot firearms that were chiefly used for hunting. And so this subset of the population, already statistically at the bottom of earning potential, social mobility, and social status, became ideal targets for the powerful to pick on.

In addition, mugging and general violence toward the elderly saw an uptick, as criminals could increasingly rest assured their elderly victims were unarmed, given the law’s stipulation that a driver’s license be provided before the purchase of even a hunting rifle. As fewer elderly people still had valid driver’s licenses, they became more appealing targets for muggers.

Although, in the wake of the GUNS Act, some newspapers did feature articles about these developments, even going so far as to call the legislation a “war on the working class,” none of the textbooks surveyed included so much as one negative word about the Act.

The Washington Post, which said the GUNS Act fell into “a long line of government efforts to disarm the working class while keeping the lanes clear for the privileged who can afford whatever legal curveballs are thrown their way,” was especially pointed. Not a single mention of its subversive coverage was found in the textbooks we surveyed.

In particular, it appears that any contemporary coverage supporting what is now widely accepted by most progressives as fact has been erased from history. This fact being that it was the Democrats who had long attempted to portray themselves as the advocates for the underprivileged. However, upon closer examination, the GUNS Act revealed that they were far from fulfilling that role. In reality, they championed the affluent American suburbs and stable American families who were largely unaffected by violence and did not need to concern themselves with self-protection.

Despite the biased and distorted narrative presented in American history textbooks, the GUNS Act ultimately fits the pattern of other dark chapters in American history, such as slavery, the forced removal of Native Americans from their lands, and the Japanese internment camps during World War II. 

These are all stories in which American politicians used their power to first instill fear among the general population about a particular social issue and then enacted legislation that disproportionately affected the disadvantaged, who lacked the means to fight back in the legal arena. Meanwhile, the well-connected individuals had ample opportunities to exploit loopholes and personal connections, rendering the legislation virtually ineffective for them.

In the case of the GUNS Act, it’s a story of the American government’s racist effort to disarm minorities; it’s a story of systemic misogyny in the attempt to keep guns out of the hands of women; and of systemic classism, ableism, and ageism, as government policy made guns more expensive and difficult to obtain for the working class, for the disabled, and for the elderly.

That side of the story does not meaningfully appear in any of the assessed textbooks. Nor does the legislation’s deliberate carve-out for the wealthy, the police, and the military to obtain guns, all of whom used their newfound near-monopoly on firearms to inflict, with even greater impunity, suffering, and death — at home and abroad. The GUNS Act entrenched its power to further marginalize the already marginalized and expand the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Today’s students will not learn that reality. Instead, their textbooks will once again present the narrative that the government had a moral obligation to take action, portraying their course of action as unanimously and evidently virtuous.

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