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Ben Carson’s Use of Fake Jefferson Quote Reveals His Distance from Founding Ideals

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In reaction to the Umpqua Community College shooting, Ben Carson appeared on the October 5 broadcast of “Your World with Neil Cavuto” and was asked by the host if gun control would prevent such shootings. Carson’s response was to pull out another favorite fake Founding Father quote, this one purportedly from Thomas Jefferson:

“Thomas Jefferson himself said, ‘Gun control works great for the people who are law-abiding citizens and it does nothing for the criminals, and all it does is put the people at risk.'”

Watch courtesy of Media Matters for America:

As Religious Right Watch has noted, Carson used this quote in the immediate aftermath of the shooting as well, on Friday, October 2, when he appeared on a Jan Mickelson podcast:

The people who want to get rid of our gun rights, I want them to tell me how exactly that stops these kinds of incidents from happening. Because the people who are going to commit these crimes, they don’t care about your silly rules, they’re not going to pay attention to them. So all you’re going to do is create more vulnerability, as Thomas Jefferson said. He said the people who are going to be disadvantaged are the ones who are law-abiding.


Unfortunately for Carson, Jefferson said no such thing. The words come from a quote by Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria, found in his book Essay on Crimes and Punishments

(1809), which is now in the Library of Congress. Jefferson copied the passage into a journal, his Legal Commonplace Book, which was, as the Library of Congress tells us, “compiled while he was studying the law and containing abstracts of important cases”:

Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed one.

The fact that he had copied it down neither shows Jefferson agreed nor that he disagreed with Beccaria.

lists this is a “spurious quotation” along with other conservative favorites, like the Bible being the source of liberty.

Media Matters’ Timothy Johnson tells us,

Carson’s talking point is popular within gun rights circles and conservative media outlets that cover gun policy. Conservative radio host Dana Loesch included the quote, as well as several other deceptively edited Founding Father quotes, in her book Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America, with the false suggestion that Jefferson was quoting Beccaria approvingly.

The manufacture of false Founding Father quotes for mass consumption by an intellectually challenged Republican base is a big business. David Barton has for a long time hosted a set of such fake quotes at his WallBuilders site (and been busted for it by scholars). That Barton is the guy Mike Huckabee wants us to learn from at gunpoint shows the extent of the problem. They literally eat this stuff up, no matter how improbable or impossible the quote.

The long list of conservative crimes in this regard is too long to repeat here, but FAIR takes a comprehensive look at it here. It is clear that Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to fake quotes is standard in right-wing circles: “I don’t care if these quotes are made up. I know Obama thinks it.”

But we should always care.

Carson told Cavuto that “we should be learning from each one of these cases, about what kind of people they are.” And while he refuses to actually do that, to the extent that he refuses to acknowledge certain types of people should not be allowed to own guns (people with mental problems, for example), we should definitely take his words to heart where he himself is concerned.

The need for today’s conservatives to reach into the past with fake quotes demonstrates the ideological and religious distance they have traveled from the Founding ideals of this country. They can’t use genuine quotes, because genuine quotes from Washington and Jefferson and Paine and Madison and others all demonstrate Republican love for a country that has never existed, and was never meant to exist.

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