In the week after a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 students and staff members and renewing calls for gun control, the National Rifle Association fell silent.
But the day after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting, an NRA training coordinator and range safety officer based at the group’s headquarters in Fairfax, Va., sprang into action behind the scenes. He sought information countering the official version of the grisly, and familiar, events, which involved a lone gunman and a legally purchased firearm.
For support, he turned to Wolfgang Halbig, a conspiracy theorist intent on proving that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 26 students and staff members dead in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax.
“You have included me with a lot of Information since the Sandy Hook Incident and I do appreciate it very much,” the NRA coordinator, Mark Richardson, wrote on Feb. 15, 2018, according to emails published by HuffPost on Wednesday. “Concerning what happened in Florida yesterday, I have been asking the question and no one else seems to be asking it.”
He pushed the deluded idea that the gunman, a former student at the school, had not acted alone, posing questions about how he had gained entry and where he had kept his equipment.
“To pull the fire alarm, he had to already be inside. Correct?” he wrote. “When my Children were in school the only way into the school was through the front door and past the main office.”
As with Sandy Hook, Richardson observed, “There is so much more to this story. He was not alone.”
Halbig, a former Florida state trooper and school administrator, replied the following day, inviting Richardson to call him to discuss the incident.
The subject line of his emailed response included, in all caps, the name Avielle Richman, one of the 20 students killed in Newtown. For years, Halbig has accused Richman’s parents of falsifying the first-grade girl’s death, writing on his website that their intention was “to steal money from hard-working Americans.”
Jeremy Richman, her father, a neuroscientist who had founded the Avielle Foundation in his daughter’s name, died in an apparent suicide on Monday, following the apparent suicides of two teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting.
The deaths returned the nation’s focus to the two communities, which have been besieged by online abuse and threats stoked by conspiracy theories that depict the victims as “crisis actors.”
But the correspondence shows how an officer of the NRA saw these theories as potentially useful to his cause. The inquiry, sent from Richardson’s work email, was evidence of the curious handshake in which the gun-rights organization has found itself with the most extreme purveyors of Internet falsehoods.
“The NRA literally drives conspiracies about school shootings to fear monger gun owners to buy more guns,” David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland shooting who has become a prominent advocate for gun control, wrote on Twitter.
Richardson didn’t return an email seeking comment. He defended himself to HuffPost, saying he was posing a “legitimate question” about how the shooter had entered the school. The NRA said it was reviewing the matter as a spokeswoman for the group, Jennifer Baker, called “any suggestion” that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked “insane."
“The men and women of the National Rifle Association grieve for the innocent people who were killed, the families ripped apart and the entire Sandy Hook community,” she said in a statement to The Washington Post.
The revelation came as the NRA was already facing criticism on Wednesday for saying it would oppose the Violence Against Women Act because of a provision designed to keep guns away from men who batter women. The legislation, first approved in 1994, is up for reauthorization in Congress.
“It is a shame that some in the gun-control community treat the severity of domestic violence so trivially that they are willing to use it as a tool to advance a political agenda,” a spokeswoman for the NRA told National Journal, which reported that GOP lawmakers had sought the input of the gun lobby to give them political cover for opposing the act.
The move by the NRA was condemned by Democrats. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has put the cause of gender equality at the center of her presidential bid, wrote, “Leaders who put NRA blood money over women’s lives shouldn’t be anywhere near our laws.”
And Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, another Democratic presidential contender, became emotional in a CNN town hall on Wednesday evening when he answered a question about gun violence.
“I am tired of going to funerals where parents are burying their children,” he said. “We are going to bring a fight like the NRA has never seen.”
Halbig, for his part, was eager to play informal adviser to the NRA after the Parkland massacre. He saw the exchange as a validation of his years-long campaign to get the organization’s attention.
“After 4 years of emailing the NRA I finally got a response in light of the Broward County School Shooting,” he wrote, according to HuffPost.
Halbig is an associate of Alex Jones, the far-right provocateur and founder of the conspiracy site Infowars. Although not as grandiose as Jones, who has been banned from numerous online platforms, Halbig is no less avid a spokesman for the alternate universe peddled on Infowars, where he has been a frequent guest, introduced as a “leading expert” on Sandy Hook.
Citing his credentials in law enforcement and school security, Halbig has asserted unique insight into what happened in Newtown. (An e-book about him, called “Wolfgang Halbig: The Hoax of a Lifetime,” has raised questions about his past, including his claim that he was involved in the investigation into the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School.)
He became famous among hoaxers for a set of 16 — sometimes expanded to 34 — questions that, he says, reveal official accounts to be faulty. He argues that the authorities are suppressing evidence that would support his case, and has pressed for information about “blood, bodily fluids, brain matter, skull fragments and around 45-60 gallons of blood” for which he claims the police have never accounted.
The family members of students and staff who perished at Sandy Hook blame the bogus claims propagated on Infowars and related platforms for the stalking, death threats and online vitriol that they have faced in the years since the 2012 shooting. Ten families are pursuing defamation lawsuits against Jones. The discovery process in one of the lawsuits yielded the email exchange made public by HuffPost.
A complaint filed last year in a Connecticut court, which also names Halbig as a defendant, details his campaign to sow doubt about the Sandy Hook shooting. It describes how he has testified at public meetings in Newtown, filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking police documents and other records, videotaped children entering and exiting a church in the community and raised more than $100,000 on GoFundMe to bankroll his efforts.
In court filings, Halbig, who is representing himself, has called the accusations against him “spurious.” He is contending that they should be dismissed because the claims are not sufficiently specific and because Connecticut courts lack jurisdiction over him as a resident of Florida.
At the same time that relatives of Sandy Hook victims were training their ire on him, Halbig was earning praise for his work from other sources.
“Thank you for all the information,” the NRA officer wrote. “And for what you do.”
Richardson concluded in all caps, “STAY SAFE.”
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