Denver Post Assaults Civil Rights

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Denver Post Assaults Civil Rights

by Ari Armstrong, December 21, 1999

In an attempt to catch up with The Rocky Mountain News in Denver's paper wars, the Post has resorted to sensationalistic social crusading. But the cost of the Post's war, if successful, will be civil rights.

SENSATIONALISM VS. TRUTH

The Post's front-page editorializing is flagrant. Most newspapers in the country make at least some effort to distinguish between objectively written news stories and editorial pieces (unless one counts the tabloids). Not so at the Post.

From December 19-21, the Post ran a series of articles under the front-page heading, "The Gun Pipeline." Even the title is misleading, as it conflates the perfectly legal, Constitutionally protected sale of guns with the criminal mis-use of guns.

The Post's yellow-journalism is not limited to that series of articles, however. On December 13, a front-page lead paragraph by Mike Soraghan reads, "Requiring criminal background checks at gun shows is, arguably, the one piece of Gov. Bill Owens' gun-control package that could have changed the course of the Columbine High School massacres."

Unfortunately, every theory, however ludicrous, is at least "arguable." If such a leading term is permissible by the Post's editorial board, then the Post may editorialize ad nauseam on the front page. Next time, the Post might try, "The Rocky Mountain News is, arguably, the worst newspaper in Colorado." I'm sure Soraghan could find numerous "sources" willing to make such a claim. The News might then retaliate, "Mike Soraghan is, arguably, the most ridiculous journalist in the world."

To support his innuendo that background checks at gun shows might have stopped the Columbine murders, Soraghan quotes Ken Gordon, the Democratic House Minority Leader. Now there's an objective source on the firearms issue! Gordon is one of several Colorado politicians trying to ride anti-gun emotionalism to increased political power.

While he pays superficial lip-service to Gordon's political opposition, Soraghan fails to mention any counter arguments. According to Gordon, background checks at gun shows might have stopped Dylan Klebold's girlfriend, Robyn Anderson, from purchasing a rifle and shotgun because "it would have made her nervous." Anderson's purchases were perfectly legal, and there is no indication that Anderson knew of Klebold's murderous intentions. Yet Soraghan uses Gordon's extraordinary (and obviously biased) claim to introduce his alleged news story.

Gordon's claim, and thus Soraghan's derivative story, is ridiculous for several reasons. It is a stretch to believe Anderson would have foregone the purchase simply because she was "nervous" about a background check. After all, the police had little problem determining her as the original purchaser, even without such a check. And Anderson was not the only source for the killers' weapons; their pistol was purchased from a gun store, where a background check was conducted.

Eric Harris, Klebold's accomplice, said in his personal videotapes that he would have been able to purchase guns from other sources had his two sources fallen through. If Anderson had in fact gotten "nervous," the two would have found little trouble finding another source for weapons.

If background checks are extended to all sales at gun shows, criminals will stop buying guns at shows and start buying them from private sellers outside of gun shows. Then if background checks are universally mandated, criminals will purchase guns on the black-market, steal them, or manufacture them in the basement. Ultimately, politicians may make underground gun manufacturing as common as illegal drug production.

Harris and Klebold planned their crime for over a year and broke at least 17 gun-restriction laws in committing it. Does Gordon, does Soraghan, truly believe that an additional law, the only possible effect of which would be to induce "nervousness," would have stopped the Columbine murders?

But maybe Cain would never have killed Abel, had only the government imposed background checks for the jawbones of asses.

The "pipeline" series was written by David Olinger. The Post's obvious purpose in running the series was to cast aspersions on local gun sellers and on so-called "Saturday night specials," the emotionalized name for small pistols.

Olinger fails to make any mention of the fact that defensive uses of firearms outnumber criminal uses of them by a margin of four to one (as Gary Kleck has shown). In his December 20 installment, the front-page, introductory paragraph reads, "Here are the tales of some Colorado victims and where the weapons that killed or injured them came from." But where are the more abundant "tales" of Coloradans who have used a gun to defend themselves against violent criminals?

Both in its front-page editorializing and in its official opinion columns, the Post criticizes "Saturday night specials," but fails to mention that small, inexpensive guns are favored by women because of their size and by the poor because of their cost. The Bill of Rights, along with its Second Amendment, does not discriminate against women or the poor.

While Olinger whips up frenzied emotionalism against ABC Pawn, he never states explicitly the conclusion implicit in his story: most of the so-called "crime guns" confiscated by police were never used in the commission of a crime. The Post's December 20 summary states, "A small pawnshop in Aurora [ABC] sold at least 40 handguns, to customers who bought more than one at a time, that later were seized by police."

Yet Olinger mentions only five guns purchased from that pawn shop which were actually used in the commission of a crime. The rest of the guns were incidental to the crime the police were investigating and were never used in a threatening way. The police can confiscate guns even on "probable cause," even if no criminal charges are ever filed. In one case, as the Post itself notes, the police confiscated a gun from a 17 year-old girl who showed no threatening intent.

While five guns used with criminal intent is a significant number, the lives ABC Pawn has saved by providing honest citizens with a means of defending themselves against violent rapists, burglars, and murderers are simply ignored by the Post. From 1995 through 1997, the years analyzed by the Post, ABC Pawn sold around 2,000 guns. Five guns represent 0.25% of the total.

Most of the confiscations Olinger mentions are related to the illicit drug trade, which is inherently violent because it is black-market. However, drug dealers are the least likely to be affected by new disarmament laws. Such criminals are already experts at black-market manufacturing and trafficking, and they could expand their activities to include gun production and dealing fairly easily. Indeed, as government moves to further prohibit guns, it creates a powerful financial incentive for even more gun-related crime. To pass disarmament laws in an attempt to deal with drug violence is merely to address the symptoms of the problem, and then in a counter-productive way.

In the Post's idealized version of reality, the freedom to purchase and bear firearms is a main cause of social violence. Spurred by the Post's activism, the paper dreams, the legislature will pass new disarmament laws which will reduce crime and send the Post's circulation soaring. Unfortunately, the Post never comes to terms with the ways criminals will continue to evade restrictive laws and honest citizens will continue to be harmed by them. Regardless of readership numbers, if judged by the standard of objective, fair-minded reporting, the Post has been a dismal failure in its coverage of firearms issues.

CIVIL RIGHTS HYPOCRISY

The Denver Post is so wrapped up in its scape-goat politics (and its paper war) that it has forgotten the significance of the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment has already been compromised because of violations of the Second. At Waco, ATF agents listed Shotgun News as "subversive material" read by the Davidians. These days, not only is practicing the Second Amendment often considered a crime, but even reading about that right carries with it criminal accusations. But since when is exercising the First and Second Amendments "subversive" to the U.S. government? Some might still argue that individual rights are the bedrock of U.S. government.

More recently, Larry Pratt, Director of Gun Owners of America, was listed in the FBI's "Project Megiddo" because Pratt dared to publicly criticize the U.N.'s stated policy on civil disarmament. The FBI's paper, named after Armageddon from the Christian Bible, purports to discuss terrorist threats. These days, exercising the First Amendment in order to defend the Second is sufficient cause for the FBI to put one in the same report containing the names of known terrorist organizations.

In addition, the ATF imprisons honest gun owners who merely talk about fully automatic rifles, even if only for historical interest. That's a "conspiracy" felony to break the 1934 National Firearm Act, according to the ATF.

Will the Post also jump on the bandwagon in defiling the First Amendment? The Second Amendment reads, "[T]he right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." The Colorado Constitution reiterates that principle. The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."

According to the Post, Congress can and should restrict gun owners to the purchase of one gun per month. According to the Post, such laws do not count as an "infringement" of the Second Amendment. But would the Post accept a law which limited the number of editorials to one per month? Would that be an "abridgment" of the First Amendment?

But let's "compromise." Instead of limiting the Post to only one editorial per month, perhaps the paper would be willing to forego publishing only on Mondays. A sensationalist story about this issue, written in the same spirit that the Post wrote about firearms, might read something as follows:

The Denver Post is, arguably, a leading cause of copy-cat crimes in Colorado. When the Post's pictures and articles make Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold infamous, other disturbed children may be inspired to issue threats or plan violent attacks against fellow students.

In addition, the Post is, arguably, a significant contributor to environmental degradation. The inks used in publishing the Post poison Colorado's rivers and streams, and the paper pulp destroys forests and necessitates more landfills, an environmental expert said.

In addition, according to the Research Council on Family Health, many fathers spend more time reading the Post than they spend talking with their children. "If only once a week fathers would set aside that half-hour to talk with their children, we might see more children learn to deal with their problems in non-violent ways," a spokesperson of the Council said. "Perhaps Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would not have carried out their plans, if their fathers had set aside the Post in exchange for quality time with their sons."

Representative Inede Power said, "Why do people need to read the paper seven days a week, anyway? Of course, I'm in favor of registering all newspaper readers with the federal government, so that we can protect the children from copy-cat crimes. But we must deal with political reality. Limiting the Post and other papers to only six publishing days per week will reduce the numbers of copy-cat crimes, it will save the environment, and it will bring our families closer together. If the Columbine murders have proved anything, it's that we need to pass reasonable press-control laws."

Somehow, I doubt the Post or anyone else is buying it. Yet the Post's case for more disarmament laws is about as well substantiated, and about as well supported by the Constitution.

The Post's proposal for a law restricting gun purchases to one per month makes little sense. There's no reason to think criminals will be much hindered by such laws, though of course the law-abiding obviously will be.

Some gun owners collect guns. Others purchase guns for gifts or target practice. Still others need firearms for self-defense. If a family is threatened by a violent thug, a father may well want to purchase several guns at a time for self-defense, one for himself, one for his wife, and one for his college student. Most multiple purchases are for lawful purposes. So why does the Post want to treat the innocent as guilty criminals?

At least the Post had the class to quote a few critical comments by Gregory Golyansky, who runs ABC Pawn. Golyansky asks Olinger, "Are you aware of the concept of presumption of innocence? You think it's a good concept?" Olinger and the Post editorial board would do well to answer this question carefully.

Of course, some will give the superficial counter, "But the right to speech too is limited; one can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theater." However, such a statement distorts the very meaning of rights. A right defines which behaviors one may engage in without interference, so long as the rights of others are respected. Yelling "fire" in a crowded theater breaks the property rights of the theater owner and of the patrons who paid to see the film. Similarly, fraud breaks the property rights of the victim. So long as speech and press do not interfere with the equal rights of others, freedom is properly unlimited. In other words, government should make no attempt to restrict the ability of the Post to sell its papers to willing buyers.

When a firearm is used to threaten or injure another, it is used to criminally violate rights. Obviously, the Second Amendment does not apply to the criminal mis-use of guns. However, it does apply to all adults who don't threaten the rights of others. According to the Second Amendment, government can only restrict the inherently criminal use of guns, not the right to bear arms by honest citizens.

If the Post persists in relying upon the First Amendment to adulterate the Second, its editorialists and writers may find, in some future year, that they have also undercut those freedoms they themselves believe to be important.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com