'Guns & Mothers' Premieres on PBS
by Ari Armstrong, May 5, 2003
"Guns & Mothers" premieres on PBS May 13, 2003.
Thom Powers deserves a lot of credit for bringing a reasonably balanced documentary about the gun debate to PBS. It is unfortunate that Powers, who wrote, directed, and produced "Guns & Mothers" for Independent Lens, probably won't see the attention Michael Moore got for his alleged documentary, precisely because Powers offers a nuanced and generally fair picture of both sides, whereas Moore peddled a shrill pack of lies to foment bigotry against civil arms advocates. We can only hope more responsible work such as Powers' is ultimately more influential.
Powers follows two mothers on opposing sides of the gun debate from the so-called "Million" Mom March of 2000 through the elections and Mother's Day of 2001. Frances Davis lost three sons to murders involving guns. She was active in the "gun control" movement years before the Million Mom organization was created. Maria Heil helped organize the Second Amendment Sisters' 2000 rally in favor of the right to bear arms.
Powers' 57-minute documentary is largely a personal account of two women in a particular contest. What he does best is offer some insight into the reasons behind the women's radically divergent views. Given that was the purpose of the documentary, he filled the bill fairly well. Powers' relatively even-handed account is even more remarkable considering his coverage of the Second Amendment Sisters was an afterthought, as he explains in promotional material released with the taped preview:
In the spring of 2000, I became interested in the growing movement to frame gun control as a women's issue. After decades of watching the NRA dominate its opposition, I wondered if the Million Moms could put up a credible challenge. That question was the seed of this documentary. After talking to dozens of mothers who had lost children to gun violence, I chose to focus on Frances Davis... I quickly realized my documentary would be incomplete without examining the grassroots movement on the pro-gun side. Although the Second Amendment Sisters rally on Mother's Day 2000 was much smaller than the Million Moms, I recognized that it was a powerful minority. When I attended the NRA convention a week later, I was struck by how much effort was being made to recruit women. I decided to follow Maria Heil because of her strong commitment to the cause.
Cover both sides of the issue? What a concept! Powers' peers would do well to follow his lead.
However, even though Powers deserves credit for his honest attempts to understand both sides of the debate, if his main purpose had been to elucidate that debate, his documentary basically would have been a failure. He does a good job exploring the personalities, but he doesn't follow the policy debate very well. As I watched the video, I found myself constantly asking questions beginning, "Yeah, but what about..."
The position we got from Davis and her allies is that it's a bad thing people (and especially children) are murdered by perpetrators with guns. (The language they used often omitted any reference to the perpetrator, and instead pointed to the gun itself as if the inanimate object were at fault.) Yet I don't know anybody who disagrees with the view that murder is bad.
We cannot draw any policy conclusions whatsoever solely from the point that murder is bad. As representatives of the Second Amendment Sisters pointed out, guns are also used for self-defense, so arguably one way to prevent murder is to stop disarming potential victims and encourage people to practice self-defense.
The best thing Powers did from a policy perspective was to at least include a discussion about the pros and cons of gun possession. Yes, some people use guns to kill and hurt others. On the other hand, some people use guns to defend their lives against violent aggressors. Relative to most other televised treatments of the subject, Powers thus makes a major leap forward. Even though I wish he'd done more to include information favorable to the pro-civil arms side, I appreciate his intellectual honesty on this fundamental issue.
So, having given Powers due credit, I'll proceed with the more biting criticisms.
To continue the discussion about the pros and cons of gun possession, even if people keep guns for self-defense, that point by itself does not defeat all kinds of gun regulations short of disarmament. Powers fails to provide the necessary links at a number of stages. Amazingly, he includes only a single reference to any rationale for passing gun regulations as a response to violence involving guns.
Powers relies on two commentators to provide context for the debate: Fox Butterfield, a writer for the New York Times, and Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at SUNY, Cortland. Unfortunately, both men argue in favor of more gun regulations, which damages the objectivity of Powers' work. Powers easily could have found a scholar or journalist willing to take the other side, but he neglected to do so.
Spitzer makes a number of interesting points, and the documentary is much better for including him. Butterfield, on the other hand, should have been replaced by someone of Spitzer's academic credentials able to offer balance to the show. My first pick would have been David Kopel, the author or editor of several books about guns and somebody who has written about the "Million" Mom March since its inception.
Spitzer says, "It's important to remember that there are indeed millions and millions of responsible gun owners." He also notes that, unlike most disarmament activists, gun owners take an active, long-term role in politics. "They are, in many respects, the definition of a good citizen."
But Spitzer also makes some controversial claims that Powers allows to go unchallenged. He says, "The Second Amendment does protect the right of citizens to have firearms, but only in connection with a government-organized and regulated militia." Thus, he argues, the Second Amendment plays mostly a symbolic role in the debate. But legal scholars such as Kopel, Stephen Halbrook, Randy Barnett, and Don Kates argue the Second Amendment indeed protects an individual right, and they point out many courts have backed this view. Powers' viewers deserve to hear both sides.
Spitzer also argues guns used in crimes in big cities like New York often are transported from states with less restrictive gun-purchasing laws. Thus, he says, "it does make the point that tougher laws could indeed constrict the flow of weapons likely to be used in violence." Again, Powers should have interviewed somebody like Kopel to address the other side of the argument. First, it is interesting that the highest rates of gun violence in the United States occur where gun laws are already the "toughest." Second, criminal organizations can easily access multiple sources of guns (including thefts). Third, "tougher laws" also make it tougher for potential victims to defend themselves against violent aggressors, so they "could indeed" result in more violent crime.
Butterfield's comments are obviously biased and often offensive. He says, "It's the single most important issue that there is for these folks. It's a matter of faith, really. For them, it goes beyond ideology. It's almost a religious issue. They see gun control as really being against, you could say, their religion. So they become zealots about it." But while Butterfield's comments may apply to some gun owners, they apply equally to some disarmament advocates. At the same time, many gun owners, as well as many advocates of more gun restrictions, make a rational case backed up by a body of evidence. Thus, Butterfield's comments serve as an ad hominem attack against one side of the debate, and Powers should have known better than to include such slander.
Even more outrageous is the following statement by Butterfield: "There appears to be no middle ground. It's tragic to say it, but it seems to me that the only thing which will ultimately break the impasse would be, unfortunately, more incidents like Columbine." In other words, Butterfield already has his mind made up that more "middle-ground" gun restrictions are necessary, and he feels sensational mass murders will be used as a political tool to implement such restrictions.
Butterfield does make one useful comment, though of course he doesn't pursue the implications of it: "Most Americans don't begin to realize how much violence there has been in the inner cities, particularly in the late 80's and early 90's... So you had this incredible jump in youth homicides..."
Powers, and all the other participants in "Guns & Mothers," fail to explore the root cause of this wave of violence. The most profound tragedy of Powers' documentary is that it utterly fails to address how Americans might dramatically reduce violence. Fortunately, economist Jeffrey Miron and other scholars are focused on the real problem: the violence caused by drug prohibition. Miron finds "drug and alcohol prohibition have substantially raised the homicide rate in the United States over much of the past 100 years," from between 25% and 75%. The obvious question, then -- the question Powers utterly ignores -- is why aren't the Million Moms marching on Washington to demand the repeal of drug prohibition? Anyone who talks about violence in America but fails to mention the horrors of prohibition is morally derelict.
Davis reminds us, though, that prohibition is not solely to blame for violence. One of her sons was murdered while resisting an armed robbery. She didn't get into the details behind the murders of her other two sons. What is clear, though, is that the murderers were already in violation of many laws, including many gun laws, so we have to wonder just how illegal we can make murder, and whether new gun laws can have any positive impact. Davis also talks about general cultural problems. She is primarily concerned with stopping senseless violence, and in that work she is to be commended. What is unfortunate, in my view, is that she wrongly conflates activism for more restrictive gun laws with activism against violence.
As another woman says at the 2000 Second Amendment Sisters rally, "It's going to take a change of heart. You can have all the gun laws you want. Until a man's heart is changed, he's going to still do what he wants to do. You can ban guns in the United States altogether. You're not going to keep guns out of the hands of criminals."
Nevertheless, prohibition further destabilizes already-hurting communities. Prohibition encourages a culture of violence and makes both the black-market trade of guns and the criminal use of those guns more common. The great tragedy of the gun debate is that it prevents people from doing something that would actually decrease violence. Once we can stop arguing about violating people's rights to keep and bear arms, we can focus on repealing prohibition. Once prohibition is (again) a horror of the past, we can finally redress the economic destabilization of inner-city communities, a problem rooted in America's shameful history of slavery and perpetuated by ill-conceived economic barriers.
Davis sees part of the problem, but not all of it. Her words are the most sorrowful and emotionally impactful of the documentary: "It's as if [violence is] more expected and acceptible in the black and Hispanic communities. Sometimes when there's killings in inner cities, in black and Hispanic communities, most of the press (if it gets any press coverage) is very negative. It's always about drugs and gangs. When it happens in other neighborhoods that's more affluent -- white neighborhoods and communities -- it's more devastating because they put more value on a white boy's life than they do on a black boy's life."
Davis is correct that the mainstream media sometimes perpetuates stereotypes about blacks and Hispanics and seems to take the deaths of rich white kids more seriously. However, it is an obvious truth that there is more violence in inner cities, and that much of this violence is directly linked to the violence of drug prohibition. This is not primarily the fault of the minority communities -- it is primarily the fault of white elitists who passed prohibition laws in decades past mostly on racist grounds.
Heil wears an NRA button and attends NRA functions, so it's appropriate for Powers to focus on the NRA as a major political force. However, it would be useful for the advocates of gun restrictions to realize the NRA is not a monolithic voice that speaks for all gun owners. Many of my gun-owning friends refuse to join the NRA because they believe it is the "largest gun-control organization in America." Other friends of mine hold their nose as they write a check to the NRA. The NRA pushed "instant" Brady registration checks, which is a form of gun-owner registration. The NRA is currently catching a lot of flack for trying to muscle in on a lawsuit by the Cato Institute. Generally, groups like Gun Owners of America and Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership are much stronger advocates for the right to keep and bear arms, even though the groups are much smaller.
The problem is that the Million Moms tend to reify the NRA so that they can treat it as an inhuman monster. One sign at the "Million" Mom March in 2000 read, "Hey hey NRA how many kids have you killed today?" Mariam Wright Edelman offered a variant of a bigoted remark made by other representatives of the Million Mom organization: "We're going to love our children more than the NRA loves their guns."
To his credit, Powers allows Heil to explain some of the problems with the statistical claims of the anti-gun crowd. Powers includes an excellent segment with Heil relating gun ownership to feminism -- "When a woman can carry a handgun for self-defense, a woman has equality." It would have been interesting had Powers also discussed the controversy surrounding Rosie O'Donnell, who spoke at the "Million" Mom March but later hired an armed guard to protect her and her children.
The local angle is well-represented: Debra Collins tells her story of using a gun to keep an attacker at bay. Aimee Rathburn of the state NRA affiliate makes an appearance. One guy wears a "Tyranny Response Team" T-shirt, something that originated with the local group. As a candidate, Al Gore makes a reference to the infamous Robyn Anderson. It may have been a Colorado tragedy that inspired the Million Moms, but Colorado is also the home of new laws that will actually reduce violence by giving people a greater ability to defend themselves.
Powers concludes his documentary by pointing out both the Million Moms and the Second Amendment Sisters plan to rally in D.C. again next year (before the Presidential elections). That would be absolutely the best thing the Million Moms could do to assure the victory of George W. Bush -- unless of course Bush is stupid enough to reinstate the manufacturing and import ban on politically incorrect rifles and normal-capacity magazines. Then, even the Million Mommers might not be able to help Bush get out his base.