Guns and the Media
by Ari Armstrong
[Introduction: The following essay is based on material I presented to a "Media and Violence" class at CU, Boulder on June 23, 2003. I would like to thank the entire class, and especially Professor Gerard Dessere and his assistant Beth Johnson, for considering the issue from the point of view I represent. -- Ari Armstrong]
The Importance of Objective News
In January 2002, three people were murdered at Appalachian Law School in Virginia.
In The Bias Against Guns (24-7), John Lott describes this case in some detail. He writes, "[O]ne fact was missing from virtually all the news coverge: The attack was stopped by two students who had guns in their cars."
One of the students, Tracy Bridges, said, "I stopped at my vehicle and got a handgun, a revolver. Ted [Besen, an unarmed student] went toward Peter [Odighizuwa, the attacker], and I aimed my gun at [Peter], and Peter tossed his gun down. Ted approached Peter, and Peter hit Ted in the jaw. Ted pushed him back and we all jumped on him."
Of 208 news stories about the attack, 4 mentioned the attack was stopped by armed students.
The Washington Post reported, "[T]hree students pounced on the gunman and held him until help arrived."
New York's Newsday reported the attacker was "restrained by students."
Lott adds, "In all, seventy-two stories described how the attacker was stopped, without mentioning that the student heroes had guns. But almost the same number of stories (sixty-eight) provided precise details on the gun used in the attack...
"While Tracy had carefully described to over fifty reporters what had happened, discussing how he had to point his gun at Peter and yell to Peter to drop his gun, the media had consistently reported that the incident had ended by the students tackling the killer."
My basic goal here today is to convey some information and theories I hope will enable you to write more informed, more accurate news stories.
At the outset, though, I suppose it's a fair question to ask whether it's even worthwhile to discuss "objective" journalism.
A USAToday article from May relates: "Public confidence in the media, already low, continues to slip. Only 36%, among the lowest in years, believe news organizations get the facts straight, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows."
People on both sides of the gun debate are interested in media coverage of firearms in large part because they are interested in how the media impacts the political process.
We might outline three basic categories of people with respect to the printed news media: non-readers (which includes many people who pick up a paper for reasons other than news), passive readers, and active readers.
A September 5, 2000 article reports, "[T]he [Editor & Publisher/TIPP] poll of 1,956 adults conducted two weeks ago shows that those regular [newspaper] readers are far more likely to vote than others, and they still rely on newspapers - not network or cable TV programs - for most of their presidential campaign news."
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that, as Matthew Weinshall summarizes in The Dissident at the-dissident.com: "[T]he implications of perhaps the most consistent and well-established finding in voter survey research [include] those who do not vote tend to know almost nothing about politics."
We would be rash to conclude, though, that media readers are knowledgeable about politics.
Weinshall continues, "[W]hile most of those who do vote are more politically knowledgeable than those who don't, they still lack enough information to cast an adequately informed vote. For instance, [Thomas] Patterson [author of The Vanishing Voter] finds that just before the 2000 presidential election, a majority of voters could identify only one of each candidate's policy positions."
However, even though a minority of people -- the active media readers -- have a general feel for the political landscape, that still doesn't imply they put much critical thought into political matters.
Jeffrey Friedman addresses this matter in the journal Critical Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, titled "Public Ignorance." I think Critical Review is an important journal, and this particular volume is one of the journal's most important.
In his introductory essay, Friedman summarizes, "That the public is overwhelmingly ignorant when it comes to politics is... a discovery that has been replicated unfailingly by political scientists; indeed, it is one of the strongest findings that have ever been produced by any social science -- possibly *the* strongest. Yet for all the rock-solid evidence behind it, the finding of public ignorance is little known to those whose business it is to analyze public opinion. Pollsters, pundits, journalists, and non-specialist scholars routinely attribute movements in public opinion to the effect of subtle philosophical and policy debates that are, in reality, the purview of small elites..." (397)
One possible conclusion, then, is that mainstream journalists have little or no effect on politics, because most people don't actively pay attention to the media.
But that conclusion is wrong, at least in the long run.
Passive media readers -- who constitute the majority of voters -- may not give much critical thought to the media, but they are influenced by it nonetheless.
I think this implies an even more profound moral obligation for journalists to research their facts and include all the relevant facts.
Even though many people who claim to "read" your newspapers are not actually going to read most of what you write, the collection of images and snippets adds up over time to create vague impressions with the voters that influence their political decisions.
What about the relatively small numbers of active media readers, the people who actually put a lot of thought into their political activity?
These active readers are very likely to access alternative sources of news, such as specialty magazines, internet pages, and talk radio programs.
They are more likely to be involved with interest groups, such as the Brady Campaign or the National Rifle Association, all of which have independent communications networks.
They are also likely to influence passive readers and non-readers.
They are far less likely to be influenced in their perspectives by the mass media.
Again, then, one possible conclusion is that mainstream media do not have much impact on the political views of activists.
And again, I think that conclusion would be premature.
I would like to see a poll done among the NRA's membership (a group that numbers in the millions, by the way) asking them two questions:
1. What is your confidence, expressed as a percent, that mainstream media outlets accurately reports about issues pertaining to firearms?
2. What is your confidence that the NRA accurately report about issues pertaining to firearms?
I suspect the answer to the first question would be very close to 0, while the answer to the second question would be very close to 100.
And that is a problem.
Jeffrey Friedman's continues: "The heuristic role of ideology suggests that even *relatively* knowledgeable elites are still ignorant, since they cannot judge the adequacy of their worldviews without abandoning ideology for an unattainable, universal expertise.... [I]deological conviction can hardly be equated with the knowledge of the means to the good sought by instrumentalists." (405)
Now, in order to have any sort of sophisticated views about the world, we necessarily organize our thinking according to a set of general theories. I certainly do not want to suggest that ideology is, in itself, bad.
However, dogma is a bad thing. The way to avoid dogma is to critically examine your own views and the views of those who disagree.
I do not think it's a good thing for NRA members to be informed mostly by NRA publications and conservative radio hosts, any more than I think it's a good thing for Brady Campaign members to be informed mostly by Brady-related publications.
Some would argue, of course, that bias is inherent in any form of journalism, and "objective" news reporting is a fraud.
I don't buy it. I don't want to return to the days when newspapers were primarily vehicles for advocacy.
I think the proper goal of straight-news reporters is to report the facts accurately and to include the relevant facts. Of course, there's a lot of gray area there, but I think it's possible to get very close to attaining that goal.
What I am arguing against, then, is advocacy journalism on the news pages. I will define advocacy news journalism as the conscious or subconscious attempt to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political perspective, through skewing the available facts or failing to include the relevant facts.
Obviously, I'm a big fan of advocacy journalism, so long as it is clearly labeled to be editorial in nature. Indeed, that's almost the only sort of journalism I practice. The masthead on my web page at FreeColorado.com states clearly that I'm offering a libertarian perspective.
Editorial writing can be completely objective. That is, it can report the facts accurately, and it can account for the relevant facts. The difference between proper news reporting and proper opinion writing is that advocacy journalism is less tied to the story of the day and it explicitly draws an inference from a body of evidence. It attempts to determine what people ought to do, rather than simply what the facts are.
What I'm arguing against is advocacy the writer attempts to pass off as straight news. This can only happen by somehow skewing the news story.
News advocacy does have an impact on activists. Namely, it creates distrust of the mainstream media and encourages activists to become insulated from outside criticism.
Thus, advocacy news that seeks to undermine gun owners or their legal standing has the paradoxical result of encouraging some gun owners to get more of their news from decidedly pro-gun resources.
Brian Patrick said in 1999, "The more negative media coverage the NRA receives, the larger its membership grows... In essence, the NRA has institutionalized around bad press, using it as a rallying point in mobilizing members."
Objective reporting about guns, then, is important for conveying an accurate sense to reality to passive readers, and for encouraging gun owners to remain active participants in the broader public discussion.
Of course, this also helps people opposed to gun ownership better understand the perspective of gun owners.
So I've said all this to convince you of something I trust you already believe: objective news reporting is a good thing.
I'll spend the rest of my time discussing specific issues that pertain to firearms.
A Liberal Issue
A lot of people seem be believe that support for gun ownership is inherently a "conservative" issue, whereas opposition to gun ownership is inherently a "liberal" issue.
For example, one person who recently sent me an e-mail described one of my articles as "pure NRA/Conservative propaganda."
As readers of the Boulder Weekly may know, I invited the editor of that paper to attend a firearms instruction class. I wrote an article explaining why I thought the class would be a good idea, and she wrote an article reviewing her experiences in the class.
A letter to the editor published in the Weekly on May 29 replies: "And the relationship to the Bush Administration and the right wing? I'm sure they're ready to defend us from the liberals, but the right-wing is OK."
There's just one minor problem with this view: I am not a conservative. Many gun owners are not.
(Perhaps the best example of this is the organization Pink Pistols, a gun club consisting of homosexuals.)
It's strange to try to peg me as a conservative, given the following points:
* I did not vote for George Bush.
* I do not believe abortion should be outlawed, and I have written articles to that effect.
* I was skeptical of the war in Iraq, and I argued at length that the burden of proof was not met for entering that war.
* I contribute money to the American Civil Liberties Union, and I carry an ACLU card in my wallet.
* I wrote an article that severely criticized Senator Santorum over his remarks concerning homosexuals. (I think my article outlines the most complete and overwhelming criticisms against Santorum available.)
The reason gun ownership is often associated with conservatism is that's what the demographics encourage. Rural people are more likely to own guns and shoot them regularly, whereas urban people are less likely to do so. Conservatism is correlated with gun ownership, but the positions are not logically related.
Indeed, if we think of "liberalism" as the concern with individual liberty, and a profound skepticism of centralized power, then it's difficult to name a cause more fundamentally "liberal" than letting civilians carry arms.
After all, the only alternative to letting the civilian population bear arms is to allow only the police and the military to bear arms. If "liberalism" is in part opposition to centralized power, then civilian disarmament is profoundly anti-liberal.
Thus, the following quote by Julia Martinez in the May 8 Denver Post struck me as peculiar. I'm using ellipses, but the essential quote remains intact: "Republicans moved the state down a more conservative path... [by] liberalizing gun laws."
Historically in America, the history of disarmament laws is closely linked with the history of racism.
For example, an 1865 statute in Mississippi stated, "[N]o freedman, free negro or mulatto, not in the military service... and not licensed to do so by the board of police in his or her county, shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife... If any white person shall sell, lend, or give to any freedman, free negro, or mulatto any fire-arms, dirk or bowie knife, or ammunition... such person or persons... shall be fined... and may be imprisoned." (Stephen Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed, 108)
Part of the reasoning for adopting the Fourteenth Amendment was to make sure African Americans could bear arms.
For instance, when debating the Fourteenth Amendment, Congressman Sidney Clarke argued, "Sir, I find in the Constitution of the United States an article which declares that 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.' For myself, I shall insist that the reconstructed rebels of Mississippi respect the Constitution in their local laws..." (111)
I raise this example to reinforce the view that civilian gun ownership, properly understood, is fundamentally bound up with the liberal tradition.
This example does show that protecting the right to bear arms has been associated with the Republican Party since its rise to prominence.
I do not, by the way, want to get into a detailed discussion of the Second Amendment. I will mention before moving on, though, that the first federal firearms law restricting gun ownership was not passed until 1934.
Legal scholar Dave Kopel argues the first Supreme Court decision to directly address the meaning of the Second Amendment, in 1939, in fact affirms the individual's right to bear arms, though it allows restrictions on guns that have no demonstrated military value.
Of course federal courts did not directly address the issue prior to 1934, because there were no federal laws restricting gun ownership.
It is quite obvious, though, that those who advocated and passed the Second Amendment regarded the "militia" as the general citizenry, not a special armed force such as the National Guard, which is a fairly recent development.
But we'll have to leave intricacies surrounding the Bill of Rights for another discussion.
Stereotypes of Gun Owners
So the notion that gun owners must be "conservative" is part of the stereotype about gun owners. Of course, it gets much worse.
At the Million Mom March in 2000, one person held a sign that read, "Hey hey NRA how many kids have you killed today?" A spokesperson said, "We're going to love our children more than the NRA loves their guns."
This attitude ascribes to gun owners a homicidal disposition. It portrays gun owners as monsters who don't care if children die.
A letter to the June 5 Westword claims people own semi-automatic military-style rifles "to compensate for one's weak character or to kill as many people as possible in the shortest period of time."
The letter writer continued about me, "I only hope the 'gunslinging' Mr. Armstrong doesn't venture too often from his 'redneck' neighborhood in Westminster to the fair streets of Denver, where I reside. Should he, however, it should be easy to spot his pickup and thereby avoid him, by noticing the much-dated and faded bumper sticker that I'm sure he still relishes: 'I'll give up my gun when they pry my cold dead fingers off the barrel.' Now, that's what I call pathetic."
What I think is pathetic is the writer's blatant bigotry against gun owners.
Unfortunately, such views are not limited to anti-gun activists.
For example, Jim Spencer, who writes opinion pieces as a "news" columnist for the Denver Post, had this to say May 21:
"Fear drives most people to purchase and carry handguns. The idea that anyone can be secure without a firearm is anathema to the gun lobby... Trouble is... [that Republicans] can impose their will on localities that never shared their paranoia."
Spencer also believes legal adults ages 18-20 should not be able to carry a gun for defensive purposes. (Colorado does not allow 18-20 year olds to carry concealed handguns. Federal law does not permit the sale of handguns to adults under 21. The sale of rifles and shotguns is permitted.) He writes, "You wonder who's going to protect the rest of us from a terrified, hormone-roiled adolescent."
So, according to Spencer, a news columnist for Colorado's most widely-distributed newspaper, gun owners are fearful, "paranoid" people, and gun owners who are young adults are "terrified" and "hormone-roiled."
And how does Spencer claim to know this? Did he review sociological studies or talk with representative gun owners? No. Spencer's claims are in fact false, and they are in fact blatantly bigoted against gun owners.
In Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control, criminologist Gary Kleck summarizes, "Gun owners are not, as a group, psychologically abnormal, nor are they more racist, sexist, or violence-prone than nonowners. Most gun ownership is culturally patterned... Defensive ownership is more likely to be an individualistic response to life circumstances perceived to be dangerous. This response to dangers, however, is not necessarily mediated by the emotion of fear, but rather may be part of a less emotional preparation for the possibility of future victimization." (94)
Having personally met scores if not hundreds of gun owners, I can attest to the conclusion that Kleck frames in a tentative way. I have met one woman, however, who was motivated to keep a defensive gun by a justified fear of her violent ex-husband. She in fact held the violent man at bay with a shotgun until police could arrive. Such justified fear cannot properly be considered "paranoia."
In Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control, Don Kates puts the matter rather more bluntly: "[T]he conventional wisdom about gun owners perpetuated by their enemies (among which the popular media must be counted) is a bigoted stereotype that would be recognized and denounced as such if directed against gays, Jews, African Americans, or virtually any other group other than gun owners." (20)
One thing missing from many news stories is a sense of perspective.
One phrase common to journalism is, "If it bleeds, it leads."
Another is, "Dog-bites-man is not news; man-bites-dog is news."
In other words, there is an institutional tendency to report the dramatic and the sensational. That's what sells newspapers and attracts television audiences.
But this sort of reporting can give readers -- especially passive readers -- a skewed sense of reality. To offer a simple example, some people have an irrational fear of flying on airplanes, because crashes always make the news, yet successful runs never do.
That said, reporters are often fairly careful to at least note the overall safety record of airplanes, which largely alleviates the misperceptions. I do not find the same level of care with respect to firearms.
In reality, most people die for basically boring reasons: health problems or car wrecks.
While recognizing the media always will report the dramatic and sensational, I think journalists have a responsibility to offer a sense of perspective in their work.
According to the National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 50, No. 15 (September 16, 2002), Americans died from the following causes in 2000.
Of course, many of these causes of death can aptly be described as "old age." Unintentional deaths, suicides, and homicides rightly get more news coverage than other types of deaths. That said, obviously maintaining good health is the single best way to live longer.
And how many Americans know unintentional injuries result in 3.3 times as many deaths as suicides do, and 5.9 times as many deaths as homicides do? Don't you think this sort of information would be helpful to people as they make their every-day decisions?
Let's take a look at unintentional deaths, which again accounted for 4% of all deaths in 2000.
Out of the 776 people who died by unintentional discharge of firearms, 1 was less than 1 year old, 18 were 1-4 years old, and 67 were 5-14 years old. Put another way, 11% of all unintentional deaths related to firearms in 2000 involved children ages 0-14.
In 2000, 5,686 children ages 0-14 suffered unintentional deaths. Of that number, 2,591 (45.6% of the total) involved a motor vehicle, 943 (16.6% of the total) involved drowning, and 86 (1.5% of the total) involved a firearm.
Yet is this the picture painted by the mainstream media? How many Americans who rely on the mass-media for their information have a realistic perspective of life's dangers?
Recreational Use of Guns
Another element of perspective generally missing from media accounts of firearms is that almost all guns are used for recreational purposes.
Of course, sometimes the media cover events such as recreational shooting, hunting, and competitive shooting (including Olympic matches).
Almost all shooting with guns is conducted in a responsible way for recreation. Yet almost all media coverage of guns involves the misuse of a gun involving suicides, homicides, or unintentional shootings.
Again, it is indeed the relatively rare misuses of guns that warrant extensive media coverage. Yet it is important for journalists to offer some sense of perspective.
Every year millions of gun owners shoot billions of rounds of ammunition for recreational purposes. (Kleck, Targeting Guns, 86)
Gary Kleck writes, "Probably fewer than 2% of handguns and well under 1% of all guns will ever be involved in even a single violent crime. Thus, the problem of criminal gun violence is concentrated within a very small subset of guns and gun owners."(94)
The media's failure to accurately portray the use of guns leads to severe misunderstanding and animosity between gun owners and non-gun owners.
I grew up on Colorado's Western Slope, where gun ownership is prevalent. In general, rates of gun ownership are higher, and crime is lower (much lower), in rural and low-population areas.
So I know on a gut level that gun owners generally are good, decent, upstanding citizens. They often use guns for recreational purposes, and they also are prepared to use a gun in self-defense in the event that they are attacked.
Urban residents, on the other hand, typically didn't grow up shooting guns. Fewer of their friends own guns. Their most common experiences pertaining to firearms is reading about gang-related violence in the newspaper.
Is it any wonder that many urban residents have a skewed perception about gun owners and the common uses of guns, given the media's failure to present a balanced picture of gun ownership?
Defensive Gun Uses
There are roughly 210 million adults in the United States. (John Lott, The Bias Against Guns, 259)
There are also well over 200 million guns in the United States. (Kleck, Targeting Guns, 94)
So, there are more guns in the United States than there are adults, but obviously many gun owners own more than one gun.
(In Colorado, a single gun owner is defined as a "gun show" by law if he or she owns 25 or more guns and offers them for sale.)
Kleck supposes that "at least half of the households have a gun" in the U.S. (Targeting Guns, 70)
In Armed, Kleck devotes an entire chapter to "The Frequency of Defensive Gun Use." He concludes:
"The hypothesis that many Americans use guns for self-protection each year has been repeatedly subjected to empirical test, using the only feasible method for doing so, surveys... The results of nineteen consecutive surveys unanimously indicate that each year huge numbers of Americans (700,000 or more) use guns for self-protection... The best survey on defensive gun use frequency indicates 2.55 million defensive gun uses a year in the United States..." (270-1)
John Lott conducted surveys in 2002 and in 1997 indicating about 2.1 to 2.3 million defensive gun uses per year. (21-2, 259-60) (For those of you who follow internet debates, yes, Lott does provide conclusive evidence that his 1997 survey was conducted. See pages 259-60, in which he lists eight other people involved with that survey.)
Kleck goes so far as to describe "the rare-defensive gun use theory" as "the creation science of criminology." (260)
Why, then, are not the newspapers filled with accounts of defensive gun uses?
The most important reason is that defensive gun uses almost always involve only brandishing the weapon, not firing it.
Lott explains, "Even though the survey I conducted during the fall of 2002 indicates that simply brandishing a gun stops crimes 95 percent of the time, and other surveys have also found high rates, it is very rare to see such a story. No conspiracy is really needed to explain why an editor finds a dead body on the ground very newsworthy... Take a story in which a woman brandishes a gun and a criminal flees: No shots are fired, no crime is committed, and no one is even sure what crime would have been committed had a weapon not been drawn. Nothing bad actually happened. It is not emotionally gripping enough to make the story 'newsworthy'." (24)
Indeed, such cases generally are not even reported to the police. (Kleck, Armed, 295)
Kleck reviews in Targeting Guns that fewer than 8% of defensive gun uses involve shooting the attacker. (162) Less than 1% of defensive gun uses results in the death of the attacker. (164)
If, in every instance of defensive gun use, what would have happened had the intended victim not had a gun?
In some cases, some other form of resistance would have been effective. In other cases, the crime committed would have been relatively minor.
In some cases, though, a crime that was prevented with the use of a gun would have resulted in the injury or death of the intended victim. This is especially true in cases in which the intended victim is physically smaller or less strong than the attacker.
Kleck notes that, in the U.S., burglars typically attempt to enter a home only when no one is home, because they fear facing armed resistance. (Armed 328) Instances of criminals taking defensive guns away from their owners are "in fact virtually nonexistent." (296) He adds, "Less than 6 percent of gun-using victims are injured following their gun use, and nearly all of the injuries suffered are minor. Thus, defensive gun use is effective." (331)
Yes, others forms of resistance other than defensive gun use can also be effective against a criminal attack. Kleck notes, "Victims who used guns were less likely to be injured than crime victims who did not resist, but their post-self-protection injury rates were not significantly different from those of victims using many other self-protection measures." (291) However, for potential rape victims, using a gun was the most effective form of self-defense (294).
In addition, Kleck notes the types of criminal attack probably aren't comparable. (292) People who use a gun for self-defense generally face a more severe form of attack than the average. It's also possible that those most likely to carry a gun for self-defense are least able to practice other forms of self-defense.
However, as important as the defensive use of guns is, an armed citizenry also helps to deter crime. This would be predicted simply because if a criminal is more likely to face serious injury, the criminal is less likely to proceed with the attempted crime. Numerous sources of evidence support the theory.
Kleck notes that a violent criminal is twice as likely to face a defensive gun use as to face arrest (318). Also, on one survey of prisoners, 43% said that at some point they had decided not to commit a particular crime because they feared facing armed resistance (319).
In More Guns, Less Crime, John Lott finds evidence that, accounting for other factors, higher rates of gun ownership in U.S. counties are related to lower crime rates. (113-4)
Another strong indicator of the deterrent effect of gun ownership is Lott's findings with respect to concealed carry. He summarizes, "The empirical work provides strong evidence that concealed-handgun laws reduce violent crime and that higher arrest rates deter all types of crime." (94)
Yes, I know the debate has gone back and forth. However, by my reading of the debate, Lott generally disproves the claims of his critics. He goes through a thorough examination of attempted refutations in both More Guns, Less Crime, 2nd Edition, and The Bias Against Guns.
We don't have the time to review this entire discussion. I will note, though, that Lott examines the effort of John Donohue, and Lott argues "that even [Ian] Ayres and Donohue's own results show that violent crime rates fall right after right-to-carry laws are adopted." Lott argues Donohue incorrectly averages crime rates over multiple years. (The Bias Against Guns, 236)
Lott points out that gun owners keep non-gun owners safer: "Homeowners who defend themselves make burglars wary of breaking into homes in general... Non-gun owners in some sense are 'free riders' ...on the defensive efforts provided by their gun-owning neighbors." (11)
There is one final issue we might hit concerning the defensive use of guns.
That is a claim that a gun in the home is more likely to be used against a resident of the home. This claim is simply a fraud.
Kleck calls this the "nonsense ratio" and replies to it in some detail in Armed (310-3).
The most serious error of the "nonsense ratio" is that it illegitimately compares deaths of the homeowners to deaths of attackers. But, as we've seen, in almost all cases a defensive gun use does NOT result in the death of the attacker.
Also, Kleck notes, "Gun accidents are largely concentrated in a very small, high-risk subset of the population. For everyone else, the risks of a fatal gun accident are negligible, so the population-wide accident rate is an exaggeration of the risk borne by the typical gun-owning household." (311)
Incidentally, I believe the actual number of gun "accidents" is almost zero. I like to follow the National Safety Council and use the term "unintentional injury" rather than "accident." Almost all so-called "accidents" involving a gun are actually cases of carelessness.
In 2000, 16,765 people were murdered. (Actually, some of these cases turned out to be justifiable homicides.) Of these, 10,801 (64.5% of the total) involved a firearm.
Don Kates summarizes, "[I]n almost every case murderers are aberrants exhibiting life histories of violence and crime, psychopathology, substance abuse, and other dangerous behaviors." (Armed 20)
Obviously, a lot more crimes are committed with a gun than end in murder. Roughly half a million crimes per year are committed with a gun. "Thus, defensive uses are about five times more common than criminal uses," Kleck notes. (Armed 267)
Obviously, if it were somehow possible to magically disarm all the criminals, while leaving all the law-abiding citizens with their guns, that would be a good thing.
Unfortunately, that is not possible.
Let's conduct a couple thought experiments. If somehow every criminal in the U.S. could be magically disarmed, would that automatically mean all the crimes that would have involved a gun, instead would not have happened at all?
Would all 10,801 homicides in 2000 involving a gun have been prevented?
Obviously not. Many acts of homicide would be committed with some other weapon. Also, many criminals are physically larger than their intended victims.
Here's another hypothetical. If a total gun ban were enacted in the U.S., would criminals actually be disarmed? The answer is obviously no.
What of international comparisons?
Lott summarizes, "Worldwide, there is no relationship between gun ownership and crime rates. Many countries, such as Switzerland, Finland, New Zealand, and Israel, have high gun-ownership rates and low crime rates, while many other countries have both low gun-ownership rates and either high or low crime rates." (More Guns, Less Crime 113)
But perhaps simple rates of gun ownership are not the important factor. Perhaps it is the nature of the laws in different countries.
Dave Kopel addresses this issue at length in The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?, a 1992 publication.
Based on exhaustive research of numerous other nations, Kopel concludes, "There is little evidence that foreign gun statutes, with at best a mixed record in their own countries, would succeed in the United States. Contrary to the claims of the American gun-control movement, gun control does not deserve credit for the low crime rates in Britain, Japan, or other nations. Despite strict and sometimes draconian gun controls in other nations, guns remain readily available on the criminal black market. Gun control has not reduced crime; in fact, it has encouraged burglary. Gun registration has proven itself valueless in solving or preventing crime. Gun control has in some instances reduced gun suicide, only to see other equally deadly methods of suicide substituted." (431)
Let us say we could somehow magically remove all the guns from the United States, and distribute them evenly among all Japanese. Would we also trade homicide rates, would the homicide rate in Japan continue to be substantially lower than in the U.S.? (The answer seems obvious, especially because even the rate of homicides that don't involve a gun in the U.S. is relatively high.)
Joyce Lee Malcomb, author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience, wrote in Reason Magazine, "In reality, the English approach has not reduced violent crime. Instead it has left law-abiding citizens at the mercy of criminals who are confident that their victims have neither the means nor the legal right to resist them. Imitating this model would be a public safety disaster for the United States.... In the two years following the 1997 handgun ban, the use of handguns in crime rose by 40 percent, and the upward trend has continued. From April to November 2001, the number of people robbed at gunpoint in London rose 53 percent."
Real Causes of Crime
Many cultural factors impact the crime rate.
But there is one overriding cause of violence in America: prohibition. The prohibition of drugs generates violent black markets, turf wars, trade disputes, and more thefts to fund drug habits. Gangs are able to fund the illegal purchase of guns and other weapons by selling drugs.
Economist Jeffrey Miron of Boston University estimates the U.S. homicide rate is 25% to 75% higher than it would be in the absence of prohibition.
Miron adds, "Homicide rates in Western Europe are only 10-20 percent of those in the United States (United Nations 1998), consistent with the fact that these countries' attempts to control drug use focus more on demand side policies (needle exchange, narcotics maintenance, treatment) than on prohibition."
Gangs are already experts at trafficking illegal drugs; a gun ban would only give gangs yet another lucrative underground market to exploit.
The single best way to reduce violence in America is to repeal drug prohibition.
In 2000, 29,350 people took their own lives. Of these, 16,586 (56.5% of the total) used a firearm.
If the 16,586 people who used a gun to commit suicide could have somehow magically been disarmed, would that have prevented them from committing suicide?
Yes, some studies suggest that GUN suicides are related to gun ownership. But that's just a pedantic way of saying that, to kill yourself with a gun, you must first have a gun. The same can be said of any other tool used in the commission of a suicide.
Is a suicide more likely to be carried out with the use of a gun than with some other methods? Yes, which proves people really intent on killing themselves, rather than merely crying out for help, often choose a gun. But equally fatal substitutions are available.
The same anti-gun activists who blame American suicides on gun ownership, and who look to Europe as a model for gun laws, generally fail to point out that Europe has higher suicide rates. (Kleck, Armed, 59)
Similarly, the suicide rate in Japan is higher than it is in the United States. (Kopel, Samurai, 43)
There is no link between gun ownership rates and overall suicide rates.
The Impacts of Gun Laws
There are some fairly simple explanations for why various gun laws might be a good idea. Let's go through some of them.
* Gun storage: If we require gun owners to lock up their guns, these guns will be less likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting, suicide, or homicide.
* Brady checks and registration: By requiring buyers to undergo background checks and register prior to purchasing a gun, criminals will be less able to buy guns.
* Restricted gun capacity: If we outlaw larger magazines and military-style guns, criminals will be denied these powerful weapons.
* Manufacturing guidelines: Guns will be safer if their manufacture is regulated more tightly by the federal government.
These explanations assume the laws will impact criminals and irresponsible persons.
However, criminals and irresponsible persons are the least likely to comply with the laws.
At the same time, responsible, law-abiding citizens are the most likely to comply with the laws.
The potential problem, then, is that gun-restriction laws have minimal impacts on reducing crime and other irresponsible gun use, and maximum impacts on making it harder for responsible people to defend themselves.
Let's re-evaluate the laws.
* Gun storage: Who is most likely to comply with a storage law: a responsible person who reads the news and tracks politics? Or an irresponsible person who takes stupid risks and may not even know what laws have been passed?
A stored gun is less available for irresponsible use, but it is also less available for defensive use.
What constitutes "safe storage" depends on the context of the individual gun owner.
And in fact, Colorado statutes already allow criminal penalties for allowing an irresponsible child to have unsupervised access to a gun. 18-6-401 specifies, "A person commits child abuse if such person causes an injury to a child's life or health, or permits a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that poses a threat of injury to the child's life or health..."
Mandatory storage laws, though, prevent gun owners from acting according to their individual circumstances.
John Lott conducted extensive empirical research on existing storage laws, and he spends 53 pages reviewing his results in The Bias Against Guns.
Lott concludes, "Safe storage laws have no impact on accidental gun deaths or on total suicide rates... The only consistent impact of safe storage laws is to raise rape, robbery, and burglary rates, and the effects are very large. My most conservative estimates show that safe storage laws resulted in 3,738 more rapes, 21,000 more robberies, and 49,733 more burglaries annually in the fifteen states with these laws." (188-9)
Of course, one of the best ways to keep a gun out of irresponsible hands is to carry the gun concealed. But I have yet to read a popular news story reporting this fact.
* Brady checks and registration: Most denials in a background check are wrongful denials. Thus, some people suffer delay when trying to acquire a tool of self-defense.
Registration checks also spend scarce police resources tracking peaceable citizens rather than criminals.
Two independent studies, one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and one conducted by John Lott, find that registration checks have failed to reduce crime.
The expansion of Brady checks to gun shows has had "no impact on crime," Lott finds (221).
* Restricted gun capacity: Criminal gangs are already experts at trafficking illegal items. Thus, restrictions on gun capacity are most likely to impact people who use those guns for defensive or other responsible reasons.
Lott finds, "[I]f there is any effect, the assault weapons ban appears to increase murder and robbery rates." (220-1)
However, the very term "assault weapon" is vague and misleading.
In Guns: Who Should Have Them, Kopel notes an "assault rifle" is a specific sort of fully automatic gun. (162)
He says so-called assault weapons "*do not* fire faster than many guns that are not banned. They *do not* have a larger ammunition capacity. All the other purported physical characteristics of 'assault weapons' which form the basis for prohibition simply are either not true (such as claims about ammunition lethality), or are trivial (such as bayonet lugs), or are designed to make the gun more accurate (such as muzzle brakes)." (203)
Kopel also notes a normal-capacity magazine (i.e., one that can hold more than ten rounds) can indeed be useful for self-defense, especially against multiple attackers. (167)
* Manufacturing guidelines: There is no evidence that modern guns are inherently dangerous. In fact, even as the stock of guns has increased dramatically over the last century, the rate of unintentional deaths has decreased dramatically.
As I have argued, some proposed changes, such as "chamber indicators," actually encourage unsafe gun handling.
Given modern guns are already very safe, the proposed manufacturing changes would be counter-productive, and the proposed language would give the federal government wide latitude to ban safe, effective guns, I am forced to conclude the real purpose of the drive to regulate gun manufacturing is to increase the cost of some guns and ban others.
The Politicization of Guns
If we add together deaths involving a gun related to homicide (10,801), suicide (16,586), and unintentional shootings (776) for the year 2000, we get a total of 28,163, or 1.2% of the total number of deaths (2,403,351).
In most of those cases death would have occurred even had a gun not been present.
Yet adding a political discussion to media stories about guns is the rule. Adding political discussion to media stories about all other types of death is the exception to the rule.
For example, on June 22 Veronica Torrejn and Marcos Mocine-McQueen reported for the Denver Post a story about an 11-year-old child who tried to kill his father with the father's gun. The writers added, "The gun was not locked away. [Fountain Police Chief John] Morse said no charges will be filed against Worley for failing to secure the gun. He said it is not illegal in Colorado to leave a weapon unlocked."
Even though the Denver Post has often noted the lack of a gun storage law in Colorado, not once to my knowledge has the Denver Post acknowledged adults can already be charged criminally for endangering children under the child-abuse statute.
Articles in the Denver Post ignore the view that storage laws make self-defense more difficult.
I don't know what can explain this other than that the Denver Post is promoting a political agenda on its news pages.
On the same day, in the same newspaper, one of the same writers, Mocine-McQueen, wrote, "A 23-year-old man was killed when he decided to take a dip in the South St. Vrain River in Boulder County." Unlike the other article, this article made no mention of politics.
Even though deaths involving motor vehicles are about 50% more frequent than deaths involving guns, and 5,587% more frequent than unintentional deaths involving guns, reports about deaths involving vehicles hardly ever include a political discussion.
Why is this?
Part of the explanation is that a co-dependent relationship has developed between media outlets and members of interest groups. Reporters expect anti-gun activists and pro-gun activists to comment about incidents relating to guns, so they seek out those opinions.
People on both sides of the issue tune in to stories about guns.
At the same time, reporters expect politicians to debate guns in the legislature, so they are inclined to include the political context (even though they often do so in a biased manner).
It was not always so. Throughout most of America's history, people thought of deaths involving guns in much the same way we think about deaths involving cars.
Most deaths involving cars are the result of recklessness. A few car deaths strike those who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Of course, a responsible person is far more likely to die in a car wreck than by gunfire.) Usually we hear of deaths involving cars in the context of traffic reports.
Generally, even though unintentional deaths involving guns are relatively infrequent, stories about them are quite frequent and they often include a political angle. On the other hand, stories about all other unintentional deaths usually do not include a political angle. They might instead talk about how individuals can be more responsible.
If the world were slightly different, stories about homicides involving guns might not discuss the politics of guns at all. Instead they might focus on, say, police resources, root causes of violence, etc.
It is only through historical accident (and the horrors caused by prohibition) that guns have become politicized.
Let's talk about the language of gun control.
Even the phrase, "gun control," is misleading. So-called "gun-control" laws don't actually control criminal activity, and they result in less civilian control over their own guns.
For instance, gun-storage laws mean a gun owner has less control over his or her gun.
As noted, the phrase "assault weapons" is basically meaningless. But it sounds scarier than the more accurate phrase, "defensive semi-automatic rifles."
True, both sides of the debate use the phrase, "Saturday Night Special." But that term is racist in origin and it should be avoided. A more accurate phrase is, "Inexpensive, small handguns." Obviously, such guns are ideal for small people and poor people.
"Normal-capacity magazines" mean magazines which are not arbitrarily restricted by federal mandate.
If you're going to use the phrase "gun lobby" in your articles, then you should also use the phrase "anti-gun lobby" or "disarmament lobby."
I wouldn't be offended if you used a description like, "A group of concerned citizens trying to defend their fundamental human right of self-defense."
Other Examples of Media Bias
On May 28, Trent Seibert wrote for the Denver Post:
The Anti-Defamation League has begun looking into the tactics of a gun-rights group that started in Colorado and has spread to 17 other states. The ADL, which has exposed hate groups and militias throughout the United States, stopped short of placing the Tyranny Response Team in that category. But one ADL official said the civil-rights group is concerned about the kinds of people who may be drawn to the gun organization. "That's what it's about: keeping an eye on these groups," said Bobbie Towbin, associate director of the ADL's Denver branch.... "As far as I'm concerned, I don't think they are white supremacists or have an ideology that we'd be concerned about," Towbin said. "It's the type of people they may attract."
Seibert explicitly wrote about the group's leader, Bob Glass.
Seibert also failed to note that Bob Glass is a Jew whose group had absolutely nothing to do with "hate groups" or "militias."
Seibert's fraudulent and defamatory story was picked up by the AP and substantially reprinted in the Rocky Mountain News.
In an analysis of nearly 1,500 articles in what [Brian] Patrick calls the "elite" press---New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor---from 1990 until 1998, Patrick compared the coverage of the NRA with that of the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Handgun Control Inc. (HCI)....
I would add, however, that it's also a mistake to treat the NRA as if it always spoke for all gun owners. A significant minority of gun owners refer to the NRA as "America's largest gun-control organization."
In More Guns, Less Crime, 2nd Edition, John Lott devotes a chapter to "The Political and Academic Debate." He points out numerous and easily-disproved errors reported in major newspapers about his research. As one example, the Los Angeles Times incorrectly reported Lott's work was not peer-reviewed.
In Armed, Gary Kleck devotes a chapter to "Modes of News Media Distortion of Gun Issues." He concludes, "Some major news sources have covered the gun issue in a competent and balanced fashion... Nevertheless, while antigun bias is not universal among the major national news outlets, it is certainly widespread."
Certainly the media sometimes gets it right. 9News has held discussions with representatives of numerous groups, and for one such meeting 9News invited civil arms supporters. The Rocky Mountain News is more likely to report fairly where guns are concerned than is the Denver Post. Also, I wrote a review of a recent PBS documentary that handled the issue with basic fairness.
On June 9, Dave Kopel and Paul Blackman wrote a column for National Review Online reviewing the coverage of firearms issues in the New York Times.
The writers summarize, "[T]he Times's credibility when it comes to guns is about equal to that of the National Enquirer's reporting on celebrity romances: Some of it is true, a large part is false, and much of the rest is presented in a significantly misleading way."
Kopel and Blackman describe several specific problems.
* In an October 21, 2001 story, Fox Butterfield "shoehorned the news about the murder of a federal prosecutor into a story about gun policy, and that Butterfield used an anonymous quote to insinuate that Second Amendment activists were the prime suspects."
* On April 9, 1997, Butterfield falsely reported that Florida "has no restrictions on the purchase of handguns beyond the five-day waiting period" then in force. In fact, other restrictions were in place, and "because Florida already had a functioning background-check system for handgun purchases, the Brady five-day waiting period never applied there."
* Kopel and Blackman describe an August 13 story by Butterfield as "a litany of false, misleading, or incomplete assertions about federal gun laws and federal gun prosecution." (The explanation for why this is so is rather lengthy.)
* "Thomas Friedman claimed (April 3, 1996) that Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America, has 'spoken at rallies held by white supremacist' leaders. This is absolutely false. Indeed, Pratt is so far from being a 'white supremacist' ally that he is married to a Panamanian and speaks Spanish at home."
* In May 1995, Thomas Friedman incorrectly stated "private militias" were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing.
* "Another Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, claimed that Dick Cheney, when he was a congressman from Wyoming, defended 'plastic guns that could slip through airport metal detectors.' Actually, there's never been an actual plastic gun, let alone a plastic gun which could slip through metal detectors."
I opened with the story of the murders at Appalachian Law School -- and how that attack was stopped. In The Bias Against Guns, John Lott reviews numerous other cases of media bias with respect to firearms.
Yes, in a utopian world in which we could magically disarm everybody, the murders at the law school might not have taken place in the first place.
But in the real world, disarmament laws are more likely to impact law-abiding citizens than criminals. Even if they didn't have guns, criminals usually have the advantage over disarmed victims, and criminals can also use other weapons.
In the real world, biased journalism encourages false perceptions about life's dangers, gun ownership, the defensive use of guns, and what means are effective in stopping criminal attacks.
Biased journalism does more than skew the political debate: it endangers people's lives.