Jim Spencer and the Politics of Murder
by Ari Armstrong, June 9, 2003
Columnist Jim Spencer distorts the truth in order to promote his political agenda on the "news" pages of the Denver Post.
On June 8, Spencer began his column, "I'm still getting hate mail for a May 21 column that criticized the state for diluting local gun laws. I haven't heard a word from the Sons of the Second Amendment about Garry Scott McLaughlin. This doesn't surprise me. McLaughlin, an 18-year-old honor student and the stepson of a district judge, shoots holes in the idea that easy access to guns makes Colorado safer."
We all agree that McLaughlin's murder is a horrible tragedy, and we all wish it hadn't happened. Frankly, I would rather not write about it at all. But, given Spencer has used the murder to inappropriately advance a political agenda, a reply is warranted.
Spencer immediately misrepresents the nature of the debate. Those who support the right to keep and bear arms argue that peaceable citizens should have "easy access" to the tools of self-defense, and that this indeed helps keep them safer. Obviously, everyone agrees gangsters and murderers are best deprived of guns and other tools they use to attack others. But Spencer uses his column precisely to criticize policies that help enable peaceable citizens to defend themselves.
Spencer says he got "hate mail" over his May 21 column, and that may be the case, but it's also true he received well-reasoned replies. I know this because I sent him several such e-mails. However, pointed, even angry, replies are totally warranted, given Spencer's earlier bigoted remarks about gun owners. I suspect Spencer is conflating instances of righteous anger with instances of "hate mail."
Spencer's explanation of why he received no letters pertaining to the murder from advocates of self-defense is preposterous. His explanation is that gun owners didn't send him letters on the matter because the murder disproves the case for general gun ownership (or at least relatively unrestricted gun ownership). Besides the fact that the murder demonstrates no such thing, obviously people don't usually write columnists about every matter in the newspaper; instead people generally write to columnists only in reply to a specific column. Or perhaps Spencer would prefer to receive pre-emptive letters concerning every murder in the state, as well as every known defensive gun use in the state. Spencer rushes to an unwarranted conclusion (but he seems unable to muster a logical argument any time he writes about guns).
True, the murder of Garry McLaughlin "shoots holes in the idea" that murderers shouldn't have guns. News Flash, Jim: nobody in the world (except perhaps for murderers) advocates the view that murderers should be well-armed (with any dangerous object).
Spencer continues, "McLaughlin is dead. He was shot to death June 1 for the decidedly un-deadly offense of asking some young party crashers to leave his home."
The Arvada Police Department issued a press release dated May 31 describing the murder. A follow-up release dated June 1 reports:
(Arvada, CO) -- Detectives with the Arvada Police Department continue to investigate a fatal shooting following a party in the 8400 block of W. 68th Place, just before 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, May 31.
Nothing will change the fact that the moral and legal culpability of the murder lies solely with the perpetrator(s). I hope anyone with information calls the police immediately so the murderer can be taken off the streets and prosecuted.
Still, there's an unusual element to this case that Spencer failed to report. If a group of sinister-looking characters trespassed on my property, I would immediately call the police in an effort to reach a nonviolent resolution. I imagine almost everybody else would do precisely the same thing. Yet that seems not to have happened at the party in question (at which no parents were in attendance). I called Susan Medina of the Arvada Police Department, and when I asked her if anyone at the party called the police prior to the murder, she answered, "I don't believe so." To Medina's knowledge, no police or emergency vehicle was dispatched until after the murder. We can only speculate as to why nobody at the party called the police, but the omission was most unfortunate. Apparently, the situation escalated over a period of time, and in this case police intervention might have helped matters considerably.
Also, there seems to be more to the story than McLaughlin "asking some young party crashers to leave his home." In his June 2 story for the Rocky Mountain News, John Ensslin writes, "[H]e was fatally shot while chasing a group of party crashers down the driveway of his family's home." Berryhill (who was not a direct witness) told Ensslin, "They were asked to leave. They resisted leaving. They ultimately were forced to leave."
But let us continue with Spencer's tirade: "McLaughlin personifies truth in a state and country that would have you believe that guns protect and might makes right."
Spencer (again) conflates two disparate arguments. The first argument, "that guns protect," has been amply demonstrated by abundant evidence. The second argument, that "might makes right," is not held by any gun owner I know, and certainly it is not the view of the legislators and organized citizen groups that advocated pro-freedom gun laws.
It is instead Spencer who holds the implicit assumption that "might makes right." Specifically, Spencer advocates the initiation of force against peaceable gun owners based on arbitrary victim-disarmament laws. That is, Spencer will not himself break down the doors of peaceable gun owners and drag these citizens off to jail -- he wants the police (the group armed with guns forbidden to regular citizens) to do that. Spencer will not steal the defensive gun of a young mother who is stalked by a violent ex-boyfriend -- he wants the police to do that. Spencer's arguments are easily demonstrated to be wrong, but he nevertheless promotes the initiation of armed violence to back them up.
In private e-mail, I challenged Spencer to read one of two books: Armed, by Gary Kleck and Don Kates, or The Bias Against Guns, by John Lott. He declined, saying he doesn't have time (to actually learn the pertinent facts before writing a column for Colorado's largest newspaper). If Spencer would bother to review the facts, he would discover the claim that "guns protect" is well-substantiated.
Of course, defensive gun uses are rarely reported in the newspaper -- indeed, they are rarely reported even to police. When a defensive gun use is successful, as it usually is, violence is prevented. Usually the criminal simply runs away. No news story there. In the small minority of cases in which a defensive gun use results in the death of the perpetrator, newspapers generally bury the story, anyway.
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)
People are inundated with information, but the information is very lopsided. We are inundated with bad news about guns and rarely hear about the benefits... Guns do make it easier for bad things to happen, but... they also make it easier for people to defend themselves in situations where few other alternatives are available. That is why it is so important that people receive an accurate, balanced accounting of how guns are used. Unfortunately, neither the media nor the government is doing a very good job.(16, 22)
And, unfortunately, some members of the media, such as Jim Spencer of the Denver Post, choose to remain willfully ignorant on the matter.
Spencer continues, "A gun would not have saved McLaughlin, said his stepdad, Jack Berryhill, a judge in Gilpin and Jefferson counties. 'He wouldn't have been better off with a gun. He wouldn't have had a chance to counterfire. The thing is, you wouldn't think a bunch of kids crashing a party would have guns. I crashed parties when I was a teenager. Guns never entered the picture'."
Obviously, the Denver Post does not require its columnists to pass a course in logic prior to gaining employment with the paper. Spencer's argument can be summarized, "Because a gun would have been an ineffective tool for self-defense in one situation, therefore guns are ineffective tools for self-defense generally." I trust the reader can spot the problem with Spencer's argument.
In my entire life I have never heard a single person argue a defensive gun can prevent every instance of violence. Yet that is the position Spencer seems to be arguing against.
I've already suggested an alternative way McLaughlin might have handled the situation to prevent the most horrible of outcomes. (Again, prudential concerns do not in the least impact moral culpability, which lies solely with the criminal, who could have been an adult or an older teen.) Perhaps the reader can think of other ways McLaughlin or others involved with the situation might have handled the matter differently.
Obviously, nobody wants irresponsible persons to "crash a party" bearing guns. However, the problem seems to have little to do with the guns themselves. For example, when my father was in school, probably around the same time Berryhill was in school, he reports students in his town would regularly carry guns to school and store them in their lockers. Indeed, shooting ranges were set up in schools across the nation. A point that must seem amazing to Spencer, who apparently cannot even conceive of a society of self-responsible individuals, is that my father's era was not marked by school shootings or similar horrors. (Perhaps Spencer would care to speculate whether the murderer was raised by irresponsible parents, or by responsible gun-owning parents who trained their child how to handle firearms and other tools with care.)
All that said, it is quite conceivable that a firearm would be useful in a situation a little different from the one confronting McLaughlin. If a threatening group trespassed on property a long way from a police station, for instance, or if somebody cut the phone lines, a gun held from a defensive position would likely convince the would-be trouble-makers to leave without incident.
Spencer continues his ridiculous hyperbole: "Where firearms are seen as the be-all, end-all of civilized society, guns are never out of the picture."
Police have arrested no one in Berryhill's slaying. If they do, odds are no one will be prosecuted for providing the pistol to the person who fired it. Maybe the gun was stolen and sold by "some dude" on the street. It's all but impossible to find "some dude." Worse, a number of ways exist for Colorado teenagers 18 and older to legally carry handguns. State law says a private person can sell a handgun to anyone 18 or older. Drivers also have the right to carry weapons in their cars for protection. According to state officials, that right extends to drivers 18 and older. Millions of legal, virtually unregulated private sales of handguns take place in America each year... Individual-to-individual sales appear to require no record-keeping of any kind. Sell your personal piece to some punk kid and it's hard, if not impossible, to get caught. The gun lobby battles for this lack of accountability... Police won't say whether they think the shooting was the work of a youth gang.
Spencer thus completely ignores the potential usefulness of guns in self-defense for legal adults. The group of upstanding, responsible citizens Spencer calls "the gun lobby" advocates against feel-good legislation that hurts peaceable gun owners without creating additional accountability for criminals.
There is a hidden assumption in Spencer's argument. He assumes that, if the government registered all peaceable gun owners, that would prevent criminals from obtaining guns. Yet at the same time, Spencer notes the murder might have been related to a "youth gang." Is it not abundantly obvious that criminal gangs (and lone criminals) are not deterred by "record-keeping" of peaceable citizens? Spencer seems to be entirely disconnected from reality.
Spencer's approach to solving violence is to spend scarce police resources tracking, tagging, monitoring, arresting, and imprisoning peaceable gun owners -- rather than tracking down the thug who murdered McLaughlin.
But Spencer's comments do point to a major source of violence in the United States -- gangs that illegally finance gun buys via the black markets created by prohibitionist laws. An enormous amount of violence in the U.S. is directly linked to prohibitionist policies. The U.S. government has fostered a culture of violence among a criminal underclass that far too often spills over into the lives of innocent persons. Chances are good that the murder in Arvada can at least be linked indirectly to the culture of violence created and perpetuated by drug prohibition.
But Spencer would rather demonize peaceable gun owners than (God forbid) actually explore the root causes of violence in America.
The greater wonder is that tragedies such as this one don't rally the majority of Americans and Coloradans to take their country and state back from the gun lobby that controls Republican-dominated legislatures. Sane gun control shouldn't be a partisan issue... Guns can always make the right place wrong.
Note (again) Spencer's double-standard: he demonized a reified "gun lobby," which is really just a large group of upstanding citizens concerned about protecting individual civil liberties, even as he pretends the "anti-gun lobby" is the only civic-minded, "sane" organization.
But Spencer has already admitted he is willfully ignorant about gun ownership, so it's difficult to see why he refers to his uninformed, illogical, bigoted, emotionalized arguments as "sane." If sanity refers to a basic grounding in reality, there's little trace of it to be found in Spencer's recent column in the Denver Post.
True, guns (and other tools) *sometimes* make the right place wrong. But they also sometimes make the wrong place right. Ill-conceived laws merely reduce the number of instances of successful self-defense. That Spencer refuses even to acknowledge the existence of that side of the equation does not speak well for his political proposals -- or for his integrity as a journalist.