New Perspectives on Gun Control

The gun control debate has been forced off center stage in the aftermath of the 2000 election and the 9-11 terrorist attacks. This is an excellent time to take a deep breath and see what can be learned from the experience of the last decade.

The public dispute over the role of guns in society reached a shrill peak during the decade from 1990 to 2000. Most arguments took the form of slurs and slogans hurled across the airwaves by loyal troops on both sides. But for those who prefer a more thoughtful analysis, this intense period of cultural warfare also produced an unprecedented flood of books on the subject.

At the ideological extremes are books that blatantly appeal to the emotions, like Josh Sugarmann's Every Handgun is Aimed at You and books that falsify historical research like Arming America – Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael Bellesiles.

More scholarly and ethical authors produced excellent works like To Keep and Bear Arms, a look at the history behind the second amendment by historian Joyce Lee Malcolm. Many readers also enjoyed The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy by David B. Kopel, which discussed the cultural differences that affect national views of gun ownership.

My favorite topic is the fascinating nature of the debate itself and by coincidence a new book has just appeared that looks back at the many strange and interesting facets of the public gun control debate.

Criminology professor Gary Kleck and attorney Don B. Kates collaborated to produce Armed – New Perspectives on Gun Control from Prometheus Books. They are known for their criticism of extremist rhetoric on both sides of the issue as well as their insistence on honesty and respect for scientific principles in analyzing the role of guns in society. They both make a point of saying that some types of gun control may be appropriate.

The book contains chapters on all the important topics. Kates begins with an excellent review of the role played by doctors and medical publications. He demolishes the fake studies and exposes the hijacking of medical research to support a political agenda. Numerous quotes document the often ludicrous claims of anti-gun "researchers" and the blatant censorship of information by medical journals. His use of the term, "overt mendacity" is a polite way of saying that the anti-gun doctors simply lied.

Kleck writes the chapter on media bias, which offers a more complete analysis of this phenomenon than I have previously seen. He explores the various ways in which reporters develop their deliberate anti-gun bias and how unintentional bias creeps into the system.

One particularly chilling piece of evidence is a 1989 letter from the editorial offices of Time magazine to a reader who complained about their anti-gun bias.

The letter claimed that "the time for opinions on the dangers of gun availability is long since gone." Apparently, all the editors at Time agreed that it was time to get rid of the guns, which relieved them of any responsibility to provide balanced coverage of the issue.

Kates explains how the anti-gun lobby "poisoned the well" by demonizing gun owners, apparently oblivious to the fact that they were insulting roughly half of the adult population. These foolish attacks on the character of gun owners were exploited by gun rights groups to create a powerful backlash against the anti-gun movement. Pro-gun organizations found this so helpful that they reportedly purchased the rights to reprint cartoons that were created to denigrate gun owners.

Another major mistake of the gun control groups was their failure to coordinate public statements on their eventual goal. Kleck offers a long series of quotes from anti-gun leaders proclaiming their intent to completely ban handguns, and in some cases all guns. Even when those goals were later denied, the public was left with a perception of anti-gun organizations as extremists who could not be trusted. Although most Americans support some sort of "reasonable" gun control laws, very few agree with the radical aims of anti-gun organizations.

Professor Kleck is arguably the nation's foremost authority on the statistical analysis of defensive firearms use. His chapters on the frequency of defensive gun use and the effectiveness of guns for self protection nicely summarize the latest research.

Armed – New Perspectives on Gun Control would be excellent reading for politicians, journalists, teachers and anyone with an interest in this issue. I particularly value it for the numerous footnotes that provide documentation for future discussions and the wonderful collection of radical anti-gun quotes.

Anyone who is interested in the truth about gun control should buy a copy. When finished, they should send it to someone who needs to be educated.

November 21, 2001