Yesterday I called for my friends in the gun-sense community to declare a moratorium on debating about guns with pro-gun advocates who really on everything except fact-based evidence in order to support their point of view. Let me make it clear that I have no issue with anyone who wants to promote or argue in favor of gun ownership, I just want the gun debate to be conducted on a level playing-field. The pro-gun community has gone out of its way to encourage and support pro-gun arguments that tilt the playing-field in their direction precisely because their arguments are devoid of facts.
The most insidious and intellectually-bankrupt pro-gun argument is based on the notion that guns protect us from crime. The NRA began peddling this nonsense in the 1990s when they discovered that fear about crime, particularly crime committed by a certain easily-definable population which happened to live in inner cities, was a smart strategy to rebuild the organization’s membership which had declined by more than 12% after it came out that a particularly active NRA member happened to be named Timothy McVeigh. The anti-crime issue then morphed into a growing anti-government, New Right sentiment whose niche issues – abortion, busing, school prayer – would drive conservative politics from Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin and beyond. What this meant was that supporting the 2nd Amendment means that you will protect your family, your neighborhood and everything else that we hold near and dear. In Marketing 101 that gets an A+.
Meanwhile, on the other side, clinical research published in peer-reviewed journals was busily establishing that gun ownership was more of a risk than a benefit in social terms; i.e., owning a gun increased the possibility that someone in the family would use the weapon to shoot themselves or shoot someone else. And the incidence of deliberate or accidental shootings by gun owners was far greater than the number of times that these same gun owners used a gun to defend themselves or their families against crime.
Don’t get me wrong. The early research showing guns to be more a risk than a benefit was incomplete; there were numerous research gaps that remained to be filled in, and much of what would have eventually been published and discussed was stymied by the prohibition on CDC-funded gun research rammed through Congress in 1997 and continuing to this day. Meanwhile, what was the research produced by the pro-gun community to support the notion that guns represented a positive social good? It took the form of one major effort by the criminologist Gary Kleck who ran some questions past 213 randomly-chosen individuals and, based on their entirely-unsubstantiated responses, announced that guns were used more than 2 million times each year to prevent crimes.
Kleck’s paper appeared in 1994 and was published in a student-run law journal which made absolutely no pretense to being peer-reviewed at all. And from that time until the present, the debate over guns has been based on one side by a continued reliance on scientific, peer-reviewed publications and on the other side by a reliance on political hyperbole, character assassination and access to right-wing web media and Fox News. Kleck had an opportunity recently to refute two new critics, the editors of the blog Armed With Reason, and his response was in keeping with virtually every pro-gun response to peer-reviewed research, which is that the research isn’t valid because the researchers are anti-2nd Amendment, or what Kleck referred to as the “prohibitionist position” on guns.
Yesterday my column advocated that the gun-sense community declare a moratorium on arguments about whether or not we suffer from gun violence. I’m going to amend that position somewhat and instead ask my friends who believe gun violence is a threat to sit down and draft some ‘rules of the road’ for debating the other side. What’s important is holding the debate on a level playing-field, and once that field is established either the other side shows up or they don’t.