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NATIONAL REVIEW April 17, 2000 Issue
An Army of Gun Lies
How the other side plays.

By Dave Kopel
Mr. Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Colorado.

ntigun advocates have always faced an uphill battle in this country. Americans have, to begin with, a constitutional right to gun ownership. Today, half of American households exercise this right, owning a total of about 250 million guns; and over 99 percent of those households do so in a responsible manner. To fight for major restrictions on an item that plays such a valued part in the lives of so many people looks like a nearly impossible task. So if you’re really committed to the effort, and you want to win, what do you do?

Simple: You lie.

A full listing of the lies told by the antigun lobby could fill a book. A short list of the more popular ones would have to begin with the canard about the number of children killed by firearms. We are told repeatedly that 13, or 15, or 17 children every day are killed by guns. This factoid is used to conjure up pictures of dozens of little kids dying in gun accidents every week.

In truth, the number of fatal gun accidents is at its lowest level since 1903, when statistics started being kept. That’s right: Not only is the per capita accident rate at a record low, so is the actual number of accidents—even though the number of people and the number of guns are both much larger than in 1903. The assertions about “X children per day” are based on counting older teenagers, or even people in their early twenties, as “children.” The claims are true only if you count a 19-year-old drug dealer who is shot by a competitor, or an 18-year-old armed robber who is shot by a policeman, as “a child killed by a gun.” As for actual children (14 years and under), the daily death rate is 2.6. For children ten and under, it’s 0.4 per day—far lower than the number of children who are killed by automobiles, drowning, or many other causes.

If the statistic about child gun deaths is the most notorious lie, one of the most frequent has to do with gun shows. All of the antigun groups repeat, incessantly, the phrase “gun-show loophole.” As a result, much of the public believes that gun shows are special zones exempt from ordinary gun laws. Handgun Control, Inc., the major antigun group, has an affiliate in Colorado that claims that the “vast majority” of guns used in crimes come from gun shows, while the Violence Policy Center calls gun shows “Tupperware parties for criminals.”

This is all an audacious lie. First of all, the laws at gun shows are exactly the same as they are everywhere else. If a person is “engaged in the business” (as the law puts it) of selling firearms, then he must fill out a government registration form on every buyer, and get FBI permission (through the National Instant Check System) for every sale—regardless of whether the sale takes place at his gun store, at an office in his home, or at a gun show. Those who are not gun dealers by profession, but happen to be selling a gun, are not required to follow this procedure. To imply that gun dealers can go to an event called a “gun show” and thus avoid the law is absolutely false. Also false is the charge about Tupperware parties for criminals. According to a National Institute of Justice study released in December 1997, only 2 percent of guns used in crimes come from gun shows. The gun-show charge has great currency in the media, but it is not very important in itself. How about the more serious charge that guns are basically dangerous to society? Public-health experts and gun-control lobbyists will tell you that most murders, including those involving guns, take place among acquaintances and are perpetrated by ordinary people; these facts supposedly indicate that ordinary people are too hot-tempered to be allowed to have guns.

The facts tell a different story: 75 percent of murderers have adult criminal records. As for the rest, a large number either have criminal convictions as juveniles or are still teenagers when they commit the murder; laws dealing with access to juvenile-crime records prevent full access to their rap sheets. Furthermore, the category of “acquaintance” murders is misleading. It includes drug buyers who kill a drug dealer to steal his stash, and thugs who assault each other in barroom brawls.

There’s also a sad irony here. Domestic murders are almost always preceded by many incidents of violent abuse. If a domestic-violence victim flees the home, and her ex- husband tracks her down and tries to rape her, and she shoots him, the killing will be labeled a “tragic domestic homicide that was caused by a gun,” rather than what it legally is: justifiable use of deadly force against a felon.

The famous factoid that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than to kill a criminal is predicated on a similar misclassification. Of the 43 deaths, 37 are suicides; and while there are obviously many ways in which a person can commit suicide, only a gun allows a small woman a realistic opportunity to defend herself at a distance from a large male predator.

Emory University medical professor Arthur Kellermann is a one-man factory of this type of misleading data. One of his most famous studies purported to show that owning a gun is associated with a 2.7 times greater risk of being murdered. Kellermann compared murder victims in several cities with sociologically similar people a few blocks away in those cities, who had not been murdered.

The 2.7 factoid was trumpeted all over the country; but the study is patently illogical. First of all, Kellermann’s own data show that owning a security system, or renting a home rather than owning it, are also associated with equally large increased risks of death. Yet newspapers did not start running dire stories warning people to rip out their burglar alarms or to start lobbying their condo association to dissolve. The 2.7 factoid also overlooks the obvious fact that one reason people choose to own guns, or to install burglar alarms, is that they are already at higher risk of being victimized by crime. As Yale law professor John Lott points out, Kellermann’s methodology is like comparing 100 people who went to a hospital in a given year with 100 similar people who did not, finding that more of the hospital patients died, and then announcing that hospitals increase the risk of death. Kellermann’s method would also prove that possession of insulin increases the risk of diabetes.

The media are complicit in many of these lies. Take, for example, the hysteria about so-called “assault weapons.” Almost everything that gun-control advocates say about these firearms is a lie. The guns in question are not machine guns; they are simply ordinary guns with ugly cosmetics that give them a pseudo-military appearance. The guns do not fire faster than ordinary guns. The bullets they fire are not especially powerful; they are, in fact, smaller and travel at lower velocity than bullets from standard hunting rifles.

The media have succeeded in giving a totally different impression—through deliberate fraud. The CBS show 48 Hours purported to show a semiautomatic rifle being converted to fully automatic—i.e., turned into a machine gun—in just nine minutes. But the gun shown at the beginning was not the same gun that was fired at the end of the demonstration. An expert from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) later said that such a conversion was impossible. And in Denver, KMGH television filmed people firing automatic weapons and told viewers that the guns were semiautomatics.

The chief culprits are not the media but the antigun lobbyists themselves, some of whom have very little compunction about lying—even in cases where it can be proven rather easily that they are aware of the truth while spreading the falsehood. For example, in February 1989, a former BATF employee who had become a paid consultant for Handgun Control testified to Congress that “assault weapons” were rarely used in crimes. (He wanted to ban them anyway, as a precautionary measure.) Nevertheless, within weeks, Handgun Control was running an advertising campaign insisting that assault weapons were the criminal weapons of choice.

The most dangerous dishonesty concerns the ultimate intentions of the antigun forces. Handgun Control claims that it merely wants to “keep guns out of the wrong hands”; yet in 1999, it lobbied hard to preserve Washington, D.C.’s outright ban on handguns. Back in 1976, the group’s then leader, Pete Shields, explained the long-term strategy to The New Yorker: “The first problem is to slow down the number of handguns being produced and sold in this country. The second problem is to get handguns registered. The final problem is to make possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition—except for the military, police, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors—totally illegal.”

Sarah Brady, the current chairwoman of Handgun Control, has said that people should not be allowed to own guns for self-defense. Yet in debates, employees of the group steadfastly deny that the organization believes in the policies articulated by its leaders. In short, they are lying about what they want to accomplish. This is understandable, to be sure; but not honorable, or right for the country.

 
 

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