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Anti-Gun Propaganda and Controlling Violent Crime

Speech 9: Argumentation
Prof. Stasio
Copyright © 1996 B. A. "Collie" Collier

Many a person seems to think it isn't enough for the government to guarantee him the pursuit of happiness. He insists it also run interference for him.
        -- unknown


There is a growing American fascination with violence. Violent crime is commonly believed to be on the upswing, and the police and legal system are unable to handle the sheer numbers of criminals. Unfortunately it is my belief that people have come to associate the problem with one of the possible tools used to create it, and have indeed become enamored of inflating the problem in order to more effectively criticize legal, responsible gun ownership. The current notion is that if we outlawed guns the amount of violent crime would be reduced and we would all be safer. However, current reputable studies show that outlawing these tools -- guns -- will not solve the problem, and may indeed contribute to it.

The Status Quo

The current status quo is, to put it bluntly, confusing. Gun control varies greatly within the USA. Unlike many countries, every political unit within the USA can make their own laws. In addition to federal laws such as lifetime firearm prohibition orders for convicted felons, age minimums for buying firearms, and restrictions on the interstate purchase of firearms, every state, county, city, town, and village can and does set up their own gun laws [1]. Many areas of the USA have gun control laws much tougher than anywhere in the world.

A few examples: in Washington D.C., handguns are banned and long arms must be stored disassembled. In Chicago, Illinois, handguns must be registered, but registration forms are not available. New York City firearms permits take up to 6 months to get, and concealed weapons permits are only available for the rich and politically connected. California has a 15 day waiting period on the purchase of all firearms (Kleck 1995).

Sometimes when we attempt to deal with a problem, we focus on procedure rather than substance. The anti-gun advocates seem to have decided that gun control (a procedure) will alleviate violent crime. Yet they do not seem to wish to see the facts that show how useless this procedure will be. Guns are not a major part of violent crime, nor does owning a gun promote violent crime. Dr. Gary Kleck, from the Florida State University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, notes:

Guns were involved in about 12% of all violent crime, and handguns in about 10%[2]. The majority of the gun crimes were assaults, mostly threats without any injury or any element of theft or rape.

According to many different studies, trying to link gun ownership to violence rates finds either no relationship or a negative. Cities and counties with high gun ownership suffer less violence than demographically comparable [3] areas with lower gun ownership[4]. Summarizing these and other studies, a recent National Institute of Justice analysis states:

It is clear that only a very small fraction of privately owned firearms are ever involved in crime or [unlawful] violence, the vast bulk of them being owned and used more or less exclusively for sport and recreational purposes, or for self-protection (Wright & Rossi 1986).

This and other reputable, scientific research shows that outlawing guns will not solve the problem, and may indeed contribute to it. However, anti-gun advocates have not changed their message. Emotional appeals and disinformation[5] characterize their discussions of this topic, and they persist in repeatedly sloganizing discredited, non-scientific advocacy research. How can we make good laws, if we are basing our information on twisted facts and deliberate falsification?

Anti-Gun Advocates Obfuscate the Issue

One of the major blocks to meaningful communication concerning this issue is that anti-gun advocates either don't know what they're talking about, or are deliberately lying to confuse the issue[6]. Indeed, there are anti-gun advocates who actually seem proud of their ignorance[7]. The average person, for, example, doesn't know what the term 'automatic weapon' means, for all its over-use in the media. This phrase is the current meaningless 'bugaboo' expression used by both anti-gun people and politicians on the gun-prohibition bandwagon. Consider this quote from a policy report of New Right Watch and the Education Fund to End Handgun Violence, written in September 1988 by Josh Sugarman, executive director of New Right Watch and spokesman for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, titled "Assault Weapons and Accessories in America." In it Sugarman recommends exploiting:

[Assault weapons'] menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully-automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons -- anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun -- can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.

This unfortunately means legislation is often deliberately phrased so as to obfuscate the issue. Wording may be unclear and confusing, since anti-gun people don't understand the very objects they're trying to control[8]. For example, in a current piece of legislation -- the "Violent Crime Control Act" -- which Congress passed a couple of years ago, assault weapons are described by how they look, rather than how they shoot. This leads people to simply add or subtract a few parts, and legally it's a new, non-criminal weapon, as is demonstrated by the AR-15 and the Colt Sporter. These are two identical weapons, except for the flash suppresser and the bayonet lug (an attachment for a bayonet holder). Neither a flash suppresser nor a bayonet lug will affect how the weapon shoots. I quote (from a CBS-TV "60 Minutes" interview) Mr. Ron Whittaker, president of Colt, one of the nation's oldest and most reputable gun makers:

We had a crime bill that was supposed to focus on crime, and hopefully criminals. We end up with an assault weapon ban that has nothing to do with defining an assault weapon, but it had a lot to do with what something looks like.

Mr. Sugarman must be proud.

One final, ironic note: the VCCA doesn't outlaw any repeat-firing weapons made previous to the passage of the bill. As a consequence, there has been a sudden upsurge of demand for this style of weapon, due to people worrying that their rights to buy such weaponry will be legally removed in the near future. Indeed, the market has become somewhat glutted with such weaponry. I am sure this is not what the bill's sponsors and authors had in mind. It is, however, an excellent example of focusing on an attitude (the scary look some weapons have) rather than a deed (lowering the accessibility of 'assault' weapons to criminals)[9].

Other weapons and ballistics are verbally abused in legislation also. For example, in 1988 in Maryland there was an initiative passed that was an attempt to outlaw the so-called Saturday Night Special. The description of the type of weapon again focused on how the weapon looked rather than what it did. Thus gun makers went to the Maryland commission and repeatedly got their guns passed as not being Saturday Night Specials -- because their guns did not exactly fit the sloppily designed specifications of the initiative. Almost 99% of handguns submitted were approved, with only 10 rejections out of almost 800 models. One of the approved weapons was a 36 shot 'assault pistol.' This was particularly ironic since one complaining commissioner, Baltimore Police Chief Cornelius Behan, had just displayed a Mac-11 in a New York Times ad (sponsored by Handgun Control, Inc.) calling for a federal ban on such guns. Behan and the other commissioners felt compelled to approve the Mac-11 because, as he explained to the Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Law,

is designed to take out of circulation [only] highly concealable, poorly manufactured, low-caliber weapons. The Mac-10 and -11 unfortunately don't fit into that category (Kates 1992).

Other examples of villainizing various weapon categories include the notorious 'cop-killer' bullets and 'plastic' guns. It is interesting to note that the 'cop-killer' bullets, which were restricted in 1986, have never been reportedly used to kill a cop. Furthermore, the legislation proposed to ban the 'cop-killer' bullets was so poorly worded as to ban even sport and hunting ammunition. Amusingly enough, the company that made these "armor-piercing" bullets was owned and run by senior police officers, and only sold the ammunition in tiny quantities to some police departments and the military anyway. The ammunition was specifically designed to provide improved penetration against auto body panels and auto glass, and its design actually reduced the chance that it would pierce bullet-resistant vests (Kleck 1995). And yet the "Coalition to Stop Gun Violence" wrote in a pamphlet: "The NRA's army of slick lobbyists even fought our efforts to ban ... cop killer bullets specifically designed to pierce bullet-proof vests!"

The exaggerated accusations didn't stop there, unfortunately. The 'plastic' gun issue was also used by the "Coalition to Stop Gun Violence" to vilify the NRA. The accusation against the NRA was that they "hysterically" fought attempts to ban these guns. The truth was that the 'plastic' gun (the Glock-17) did not deserve special legislation, as it was 83% steel, and completely visible to X-ray machines, as the NRA pointed out. The NRA then worked with the FAA to write a law making undetectable firearms illegal (Kleck 1995).

Indeed, anti-gun groups seem to have a difficult time in reporting truth. One amusing example is the 'Handgun Control, Inc.' slogan: "Handgun Control Incorporated, One million strong." And yet, according to papers filed by HCI, their membership is actually only about 250,000. Their mailing list is only 146,000 (Kleck 1995). While it may seem to be shooting at a defenseless target (pun intended), I am prompted by a perhaps mean-spirited sense of humor to wonder why we listen to a group that can't even count its own membership accurately! It is this lack of accuracy -- of outright lies on occasion -- that may have prompted the agreement of members of Congress in a recent poll that the two lobby groups which provide them the most consistently reliable information are the American Library Association and the National Rifle Association [emphasis mine] (Kates 1994).

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