I was looking forward to reading Dan Baum’s Gun Guys: A Road Trip, in no small part because someone I respect quite a bit, Massad Ayoob, endorsed the book: “Dan Baum ‘gets it.’ More people need to look at it as objectively and analytically as he did. Buy a copy of his book and pass it around. It might help other people to ‘get it,’ too.”
I hope the book itself is better than the promotional essay for the book that Baum published in the Wall Street Journal in the 16-17 February 2013 edition (pp. C1-C2) under the title, “A Gun Lover on Why Our Gun Debate is Off Target.”
Among Baum’s problematic/questionable claims in the WSJ piece are:
(1) “Yes, the National Rifle Association has been screaming its head off since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, but the NRA doesn’t speak for the country’s 100 million gun owners. If it did, it wouldn’t have just four million members. Some “gun guys” (as I like to call them) probably support the NRA without joining, but if only 4% are signing up, it’s safe to say a large majority of them want nothing to do with the NRA’s angry extremism.”
- “It’s safe to say” that Baum does not know why gun owners are not members of the NRA. Some gun owners surely dislike the strong political positions taken by the NRA, but others find the NRA’s position too weak (favoring the work of groups like the Second Amendment Foundation or Gun Owners of America). Other gun owners are not even among the constituencies that the NRA seeks to represent, e.g., criminals. As Cam Edwards said in an ad for his Sportsman’s Channel television show, “NRA News: Cam & Co.,” “People talk about a gun culture in this country as if gang members and duck hunters are all somehow part of the same tribe. That’s like saying NASCAR drivers and drunk drivers are all part of car culture.” Beyond criminals, a certain portion of guns owners only own guns to protect themselves from criminals, but would have guns banned if they could. They are also gun owners who are not part of the NRAs constituency.
- Lacking any evidence for his “angry extremism” explanation, I find it equally “safe to say” that the reason a large majority of gun owners are not members of the NRA is probably due to the well-known “free-rider” problem that afflicts advocacy groups. The political and legal benefits that the NRA wins for its members are shared by all gun owners, whether those guns owners contribute or not, so “a large majority of them” have no need to join the NRA. The get the benefit without the cost.
(2) “Accidental child deaths is one of the few gun statistics that has grown worse since 1999.”
- Based on the data that I have seen from the National Center for Health Statistics, this is patently false. NCHS reports 158 juvenile firearm accident deaths in 1999. 83 in 2009. I have provided the table I use for this in another post.
(3) “And then there are the tens of thousands of shootings every year by people who aren’t criminals until they pick up a gun. Tempers flare, a gun is at hand, and tragedy ensues.”
- This assertion may be true, but given his track record of using empirical data, I have my doubts. What constitutes “tens of thousands.” I would guess at least 30,000 in the popular mind. Politifact provides data from the Center for Disease Control that shows there were about 86,000 non-suicide firearms deaths and injuries in 2009/2010. Were at least 33% of those committed by people without criminal records and in circumstances in which “tempers flare, a guns is at hand, and tragedy ensues”? I do not doubt this happens, and I have invoked the case of former Guns & Ammo magazine editor Richard Venola as a case in point elsewhere. But I would like to see Baum back up this assertion with some real data rather than just rhetoric or journalistic flare or whatever it is that he is doing in this essay.
(4) “To the legislatures of 27 states and the District of Columbia, the solution to both problems [adults leaving guns around where children or criminals can get them and tempers flaring among non-criminals leading to tragedies] seems obvious: Require guns to be locked up, trigger-locked, stored separately from their ammunition, or some combination of the three. A lot of gun guys hate these laws. They argue that a gun separated from its ammunition, disabled or locked away is useless in an emergency.
Not true. I keep my handgun loaded in the bedroom, in a metal safe the size of a toaster that pops open the second I punch in a three-digit code. I bought it on eBay for $25. The gun is secure but instantly available—to me only.”
- Keeping guns locked up so that children and criminals cannot access them is a good thing, as is having a gun “instantly available” in an emergency. Independently, these two goods are fine, but Baum makes it seems as if there is no tension between them. Keeping his handgun loaded in a safe in his bedroom, however, makes it unavailable to him should the SHTF “in an emergency” while he is in the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the basement, the attic, and so on. So, with respect to legal regulations on keeping and storing firearms, the devil is in the details.
After I wrote these thoughts on Baum’s WJS essay, I came across a post on “The Truth About Guns,” by Jim Barrett in which he comes to Baum’s defense. Apparently the comments about Baum’s essay on the WSJ web site were quite critical, and “many of them were very angry.” OK, but this is not surprising since debates in the comments sections of broad web sites like the WSJ tend toward the lowest common denominator.
But Barrett continues by observing that some commenters “took Baum to task for some of his points and examples. It makes me wonder how many of these people ever took the SAT or ACT test in high school. Back in the dark ages, when I took it, there was a section on reading comprehension. You had to read a few paragraphs and answer some questions about the passage. Many of those who commented on Baum’s piece clearly failed that exercise. Instead, they criticized him for not mentioning 2A or for citing statistics with no backing. Granted, some of these criticisms were accurate, but they miss the forest for the trees.”
Reading Barrett makes me wonder how he did on the SAT’s logic questions. At the same time he criticizes people for their lack of reading comprehension, he points out that people accurately read and criticized Baum for building a general case that was not fully supported by the facts. This is what I am doing in this blog post. Barrett claims that this is missing the forest for the trees.
Surely we don’t want to lose the forest for the trees, but it is also appropriate to investigate the trees so we can be sure what we think is a forest is not an illusion.
Recently, I spent a good deal of time tracing down and reading the studies referenced in a pro-gun control editorial in the New York Times. It turns out the forest of “gun myths” they observed – like “females living with a gun in the home were 2.7 times more likely to be murdered than females with no gun at home” – is itself mythical once the trees are examined.
Barrett claims that “Baum’s point that we must hold ourselves to a high level of responsibility was evidently lost on these folks.” I cannot speak for the commenters, but the point was not lost on me. However, Baum did more than make a general point. He backed up specific proposals using specific arguments. If the arguments are not valid, then perhaps the proposals are not either. For example, Baum concludes, “Little by little . . . the problem of unsecured guns – the main source of gun tragedy – would wither away.” Unsecured guns are A problem, but are they THE main source of gun tragedy? That is an empirical question – it requires examining the trees.
(And what about Barrett’s throwing the anger stone at commenters while he smugly sits in his glass house of condescension?)
I am still looking forward to reading Gun Guys, though I guess somewhat less so than before.