Gun control myths: Part III

Posted: Nov 28, 2002 12:00 AM

Most people who are in favor of gun control laws support such laws because they believe that these laws will reduce the number of firearms deaths. Such people are not the problem. Their minds can be changed when they learn that the facts are very different from what they have imagined or have been led to believe.

The problem is with very different kinds of people, often in leadership positions, whose support for gun control laws is strong enough to override any facts. When John Lott's empirical study of the effects of gun control laws found that gun ownership tended on net balance to reduce crime in general and murder in particular, he offered to give a copy of that study to a member of a gun control advocacy group, but she refused to look at it.

Later, when the study was published as a book under the title "More Guns, Less Crime," that same advocate was contacted by ABC News for her comments and she described the study as "flawed." When Lott then phoned her to ask how she could say that it was flawed, when she had never read it, she simply hung up on him.

Clearly, the facts were not crucial to this gun control advocate -- or to many other zealots. Nor can the lineup of people for and against gun control laws be explained by facts that are equally available to people in all parts of the ideological spectrum, for the liberal-left crusades for more restrictive gun control laws and conservatives generally resist.

While John Lott's study is perhaps the best known one showing that widespread gun ownership has led to less crime, other studies with similar findings include "Pointblank" by Gary Kleck and the more recent book "Guns and Violence" by Joyce Lee Malcolm.

What about studies on the other side? Two that have been widely cited are an article in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 1993 and a book published in 2000 titled "Arming America" on the history of gun ownership in this country.

The medical journal article claimed that guns in the home increase the risk of violence and death. This was based on comparing people who were killed in their homes with a sample of similar people in the general population. Those who were killed at home owned guns more often than the others.

What makes this reasoning especially strange in a medical journal is that it closely parallels the reasoning used by those who commit the fallacy of judging hospitals by their death rates. People who go into hospitals are more likely to die than people who don't. Does that make hospitals dangerous? Or does it show that people who go into a hospital already have health risks?

Indeed, death rates may be higher in a world-class medical facility than in the local county hospital, because it is people with more dire medical problems who are more likely to go into hospitals with top specialists and state-of-the-art equipment.

Just as it would be fallacious to assume that people who go to different kinds of hospitals have the same levels of risk to begin with, so it is fallacious to assume that people who decided to keep a gun in the house were in no more danger initially than those who didn't. Some were criminals and were killed by the police. Comparisons of apples and oranges don't prove anything.

The more recent anti-gun book by Michael Bellesiles of Emory University has been lavishly praised in such organs of the left intelligentsia as The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, and was awarded a prestigious prize for historians. Then other scholars began checking out his evidence.

The net result is that Professor Bellesiles has now resigned from Emory University after an investigation into his research led to a report that raised questions about his "scholarly integrity." But that is unlikely to stop his study from continuing to be cited by advocates of gun control.

Facts are not the real issue to gun control zealots, who typically share the left's general vision of the world, in which their own superior wisdom and virtue need to be imposed on others, whether on guns, the environment, or other things.

When John Lott asked the gun control crusader to look at the facts he had amassed, he may have thought that the issue was simply whether one policy was better than another. But what was really at stake was a whole vision of society and the crusader's own sense of self. No wonder she could not risk looking at the facts.