Shaky Aim

Reviewing Shots in the Dark.

By Dave Kopel, research director, and Paul Blackman, research coordinator, National Rifle Association

November 3-4, 2001, National Review Online

Shots in the Dark: The Policy, Politics, and Symbolism of Gun Control, by William J. Vizzard (Rowman & Littlefield, 288 pages, $19.95). More book reviews by Kopel on firearms policy.

Former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent William Vizzard has authored one of the better books ever written by a gun-control advocate. Now a professor at Cal State University (Sacramento), Vizzard presents a stronger case for gun registration than any previous writer. He offers the best defense ever of the ATF. Unfortunately, the book is extremely careless, in matters large and small, and so the book makes much less of a contribution than it could.

The Strategy

Vizzard pursues two main strategies: First, using political-science tools to look at the history of gun control in the 20th century; and second, offering his own law-enforcement perspective on the realities of gun control.

The book starts with an effort to put the pro- and antigun movements into a general political-science context. The most important perspective, one discovers in subsequent chapters, is the "sovereignty" frame — the idea that the firearms issue is ultimately about whether the American people are sovereign, or whether the government is the master and not the servant. The sovereignty view, Vizzard acknowledges later in the book, stands as a potent obstacle to his proposed gun-control laws.

Vizzard then summarizes the gun debate regarding issues such as gun violence, self defense, gun-market trends, the sources of criminal guns, and strategies for gun control — including restrictions on carrying and use, access, selective prohibition, and cracking down on criminal misuse of guns. Vizzard also sums up existing federal and state laws.

Although Vizzard generally favors greater gun control, and dislikes the NRA, he is not dogmatic, and frequently debunks gun-control myths. He disputes the claim that the NRA is a front group for gun manufacturers, noting that the NRA consistently sides with consumers whenever their interests conflict with manufacturers. Likewise, the Clinton ATF said that because a small percentage of licensed gun dealers account for a huge percentage of crime-gun traces, there must be very large illegal gun trafficking by certain dealers. Vizzard explains out that the majority of licensed gun dealers sell very few guns. Accordingly, it would be expected that big stores in high-crime areas would inevitably be associated with a large number of traces.

Unfortunately, Vizzard's analytical technique sometimes amounts to summarizing the literature on each side of an issue, and then announcing which side he favors. Readers who want to see more of the sociological and criminological evidence for themselves, rather than relying on the author's conclusions, would be better off with Gary Kleck's Targeting Guns.

Vizzard next turns to the public and interest-group opinion and activities, and how the politics of the issues have changed — particularly over the past decade — with controversies such as militias, kids, and litigation.

In the middle section of the book, Vizzard backtracks somewhat, summarizing the 20th-century history of gun control and its enforcement by an evolving ATF. He covers the National Firearms Act of 1934 (and how the NRA stopped the Roosevelt administration from trying to ban handguns), the development of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the 1986 Firearms Owners' Protection Act (which reformed the 1968 law), the failed "handgun freeze" initiative in California in 1982, the Brady Act, the "assault weapon" ban, and other controversies.

This middle section is the strongest part of the book, thanks to Vizzard's wealth of knowledge about federal gun laws and their development. How many people know, for example, that the main reason that President Richard Nixon elevated the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from its lesser status as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Internal Revenue Service was to create a job for John Caulfield? Caulfield, by the way, happened to be the father of the Watergate scandal. John Erlichman explained:

Well there was an ex-cop named John Caulfield who had been one of Richard Nixon's bodyguards when he lived in New York and came to Washington, worked at the Treasury Department after Nixon became President. Caulfield very much wanted to get into the private detective business. The security business. And so at some point, as we were approaching the '72 election, he came to me with a plan for the development of an intelligence operation. And I looked at it. It was done up in a little folder and so on. And did nothing with it. I didn't see that it was germane to anything that I knew anything about that was going to happen in connection with the '72 election, so I just tossed it into the to-be-filed basket. It developed later that Caulfield took this to Gordon Liddy and other people at the Committee to Re-elect The President. And it probably was the seminal origin of all that business of Gordon Liddy and the Operation Gemstone and eventually the break-in at the Democratic headquarters. But it sort of bears the relationship to the Mississippi River that, I mean that Watergate, that one of those little lakes in Minnesota has to the Mississippi River. It's kind of up there at the headwater someplace.

After the Watergate break-in, Caulfield carried out White House counsel John Dean's orders to convey numerous offers of executive clemency to Watergate burglar James McCord, if McCord would stay quiet. Clearly unqualified to run ATF, Caulfield was instead appointed assistant director for enforcement, but after the Watergate cover-up unraveled, he had to leave ATF.

Vizzard has a good eye for the dominance of symbolism over substance in much of the gun-control debate. As he points out, the National Rifle Association was technically correct in fighting against proposals to ban "cop-killer bullets" and "plastic guns" (because neither really existed), but the fights were political disasters for the NRA. The issues had been invented mainly as tools to drive a wedge between the NRA and the police, and the phony issues did their job quite effectively.

Regarding the Brady Bill, Vizzard points out that the bill's real-world effects were overshadowed by the vast political battle over the bill.

The final section of Shots in the Dark concludes with Vizzard's policy recommendations, and his explanation for why they will never be adopted. First, Vizzard would greatly simplify the nation's extremely complex firearms laws, making them easier for ordinary citizens to understand and thus obey. So he supports statewide "preemption" laws which prohibit local governments from enacting gun controls. He would use federal grants and other incentives for states to fit their laws into a federal model. Given that handguns are made to be carried, he finds it illogical for laws to forbid lawful handgun owners from carrying their guns in public places.

Vizzard's major proposal for additional gun control is a comprehensive system of licensing for every gun owner, and registration for every gun. Vizzard's most important contribution is not the proposal, but his argument for it. He explains that the main benefit of licensing and registration laws would be to assist the prosecution of cases involving gun possession by felons. For example, if the police raid a house in which a convicted felon lives with his girlfriend, and a gun is found, the girlfriend (who has a clean record) may claim that the gun belongs to her; thus, she protects her boyfriend from major prison time for illegally owning a gun. With Vizzard's registration and licensing system in place, if the woman claimed that she owned the gun, she could be prosecuted for violating the licensing and registration law. The threat of prosecution would dissuade her, Vizzard hopes, from falsely claiming that the gun belongs to her.

Vizzard acknowledges that his proposal has little chance of being adopted. His plan for simplifying all laws, repealing the symbolic ones, and imposing a licensing and registration system is based on pragmatic logical analysis (at least as Vizzard sees things). But logic has virtually nothing to do with the gun-policy debate, Vizzard points out. With a very few exceptions, politicians and their staffs in Congress and in California (the state the Vizzard knows best) are blissfully ignorant of current gun laws, gun-law enforcement, and gun-policy facts. Instead, their views, whether for or against control, are almost entirely based on political calculation.

The NRA resists any new controls, no matter how innocuous, Vizzard argues. Meanwhile, Handgun Control, Inc. (renamed "the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence" after Vizzard's book was published) pursues an utterly illogical and opportunistic agenda, pushing whatever control du jour looks politically feasible, with no coherent vision of long-term policy (except, Vizzard admits, possibly satisfying many of its supporters' desire to ban gun ownership over the long term). Thus, there is no political force to promote logic-based gun policy, Vizzard concludes.

While the registration proposal (more on this below) makes an original contribution to the gun-policy debate, Shots in the Dark falls far short of its potential.

Weak Defense

With 27 years of experience as an agent, manager, and supervisor for ATF, Vizzard might be expected to defend ATF. But his defenses are too often wrong on crucial facts, or incomplete.

For example, he explains the key role of the 1971 Kenyon Ballew raid (extensively and repeatedly reported in the gun press, including in the NRA's The American Rifleman) in building sentiment for what eventually became the 1986 Firearms Owners' Protection Act. ATF agents violently broke in to the apartment of Kenyon Ballew (Vizzard spells it "Bellew") one night in Silver Spring, Maryland (Vizzard calls it "Silver Springs"), under the mistaken belief that Ballew possessed live hand grenades. Ballew was naked; his partner near naked; she screamed for the police; he grabbed a gun, and was promptly shot and crippled for life. Nothing unlawful was found in the search.

In Vizzard's version, the police identified themselves before breaking in, and does not mention that the Ballews dispute this assertion. Vizzard fails to mention that most of the ATF and accompanying Montgomery County officers were in undercover attire; omits the fact that there was a similar raid in another apartment where nothing was found; and says that, except for empty grenade hulls "no other illegal firearms were found." In fact, nothing illegal was found. There is no law against owning empty grenade hulls (which are used as paperweights and novelty items).

One of Vizzard's complaints against the NRA and others in the pro-gun movement who complain about gun-law-enforcement abuses is that the complaints are exclusively directed at ATF without comparison to other law-enforcement abuses, specifically those in the war on drugs, which Vizzard, accurately, says far outweigh gun-law abuses. This is a fair point, but pointing out that the Drug Enforcement Agency violates civil rights much more broadly than does the ATF does not excuse the ATF.

He cites our book No More Wacos: What's Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It, as an example of that one-sidedness. But as we detail in our book, the drug war has made ATF even more violent and militaristic, as it has many other law-enforcement agencies (including the FBI, which we analyze in detail). We hope that one day Vizzard will join former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara (a vigorous gun-control advocate) in advocating comprehensive drug-law reform — especially, defederalizing the issue — in order to reduce overall law enforcement violence and militarization.

In 1978, Congress overwhelmingly defunded a computerized gun-registration proposal which ATF had pushed at the behest of the Carter White House. Dealer sales records would have been reportedly quarterly to ATF. In the proposal, buyer names would not be reported, although once the registration system was in place, ATF would have been able to write its own regulation to start requiring buyer names to be reported. Vizzard notes that the congressional defeat humiliated ATF, and made the bureau very cautious about not offending Congress.

Vizzard sees no reason for the NRA to have fought ATF under the Carter administration, which Vizzard characterizes as too frightened to push for real gun control. Yet at the start of the Carter administration, Carter's top aide, Hamilton Jordan, promised that Carter would take on the gun lobby and "get those bastards." So why shouldn't the NRA fight when the Carter administration challenged it? Wouldn't it be reasonable for the NRA to expect that if it caved in to the Carter/ATF plan in round one, there would be a round two of worse laws or regulations?

Despite Vizzard's self-proclaimed expertise in firearms and understanding of the gun community (he has more real expertise on the former than the latter), he never notes the irrationality of ATF's "factoring criteria" for determining whether imported handguns have sporting purposes. Anyone familiar with firearms as Vizzard is would know that the most commonly used competitive handgun is the .22, which the factoring criteria discriminate against.

Vizzard faults the congressional Republicans for investigating Waco rather than the "militia" movement after Timothy McVeigh's terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, even though, as Vizzard admits, McVeigh was not part of the militia movement, having attended a couple meetings of one militia, and there being unwelcomed because of his extremism. Moreover, congressional oversight of executive-branch agencies who are exercising authority granted by Congress is one of the legislature's prime responsibilities. Congressional investigations of private groups which hold controversial political views could interfere with the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Consistent with current ATF public relations, Vizzard asserts that gun shows are a problem without citing any evidence. He says that gun shows are a potential source for medium- and large-capacity magazines — which also are not part of the crime problem. He does not mention that these same magazines are also available via gun publications and in gun stores.

Litany of Errors

The more serious problem caused by his Vizzard's "insider" approach is a massive number of errors due to sloppiness. Because Vizzard's book is sure to be used as a primary source by writers creating encyclopedia entries and the like, it is unfortunate that he gets so many names wrong. He misspells the names of Supreme Court cases (Haynes v. U.S., and Chicago B. & Q. RR. Co. v. Chicago), of a major pro-gun activist (Alan Gottlieb becomes Allan Gotleib), of an antigun activist (Michael Hancock of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns becomes Handcock of the Coalition to Ban the Handgun), of a Yale law professor (Akhil Amar becomes Akhill Amar), and of a senator (James Abdnor becomes Abnor). He offers the wrong names for Academics for the Second Amendment, the National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers, the American Shooting Sports Council, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and two different wrong names for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.

Handgun Control, Inc., (HCI) is called Hand Gun Control Incorporated (HGCI), and he describes the group as a non-membership organization — although the Federal Election Commission forced HCI to become a membership organization (one director is elected by the membership) in the 1980s. He says that HCI was founded by Pete Shields, although the group was actually founded by Charles Orasin with the help of retired CIA agent Edwin Welles. Shields became chairman later.

He fails to distinguish between 501(c)(3)s (educational organizations) and 501(c)(4)s (lobbies) in describing "lobbies." He undercounts the number of sheriffs who brought individual cases in different jurisdictions to have the Brady Act declared unconstitutional.

Quite often, the correct name of something appears in close proximity to the incorrect name, raising questions about whether anyone proofread the book. The Firearms Owners' Protection Act (FOPA) is the Gun Owners' Protection Act (GOPA) within a few pages. The Gallup poll is spelled correctly twice on one page, while also twice spelled "Gallop" on the very same page. A controversial NRA fundraising letter is correctly described as a "fundraising letter" on one page, as a "pamphlet" on the previous page, and then again as a "pamphlet" several pages later.

In describing the dramatic increase in the number of states with right-to-carry laws, he says they are now "in almost half the states," whereas the 31 states (ignoring the post-publication additions of New Mexico and Michigan) constitute more than half.

We are told that "Until the election of 1992, no president candidate had risked using gun control as a domestic issue." But in 1988, George Bush defended the right to own handguns for home defense in his Republican National Convention acceptance speech, and wrote a highly publicized letter to the NRA detailing his opposition to new gun controls. In 1980, Ronald Reagan actively courted gun-owner support, and was rewarded with a massive grassroots effort that helped him win close states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Vizzard's history of the Brady Bill's passage through Congress includes several errors: the bill was originally named for Sarah Brady (not, as Vizzard says, James Brady, although he later became the namesake). He conflates the relatively mild bill finally passed by Congress in 1993 with the much more restrictive bill originally pushed by HCI in 1987. He writes that all the pro-gun floor amendments offered in the House in 1993 failed, but in fact two of the amendments passed — most significantly, the one making the waiting period sunset within five years.

Former House Speaker Tom Foley is described as "on record as opposing assault-weapon legislation," but still losing his seat in 1994 to a gun-control opponent. Actually, Foley did oppose "assault weapon" bans during the Bush presidency, but supported the Clinton ban which passed in 1994, and used his Speaker's power to ensure that the ban passed.

Vizzard's explanation of the 1939 United States v. Miller case (the Supreme Court's last major Second Amendment case) is backward. He writes that "the justices may mistakenly have taken judicial notice that shotguns could not be used in militia service." The Court actually wrote: "Certainly is it is not within judicial notice that such a weapon [a sawed-off shotgun] is any part of the ordinary military equipment or could contribute to the common defense." Vizzard's error is not "anti-gun"; indeed, his point, if it were true, would make Miller less persuasive as a pro-control case.

Some statements are simply bizarre. He calls the "Aryan Nation" [sic, Nations] a "libertarian" organization — a startling description for a neo-Nazi group enamored of Adolf Hitler, one of the greatest "big government" creators of all time. When Congress raised the gun-dealer licensing fee to $200 for a three-year license in 1993, this increase supposedly "failed to restore license fees to even their 1968 level of $10 a year, taking inflation into account." Actually, the Consumer Price Index stood at 35.5 in December 1968, and at 145.8 in December 1993. This means that $30 in 1968 dollars was worth $123 in 1993 — so the 1993 fee increase made the licensing fee over 60% higher than the inflation-adjusted 1968 fees.

Vizzard makes mass-murderer James Huberty's third gun an Uzi pistol rather than a carbine, and gets the wrong number of handguns used at another mass murder, in Killeen, Texas. He writes that the Columbine murderers' guns were "illegally" obtained at guns shows, but in fact the purchases were lawful.

He claims that author John Lott "lacks the cultural ties to the gun community displayed by [Gary] Kleck" (a Florida State University criminologist). To the contrary, Kleck won't even say whether he owns a gun, while Lott is proud to admit that he does. (He's also a very good shot.) Kleck adamantly refuses to speak at gun-rights rallies, whereas Lott frequently does. In 1999, after the Columbine murders, Lott organized over 300 professors to sign a joint letter to Congress opposing new gun controls. Kleck was virtually the only well-known academic skeptic of gun control who refused to sign.

Reliance on memory even leads to mistakes in describing ATF. The ATF's Operation CUE is called "Project CUE" and Vizzard says that "CUE" stood for "Consolidated Urban Enforcement," although it actually stood for "Concentrated Urban Enforcement." One wonders if this casual approach to details permeates ATF, or other law-enforcement agencies, and partially explains the periodic police raids on wrong addresses. One is reminded of the warrant application which was the basis for the ATF's Waco raid; the warrant application made numerous errors of fact and law, even citing the wrong sections of statutes.

Worth the Paper It's Printed On

Despite our catalogue of errors, Shots in the Dark is a useful book. It is the first pro-control book to explain how disconnected gun-control politics is from pragmatic gun policy. The book helps gun-rights supporters understand why the ATF tends to see itself as an innocent victim of politics. And none of the factual errors and typos (we haven't listed them all) undermines the power of Vizzard's case for universal licensing and registration, and for other gun controls. While much of Vizzard's not always accurate material will, unfortunately, appear in recycled versions in newspaper editorials and other secondary sources, his gun-control proposals are, as reviewer Philip Cook states, Vizzard's real contribution. So let us conclude the review by addressing in more detail this important part of the book.

Vizzard's push for gun-control laws seems geared toward having laws which help law enforcement. He wants to reduce the number of gun dealers, since the fewer there are, the easier it is to regulate the remainder. He also finds it perfectly reasonable that the costs of gun control be borne by gun dealers and gun buyers. That seems fair to him, even if it adds to the cost of guns, through fees which are ultimately passed on to buyers. We would note that, if gun control is supposed to benefit society in general, there is no reason why its costs should not come out of general tax revenues. But, then, just as Vizzard has a pro-enforcement bias, we have a pro-rights bias, and have gotten tired of people saying "if it saves a single life, gun control is worth whatever it costs — so long as the costs are all borne by gun owners and not ordinary taxpayers." To make gun dealers and gun buyers pay is unfair to all gun buyers, but particularly to the poor, who have the greatest need of guns for protection and the least likely to benefit from law-enforcement protection.

Vizzard does note that many gun-owners fear that intermediate regulations will ultimately lead to confiscation. He doesn't want confiscation, although he admits that many in the gun-control lobbies do. Nor does he offer a mechanism for compromise-minded gun owners to support his plan in good faith, with the understanding that Vizzard's controls today won't be used as the platform for prohibition and confiscation in the future. Given that Vizzard-like controls did lead directly to handgun prohibition in England, he offers no reason why American gun owners shouldn't fear the same.

Vizzard admits that huge numbers of gun owners will violate his registration laws. His response is two-fold: First, to the extent that they bury their guns in their walls or backyards, the guns are out of circulation, and therefore harmless, and therefore gun-caching is socially beneficial.

Second, Vizzard would make enforcement of his laws selectively draconian. Ordinary gun owners who violated the registration law would simply face confiscation of their entire gun collection. But, when the registration violators were suspected of other crimes, prison terms would be imposed with severity. He takes great pride in having used gun laws to obtain a long sentence for criminals suspected of a violent crime, even though the corpus delicti was never found, and the men could not be prosecuted for any violent crime. His model is the use of tax laws to catch Al Capone. But he forgets that the purpose of the tax laws was to raise taxes; being able to punish Capone was a desperation measure using an otherwise legitimate law. Vizzard is pushing registration and other restrictions primarily in order to be able to punish the Al Capones of the gun world with legislation that could also punish ordinary folks. He is hoping for selective prosecution, but he did not seem particularly upset by the hideous perversions of selective enforcement involving Kenyon Ballew, Ruby Ridge, and Waco. And selective prosecution could easily be implemented in a racist manner — as drug laws already are.

For gun-policy specialists, Shots in the Dark is a worthwhile read, especially since the specialists will know enough about the subject to separate Vizzard's insights from his errors. General readers looking for an expert survey of the gun issue would be better off with Gary Kleck's much more carefully written Targeting Guns.

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