Optional Armament: Reviewing "Armed"

By Dave Kopel, NRO Columnist

National Review Online. January 12-13, 2002

Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control, by Gary Kleck & Don B. Kates (Prometheus Books, 363 pp., $27). More Kopel reviews of firearms policy books.

Written by two of the most important scholars in the world of firearms policy, Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control could be a truly outstanding book. Instead, it's merely good, mainly because so much of the book fails to live up to this subtitle's promise to provide "new perspectives."

Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, is by far the most important social scientist studying the gun issue. His magnum opus, the 1991 book Point Blank, won the highest award that the American Society of Criminology has to bestow, and greatly advanced the sophistication of social science research on firearms policy. An updated paperback version, published in 1997 as Targeting Guns, is indispensable resource for any serious writer about firearms law or policy. (These days, John Lott of the American Enterprise Institute is a much better-known gun scholar than Kleck, but Lott conducts research on a far smaller range of gun issues than Kleck does. Kleck specializes almost entirely in guns, whereas Lott also studies many other subjects, such as antitrust, voting patterns, and discrimination.)

Since the early 1980s, civil-rights lawyer and litigator Don Kates has been the Leonardo of the Renaissance of Second Amendment scholarship. Kates has encouraged and facilitated the research of countless scholars on firearms issue. His persuasive analysis has caused a great many journalists and scholars to change their positions on gun laws. Accordingly, there is every reason to expect Armed to be one of the best books ever written about gun control.

And sometimes, the book lives up to expectations. The book consists of eight chapters, four each by Kates and Kleck. The best of these Kleck's "Absolutist Politics in a Moderate Package: Prohibitionist Intentions of the Gun Control Movement." Examining the rhetoric and positions of the antigun movement from its founding in the 1970s up to the present, Kleck shows that the antigun groups have always favored every restriction or prohibition which has looked politically achievable. The groups' program has no long-term coherence, other than to limit guns any way possible.

The premises of the antigun movement, Kleck explains, lead inexorably to prohibition, should prohibition be politically feasible. If, as the antigun groups claim, guns do nothing to reduce crime, and if guns substantially increase the risk that ordinary citizens will commit violent crimes or victimize themselves accidentally, and if there is no constitutional right to own guns, then it is hard to see why guns should not be banned.

The past several months have seen a string of excellent new books on media bias: Bernard Goldberg's Bias, which looks at CBS News and television news in general; William McGowan's Coloring the News : How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism focuses on elite newspapers; Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics shows how interest groups invent phony statistics which are then disseminated by the media. Of the these three fine books, however, only Best's looks at the gun issue even briefly. Kleck's chapter, "Modes of News Media Distortion of Gun Issues," shows how many of the problems detailed by Goldberg, McGowan, and Best show up in media coverage of guns. Especially at the national level, the media tend to accept uncritically whatever the antigun groups tell them, and to ignore or denigrate the perspective of legitimate firearms owners.

Unfortunately, many of Kleck's examples involve late 1980s and early 1990s distorted reporting on the "assault weapon" issue — such as television news clips showing pictures of fully automatic guns being fired, even though the controversy had nothing to do with fully automatic guns. Even though little has changed in the last 10 years about national media distortion, the chapter would have been stronger with some more contemporary examples.

The other two chapters by Kleck provide his quantitative analysis of the frequency of defensive gun use and effectiveness of firearms for self-protection. A great deal of this material covers the same ground as Targeting Guns, and readers who already have that book will probably feel they can do without these chapters.

The four chapters by Don Kates all reprise previously published articles by Kates from the 1990s. The best of these is "The Second Amendment: A Right to Personal Self-Protection." While some people have argued that, even if the Second Amendment protects an individual right, it is only a right of individuals to possess guns for community defense, such as against invaders or tyrants. Using the writings of the Founders and of the political philosophers whom they admired, Kates shows that the Founders did not draw a sharp distinction between different forms of self-defense. Resisting a tyrant and his standing army was seen as simply a larger version of resisting a pair of highway robbers. Accordingly, the self-defense rights implicit in the Second Amendment are not limited to resisting only some kinds of victimizers.

The most disappointing chapter is "Guns and Public Health: Epidemic of Violence, or Pandemic of Propaganda?" This chapter was originally published in 1995 in the Tennessee Law Review, and also appeared in 1995 in a book which I edited for Prometheus Books, Guns: Who Should Have Them?

In 1995, the chapter was a cutting edge, scathing critique of the junk science being used to promote gun prohibition. The chapter played an important role in Congress's decision to cut off funding for the antigun propaganda research program at the Centers for Disease Control.

Republished in 2001, the chapter contains virtually nothing new, except for some updated tables on gun accidents and gun ownership. Had the chapter included new analysis of the "public health" literature published since 1995, the chapter would have made a major contribution, but in its current form adds very little to the debate.

Besides the introduction, the other chapter written by Kates is "'Poisoning the Well' for Gun Control," which, while old, is timeless. Kates explains that the vast majority of Americans do not want to ban guns, do support the right to armed self-defense, and do not see anything wrong with moderate controls intended to keep guns out of the wrong hands. While the majority of the public is what Kates calls "pro-gun pro-control," the antigun lobby frequently plays into the hands of the groups who prefer little or no regulation of firearms. This is because the antigun groups are premised on the extremist belief that armed self-defense is immoral; thus, the groups do whatever they can, under existing political conditions, to thwart armed self-defense. The extremist premises of the antigun movement thereby drive many gun owners into a absolute opposition to any form of gun control, since, quite rightly, they fear that moderate controls are intended as stepping stones to prohibition.

Kates suggests that if it were not for the extremist of the antigun lobbies, the enactment of moderate gun controls (e.g., fairly administered licensing laws) would be considerably easier.

If you're new to the gun control debate, there's a lot to be learned from reading Armed. If you've followed the gun debate carefully for a while, then put Armed on your "optional but not essential" reading list.

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