Politics & Policy

How to Write About Firearms

A guide for liberal columnists who don’t want to sound stupid about guns.

Usually, it’s easy for a concerned citizen to find a like-minded pundit with something interesting to say about the political controversy du jour. Except, that is, when the citizen is liberal and the controversy involves guns. If a left-of-center reader turned to his favorite pundits this week to find out what to think about the Tucson massacre and gun laws, he’d have read nothing but clichés and half-truths.

There are at least two reasons for this. First is that most of these columnists have no firsthand knowledge of guns or gun culture. Second is that they haven’t bothered to read any of the countless academic studies of gun control that have come out since John Lott published More Guns, Less Crime in 1998. Perhaps they don’t want to slog through lots of statistics, or perhaps they just don’t care about the issue.

As a gun owner and hunter, and as someone who’s spent a fair amount of time thinking and writing about the legal and empirical debates that surround guns, I’m here to help. Here are some quick and easy tips for anti-gun columnists — if you follow them, you’ll still be wrong, but at least you won’t sound so ridiculous.

1. Don’t assume criminals follow laws.


In a way, this goes right to the heart of the gun-control debate. It is a conservative talking point that only the law-abiding will follow — and thus be disarmed by — gun laws.

I’m not asking you to swallow this reasoning whole. I’m just asking that you think twice before contradicting it — especially if you’re Eugene Robinson, who recently wrote about how the Tucson shooting shows that “we must decide that allowing anyone to carry a concealed weapon, no questions asked, is just crazy.” (Or, more frighteningly, Rep. Peter King [R., N.Y.], who says he’s going to introduce a law that would simply make it illegal to bring a gun near a public official.)

Jared Loughner left his house that day intending to assassinate Representative Giffords. There is absolutely no reason to believe that a more restrictive concealed-carry regime would have changed that. If he was willing to violate laws against murder, he was willing to violate laws against concealed carry. Suggesting otherwise just shows that you haven’t bothered to think things through.

2. If you’re going to write that a certain kind of gun is particularly dangerous, consult someone who knows something about guns first. Brady Campaign spokesmen don’t count.

The gun Loughner used was a semiautomatic 9mm Glock — a weapon that countless people own for various reasons, including target shooting and self-defense. These guns typically come with 10- to 17-round magazines, but they’re capable of accepting larger ones. The fact that they’re “semiautomatic” means they fire one bullet for each pull of the trigger. I own a very similar handgun myself (a 9mm Ruger P95), along with a 30-round magazine; if I fill the magazine before I get to the shooting range, it cuts down on the time I spend reloading on-site.

But Alan Webber complains in the Washington Post about “semi-automatic handguns that serve only one purpose — to shoot and kill innocent people.” The New York Times’s Gail Collins refers to Loughner’s gun as distinct from a “regular pistol,” the kind “most Americans think of when they think of the right to bear arms.” Semiautomatic handguns are “extremely easy to fire over and over” and can carry 30-round magazines, she explains.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this came from someone who knew better: the Brady Campaign’s president, Paul Helmke, who in Collins’s column is quoted claiming that 9mm semiautomatics are “not suited for hunting or personal protection” and that “what it’s good for is killing and injuring a lot of people quickly.” If 9mm Glocks aren’t suited for protecting oneself and others, someone should tell the nation’s police departments, many of which use them — and many more of which use .40-caliber Glocks, which are similar but slightly more powerful.

3. Don’t prattle on about “hunting” or “sport” — and more generally, don’t forget about self-defense.

Robinson is an offender on this count: “We must recognize the obvious distinction between rifles, shotguns and target pistols used for sport on the one hand, and semiautomatic handguns designed for killing people on the other.” (An aside: I think it’s less than obvious that my pistol, which I love shooting at targets, is not suitable for “sport,” and that traditional target pistols are not suitable for killing people.)

But the prize goes to Collins, who actually suggests that gun-grabbers and gun-rights supporters should cooperate to pass laws based on this distinction: “We should be able to find a way to accommodate the strong desire in many parts of the country for easy access to firearms with sane regulation of the kinds of weapons that make it easiest for crazy people to create mass slaughter.”

Sorry, but no. It’s true that many gun-rights enthusiasts are also hunters, but the “strong desire” to preserve gun rights stems from the need for self-defense, not for killing Bambi. We’re actually most protective of guns that are designed to kill people — because we want them in case we need to kill someone to defend ourselves or our families. The Supreme Court has affirmed our Second Amendment right to keep handguns in our homes for this purpose.

And we do use guns for self-defense. Various surveys come to various numbers, but it’s clear that thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of defensive gun uses occur every year. And that’s not even counting the crimes that don’t happen because criminals are afraid their victims might be armed.

You can make a plausible case that keeping guns away from law-abiding citizens will keep guns away from some criminals, too — many guns are stolen every year — but this must be weighed against the good that comes from responsible gun ownership. When you write a column about guns — no matter what side you’re on — you need to evaluate this tradeoff.

4. When you think about mental health, think about due process, too.

In the last day or so, some evidence has come to light indicating that the police may have dropped the ball — if they had followed up on some complaints that were made against Loughner, they may have been able to prosecute him for a crime or force him to accept mental-health treatment. Had they done so, it’s possible he would have ended up in the database of people who are not allowed to buy guns, and it’s even possible that he wouldn’t have been able to get a gun illegally (given that we know of no underworld ties or friends who would have bought a firearm for him).

But some liberals seem to think he should have been turned down for the gun solely on the grounds that people found him creepy or menacing. Robinson notes that

Loughner reportedly had a history of drug use and bizarre behavior. Students and a teacher at a community college that Loughner briefly attended found him so erratic, confused, menacing and potentially violent that they persuaded college authorities to bar him from campus pending a psychiatric exam.

He follows with: “Yet on Nov. 30, he was able to walk into Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson and purchase the weapon” (emphasis added), as though the judgments of “students,” “a teacher,” and “college authorities” should be sufficient to deprive one of constitutional rights.

Richard Cohen thinks that gun buyers should face “real questions” in addition to a background check. He facetiously proposes the following:

Do you think the government controls grammar and grammar controls the universe? Have you been babbling in class and can you hold a job? Why do you want this gun? Do you, perhaps, want to kill someone? Do you want a Glock 19 because it was one of two handguns used in the Virginia Tech massacre (32 killed, one suicide), and would you please state the name of your intended victim on the form provided?

A constitutional right cannot be revoked for “babbling in class” or failing to “hold a job,” or even for holding out-there beliefs — and though these questions aren’t asked in seriousness, it’s hard to imagine what questions would have gotten Loughner to confess to being a homicidal maniac, or why a gun seller (or government bureaucrat) should be presumed capable of judging the sanity of a customer when rights are at stake.

Yes, we should have a better process for keeping guns away from dangerous and imbalanced people, but we have to stay away from a very slippery slope: By one estimate based on high-school students, nearly one-quarter of people are mentally ill in some sense of the term. Very few of them are potentially violent.

There is room for debate about gun control. The Supreme Court has left many restrictions on the table. But when left-wing columnists — the people many liberals rely on for opinions — can’t stop spouting the same clichés they’ve been filling their columns with for decades, we cannot have a useful conversation. They need to improve their output, and these rules will help them move in that direction.

— Robert VerBruggen, an NR associate editor, runs the Phi Beta Cons blog.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its original posting.


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