Too often in the media one encounters writing that vilifies gun ownership by ad hominen attacks: A few articles are just empty propaganda, without any discernible basis in logic. Some of these try to make some psychological point about the meaning of guns — e.g., manhood equivalents, cult objects, or expressions of paranoia. When that kind of piece headlines a national magazine, as “The NRA’s Murder Mystery” does the cover of the October Mother Jones, one has to ask what it means about the publication’s motives.
The piece details some little-known events in the early life of Robert Dowlut, who has been on the National Rifle Association’s general counsel for years. He began working for the NRA after his graduation from Howard University Law School in 1979, where he may have become aware of the civil-rights violation inherent in the then common denial of the right to keep and bear arms. Dowlut was one of the earliest and most influential legal writers, advocating the individual-rights interpretation of the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court victories in Heller and McDonald were very much thanks to Dowlut, along with the plaintiffs and their other supporters.
As a teenager, Dowlut had admitted to armed robbery and had also been charged with auto theft, a hit-and-run accident, and trespass. He was sentenced just to probation at age 16, completed high school and joined the Army. Then in 1963, his girlfriend’s mother was found shot dead. Dowlut was arrested and ultimately convicted of second-degree murder based on circumstantial evidence. A verbal confession elicited with little regard to protecting the rights of the accused was rejected by the trial judge. The outcome was appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which in 1968 voided the conviction and required a new trial excluding evidence elicited by the interrogation. Two years later, he was released for good, partly because the state had failed in its duty to provide a speedy (re-)trial. By all accounts since then, Dowlut, whether he’s a murderer who got off or an innocent framed victim, has led an exemplary, exceptionally productive life of service and accomplishment. (Dowlut also has a sad family history. He was conceived by Polish parents confined to a Nazi labor camp where his 5 month old brother fell ill and was killed by a camp doctor.)
A curious coincidence is that Harlan Carter, who with other activists in 1977 turned the NRA toward pro-gun political activism, was also convicted of murder in 1931 at age 17. This was also overturned, on the basis of inadequate jury instruction regarding self-defense. Carter addressing this during his heyday in the 1980s would be comparable to Dowlut addressing his 1960s event now; both would be incidents more than 50 years old which aren’t relevant to their contemporary, public lives.
Although the Mother Jones reporter, Dave Gilson, implies that such history explains a lot more, that’s just supposition. Psychology doesn’t determine a life’s course, and can’t explain much unless the person examines his own experiences with a clinician. For those reasons, it’s unethical even for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion regarding the state or motives of an individual known only secondhand. Only general issues can fairly be addressed.
For Gilson and Mother Jones to suggest that Dowlut’s early history explains his later advocacy of gun rights is senseless and presumptuous. Gilson, a senior editor at the magazine, describes himself as an “obsessive generalist [and] word wrangler.” Evidently so.
But even more absurd is the guilt-by-association the article, and especially its title, impute to an organization and membership that Dowlut and Carter have worked for. There is no basis to imagine something wrong with the NRA because of the personal histories of two of its employees. There is no “NRA Murder Mystery.”
The mystery is how such speculative hokum gets into print. Less mysterious: That Mother Jones readers would buy it (in either sense) so long as it reinforces their pre-existing prejudices.
— Dr. Robert B. Young is a private psychiatrist in Pittsford, N.Y., and a member of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership.