In the course of this God-awful, drink-inspiring, litter-runt of a presidential election, it has become common to hear it said in certain of the Right’s more histrionic quarters that conservatism has failed and needs to be burned swiftly to the ground.
As a proposition, this has little to recommend it. One rarely improves upon the prospects of anything by setting fire to it, and, besides, the claim itself has the intractable problem of being false. In fact, conservatism has achieved an enormous amount in the last half century, and, had it been permitted to take the Republican party’s reins this year, it could have continued to do so into the future. The presidential veto being what it is, the Right’s national role over the last decade or so has been to stand athwart progressivism yelling “Stop.” In the states, however — where most of the real governing is done — reform has been relentless and meaningful. Consider, if you will, that both Michigan and Wisconsin are now “right to work” jurisdictions — a development that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago; consider that more than half of the nation’s education systems now boast some form of school-choice program; and consider that the last five years have played backdrop to more than a quarter of all of the state-level abortion regulations enacted into law since 1973. Where they have been able to gain a foothold, Republican officeholders have been busy and they have been effective, and the country as a whole has been improved by their work.
Those who remain skeptical of this defense need not take my word for it. Instead, they might look no further than to the right of the people to keep and bear arms, the swift and deep restoration of which has astonished even the most optimistic of the Second Amendment’s many ardent advocates. Thirty years ago, concealed-carry licenses were the playthings of the rich and the connected; now, all 50 states have permitting regimes. Twenty-five years ago, almost half of Americans wanted to ban handguns completely; today, to so much as broach that unlovely idea is to commit instant electoral suicide. In the 1990s, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford took to the New York Times to urge the imposition of more gun control, while President George H. W. Bush publicly left the NRA; today, such maneuvers would be politically unimaginable. The idea of an assault-weapons ban, which once enjoyed the support of 77 percent of the general public, is long gone — perhaps never to return. And, most important of all, the revisionist interpretation of the Second Amendment that had been so cynically picked up within leftward-leaning academic and legal circles lies today in tatters, having been ripped apart not only by Antonin Scalia and his Supreme Court majority, but by a scrupulous group of progressive lawyers who proved unwilling to trade historical truth for political expedience. The “gun-control moment” has passed.
That being so, one could be forgiven for wondering why John R. Lott Jr. has felt the need, in 2016, to write a long and defensive book titled “The War on Guns.” Surely, if there is indeed a “war,” it is he and his side who are winning it? By rehearsing every argument he can think of, is he not out wandering the poppy-laden fields, bayoneting the last of the wounded?
The answer to these questions is both yes and no. Certainly, Lott and his associates are winning now. But there are dark clouds on the far horizon, and they are moving ever closer. Politically, the coming Trumpocalypse is likely to yield a political landscape that is less favorable to gun-rights champions than has been the status quo. Culturally, it remains the case that pro–Second Amendment news is kept out of the national media and away from the public’s ears. And, while they have been all but vanquished in the court of public opinion, America’s flush anti-gun outfits have begun to organize and to spend in earnest. Who is to say that 2017 will continue the three-decade trend?
Not Lott, evidently. And so, faced by this trio of threats, he has contrived to prebut the coming onslaught — to get his blows in before the next battle has begun. Taken in toto, The War on Guns is no less than a nonstop debunking of the most popular and the most abiding of the gun-control movement’s talking points. It is not a polemic. It is not a from-the-ground-up argument for self-defense. It is not a historical or explanatory stricture. It’s a sustained game of whack-a-mole. Up pops the claim, and in comes the hammer. Bang! Bang! Bang! And that’s why you’re wrong.
Believe that most academics are in favor of more gun control? Bang, you’re wrong. Convinced that extending background checks is a no-brainer? Bang, you’re wrong. Outraged that research into “gun violence” is outlawed in the United States? Bang, bang, and bang again. Nothing escapes Lott’s gaze: not the idea that American gun violence is unique among the world’s nations; not the claim that Australia’s harsh restrictions yielded a worthwhile outcome; not the recent hysteria over the prevalence of “mass shootings”; not the fallacious belief that “Stand Your Ground” laws hurt, rather than help, minorities. One by one, Lott examines his opponents’ critiques. And, one by one, he addresses them. At his best, he dismantles shoddy and mendacious work with the skill of an experienced surgeon. At his worst, he presents the best possible counter-cases with misplaced confidence. Still, in both cases, the corrective is welcome.
Some of the scams that Lott exposes are indeed extraordinary. We are all accustomed to hearing that “keeping a gun in the home is associated with an increased risk of homicide,” Lott notes, and yet few people know just how weak the link is between those two propositions. And how. As Lott records, the most cited study in favor of this theory assumes as part of its methodology “that if someone died from a gun shot, and a gun was owned in the home, . . . it was the gun in the home that killed that person.” But this, to put it politely, is entirely false. In fact, “in only eight of [the] 444 homicide cases” included in the study “was the gun that had been kept in the home the murder weapon.” As Lott concludes trenchantly at the end of his debunking, to claim that guns are killing people in their homes because intruders bring guns into those homes is akin to claiming that hospitals are killing people because dying people are brought there in extremis.
Games such as these are routinely played within the “public-health literature,” the traditional purpose of which is not to establish the truth but to provide anti-gun politicians with snappy sound bites that they can pass off to the public as “science.” Lott points to a lovely example of this from the journal Pediatrics, which in 2014 published a paper claiming that incidents involving firearms sent 7,391 “children” per year to the hospital and 453 to the morgue. Because these numbers were alarming, the press was quick to jump all over the story — and in the sort of saccharine tones that are reserved for tales of helpless infants and innocent kids. What nobody watching at home knew, however, was that Pediatrics had used an extremely broad definition of both “children” and “incidents” — a definition, it turns out, that included anybody under the age of 20 and covered all sorts of behaviors, up to and including assault. In fact, as Lott points out, the vast majority (76 percent) of those included in the “children” category were 17, 18, or 19 years old, and two-thirds of their injuries were sustained as a result of criminal assaults — mostly in urban areas. Which is to say that Pediatrics had played a clever rhetorical trick upon its audience and laundered adult crime into bambino sympathy. One wonders what we will hear next on the evening news. Perhaps Pediatrics will issue a study on the heavyweight-boxing results, under the dramatic headline, “Children fight it out in glitzy Las Vegas for a large cash prize.”
“It is hard to debate guns if you don’t know much about the subject,” Lott contends at the beginning of Chapter 10. And, clearly, most people don’t know much about the subject. It is for this reason, Lott argues, that the press can get away with conflating “automatic” and “semi-automatic”; with confusing “Stand Your Ground” and self-defense; and with pretending that gun shows are exempt from the usual rules. It is for this reason that politicians sell gun registries as panaceas when nowhere in North America are police able “to point to a single instance of gun registration aiding the investigation of a violent crime.” It is for this reason that so much money is spent in “producing false and misleading information”: because those who produce it “have seen from polls that it makes a difference.” And, ultimately, it is for this reason that, at what looks like a high point for the Second Amendment, John Lott has written a book such as this one.
For all but the most obsessive follower of the debate, The War on Guns will make dry reading; at root, this is a volume about social science and methodologies and little else besides. And yet, despite its wonkish bent, Lott’s work is by no means without value. On the contrary: The book’s subtitle is “Arming Yourself against Gun-Control Lies,” and its author has done precisely that. From time to time, I receive e-mails or letters from neutral or interested readers who want to find the best argument against a given anti-gun meme. Previously, those arguments have been spread across the Internet and the literature, hidden in a thousand different, often hard-to-reach places. Now, thanks to John R. Lott Jr., they exist in one quick-to-access place. Whether one agrees with every single one of his conclusions (I don’t) is beside the point. Discussions need to start from somewhere, and this book is an excellent overture to a more balanced and more honest contest of ideas. Let us hope it is not as urgently necessary as the daily news suggests it may soon prove to be.