A response to Mr. Reich

In Newsweek for April 12, Robert Reich shared an opinion. His piece was entitled “5 Reasons the NRA is Wrong”..

Mr. Reich opens with, “The next time you hear someone repeating pro-gun NRA propaganda, respond with these five points….”

We are then treated Mr. Reich repeating anti-gun propaganda. But that’s all right; propaganda is a time-honored and well-respected tool in persuasion.

There’s really nothing new in Mr. Reich’s remarks but anyone who believes they will win over a well-informed gun-rights advocate may find they are in for a real disappointment.

To be more blunt, they’re going to get their butt whipped, their hat handed to them and be sent home with their tail between their legs.

To help more people become reasonably well-informed, let’s look at Reich’s five points one by one:

1. Gun laws save lives. Consider the federal assault weapons ban. After it became law in 1994, gun massacres—defined as instances of gun violence in which six or more people were shot and killed—fell by 37 percent. The number of people dying from mass shootings fell by 43 percent. But when Republicans in Congress let the ban lapse in 2004, gun massacres more than doubled.

This statement is sort of correct – if you play by Reich’s rules and don’t question his statements. But gun laws don’t seem to have much impact on homicides. Otherwise, Chicago wouldn’t have racked up nearly 800 murders in 2016, Baltimore wouldn’t have set a new annual record for homicides in 2017. The District of Columbia wouldn’t have had the highest homicide rate in the nation and New Hampshire wouldn’t have had the lowest.

The assault weapons ban was allowed to expire because there was no evidence that it had produced any real impact on the total number of homicides involving uses of the banned firearms and large-capacity magazines. Ban proponents objected, saying ten years wasn’t enough time to produce results. Looking back over the ten years after the ban expired, it looks like they still wouldn’t have had any results; the banned firearms still account for only a very small percentage of homicides.

Incidentally, the usual definition of a mass shooting is one where there are four or more deaths, not including the killer. The figure Mr. Reich used was employed by Louis Klarevas, a teacher at the University of Massachusetts, to show a major decline when there really wasn’t one.

Mass shootings, as notorious as they may be, account for only a fraction of a percent of total homicides. Comparing the CDC reports of homicides during the 1985–2014 period, we find that total murders dropped about 19.5% between the ten years from 1985–1994 and the period from 1995–2004 (the Assault Weapons Ban didn’t become effective until the end of 1994 and expired at the end of 2004). The decline continued after the ban expired falling to its lowest point in more than 50 years in 2014 – in spite of a huge gun-buying frenzy from 2008 to about 2012. During that entire period, mass shooting deaths accounted for 0.16% of total firearm-related murders.

The fatal flaw in the original Assault Weapons Ban was that it grandfathered in all of the banned guns and high-capacity magazines that were already owned on the ban’s effective date and the government allowed manufacturers to sell existing inventory.

That’s the same flaw in the proposed Assault Weapon Ban of 2018 (H.R. 5087). While there is no provision in the current bill for manufacturers to sell existing inventory, all of the guns and magazines currently owned would be exempt and would also be transferable, meaning they could be bought and sold. The pool of such firearms is far larger today than it was in 1994, so the new ban would most likely be less effective than the original, which wasn’t all that effective at all.

2. The Second Amendment was never intended to permit mass slaughter. When the Constitution was written more than 200 years ago, the framers’ goal was permit a “well-regulated militia,” not to enable Americans to terrorize their communities.

I am almost tempted to think this one’s a joke. The Second Amendment was never intended to permit assault, homicide or any other act that was illegal or threatened the safety of the public.

Yes, the framers’ goal was to permit a well-regulated militia – by ensuring that armed citizens were available to be called. In order to achieve that goal, they forbade the government from infringing on the people’s right to keep and bear arms.

In every other Amendment that refers to “the people” it means the right of the individual. After all, it would be silly to say that the First Amendment applies only to groups.

James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, was highly literate and well-educated. He was also an experienced legislator. It is impossible to believe that Madison didn’t know what he was writing or that others couldn’t understand it. Even today, 226 years after the Bill of Rights was ratified and became part of the Constitution, it’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could question its clarity. As one who had studied the law and had had extensive dealings with crafting legislation, Madison surely knew the difference between a prefatory clause and an operative clause and was well aware of where he inserted the comma.

Reich’s invocation of the militia argument is based on an interpretation of the Second Amendment that has been dismissed by the Supreme Court in case after case. Decisions all indicate that the framers of the Constitution considered the right to keep and bear arms to be an individual right. The majority opinion written by the late Antonin Scalia in District of Columbia v. Heller (544 U.S. 570 – 2008) is just the latest example of that. An in-depth study of the Second Amendment was undertaken by the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution in 1982. While they are fairly long, both are well worth reading.

Some collective right interpreters often cite the decision in United States v. Miller (307 U.S. 174 – 1939) to justify the militia interpretation. However, it actually had nothing at all to do with collective versus individual rights. In fact, the court reiterated the belief that the Second Amendment referred to an individual right. The explanation gets long but the short version is that the court determined only that a sawed-off shotgun was not the type of firearm in common use in the militia at that time and was therefore it was not covered by the Second Amendment. The court upheld the National Firearms Act of 1934’s requirements for registering such firearms with the federal government. One important fact about the Miller decision: the defendant, Jack Miller, died before the case came before the Supreme Court and there was no opposing counsel present so it was pretty much a government win by default.

Associate Justice James C. McReynolds penned the Court’s decision. In it he wrote: “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a “shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length” at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.”

I have long thought it would be interesting to test the Miller decision today, considering that the standard-issue weapon of the organized militia, i.e., the National Guard, is a short-barreled, selective-fire carbine.

3. More guns have not, and will not, make us safer. More than 30 studies show that guns are linked to an increased risk for violence and homicide. In 1996, Australia initiated a mandatory buyback program to reduce the number of guns in private ownership. Their firearm homicide rate fell 42 percent in the seven years that followed.

The studies to which Mr. Reich refers have all been challenged based on methodology and conclusions. They essentially say that guns facilitate or even incite violence, which is clearly not true. A number of states with high percentages of households with one or more firearms have very low homicide rates. Idaho has one of the highest percentages of households with guns but it has one of the lowest homicide rates in the nation. Delaware, which has the lowest percentage of households with guns, has a homicide rate more than four times that of Idaho. Gun control advocates have to resort to using suicides, which are a totally different problem, and accidents, which make up a tiny percentage of gun deaths, in an attempt to make their point. They also minimize the number of times that a firearm is used defensively without being fired by counting only incidents that involve a gun being fired, an injury or death, and a police report. A 2013 study by the CDC supported the higher estimates of the number of defensive gun uses and indicated that those who used a firearm defensively had better outcomes than those who did not have a firearm.

The comparison to Australia is just cherry-picking and more verbal jiu-jitsu. In the first place, the Australians never intended to reduce the number of privately owned firearms. The goal of the program was to collect certain types of firearms that had been declared illegal. Mr. Reich limits the comparison to just the firearm homicide rate, while ignoring the total homicide rate, which once again paints a different picture. The homicide rate from 1997 to 2003 dropped 6.3% while the comparable rate in the U.S. fell 14.5%. This indicates that Australian murderers simply found other weapons.

The rate of firearm-related murders did fall in Australia, but it was falling before the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre. The total homicide rate in Australia also declined, but at roughly the same rate as the decline in the U.S. From 1997 to 2014, the homicide rate in Australia fell 31.3% while the U.S. rate declined 30.3% – 97% of the Australian decrease. This is according to Australian government statistics and data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

4. The vast majority of Americans want stronger gun safety laws. According to Gallup, 96 percent of Americans support universal background checks, 75 percent support a 30-day waiting period for all gun sales, and 70 percent favor requiring all privately owned guns to be registered with the police. Even the vast majority of gun owners are in favor of common-sense gun safety laws.

Citing polls as evidence means standing on shaky ground. After, all Hillary Clinton did not win the 2016 Presidential Election, just as Thomas Dewey did not defeat Harry S. Truman in 1948. Support for stronger gun laws rises and falls depending on whether there has been a high-profile mass shooting recently. Polls about guns and gun laws also have widely varying results based on how questions are asked and the accurate responses of survey participants.

There is certainly support for stronger gun laws: with the barrage of media and political posturing, it would be almost a miracle if there wasn’t. Coupled with most people’s desire to give the kind of response they think the pollster wants, it’s not surprising to see big numbers.

In the real world, popular support isn’t as widespread. Efforts to enact universal background check laws in a number of states have had mixed results. The largest margin of victory in a referendum was about 60% while similar measures in other states had lower margins or failed. States where the laws passed tended to have larger, more liberal urban populations. Legislators in more conservative states tend to avoid the expense of a referendum, knowing that it would fail.

Incidentally, police support for stricter gun laws comes largely from police chiefs and commissioners, who have to be at least partially political animals. A 2013 PoliceOne study of sworn law enforcement officers below command rank indicated that they don’t believe more gun laws will have any effect on crime.

5. The National Rifle Association is a special interest group with a stranglehold on the Republican Party. In 2016, the group spent a record $55 million on elections. Their real goal is to protect a few big gun manufacturers who want to enlarge their profits.

Yes, the NRA is a special interest group. So what? Everytown for Gun Safety, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Brady Campaign, the Violence Policy Center and every other gun control advocacy group is a special-interest group.

What makes the NRA different from the others is the fact that it is composed of dues-paying members who provide the majority of its revenue – more than 60%, according to the NRA’s Form 990, which is submitted to the IRS. The majority of the income from manufacturers comes in paid advertising in the NRA’s various publications and Internet sites. Only about 18% of total revenue comes from grants or gifts. Since both corporate and individual gifts are included in that figure, it’s really impossible to tell how much comes from each source through publicly available records.

On the other side, Everytown for Gun Safety is largely supported by Michael Bloomberg, who has been known to lavish millions on advertising, elections and legislative influence. He has committed tens of millions of dollars to oppose a single piece of legislation. The Violence Policy Center is almost entirely supported by grants and the Giffords Law Center relies on donations, gifts and grants. All claims to the contrary, these are not grass-roots organizations.

What Mr. Reich doesn’t know, or more likely doesn’t want to acknowledge, is that the firearms industry has its own lobbying and trade organization, the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The NSSF represents the gun makers while the NRA promotes the interests of its members. The fact that the two groups’ interests overlap isn’t surprising. Firearm manufacturers need a large pool of customers and firearms owners want to have the broadest possible choices for their needs.

Mr. Reich is making statements that rely on the all-too accurate assumption that most people won’t question them. After all, he’s a noted authority on some things; he must know what he’s talking about when it comes to guns, too. Heaven knows that there is an endless supply of self-styled experts when it comes to gun control, even if it’s a bit suspicious that they all say the same thing.

A word to the wise: Ignore Robert Reich’s five reasons. You’ll only hurt your case if you try to use them.

All content except where noted copyright ©2018 Bill Cawthon/Tritignomi

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