Spotlight: Gunning for Rights


Don B. Kates, Jr., is one of today's most successful and authoritative critics of gun control and its supposed role in reducing crime. Even Quill, the journal of Sigma Delta Chi, a professional society of journalists, recognizes him as the most successful author on the subject.

His first book—Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out, published in 1979—is still making waves. The book contained work by well-known liberal activists and academics, such as Mark Benenson, general counsel for Amnesty International; Kenneth Chotiner, vice-president of the ACLU of Southern California; and ex-Senator Frank Church. Kates now has another book under way, Firearms and Violence (forthcoming from the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research). So who is this guy?

He is not the stereotypical anti-gun-control activist and would certainly not fit the image of the redneck, reactionary gun-freak conjured up by liberals. In fact, Kates has sterling liberal credentials. In the early '60s, he was a volunteer for the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council in the South. There, he met the famous left-liberal attorney William Kunstler and served as his law clerk. Mostly in North Carolina, Kates handled cases like the defense of a black woman fired for taking part in a civil-rights demonstration. And even before he graduated from Yale Law School, he had drafted legislation that was enacted as part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After graduating, Kates went to work for a group of California's most liberal legislators. He also worked for California Rural Legal Assistance. There he handled federal civil-rights litigation, specializing in police-misconduct cases.

In 1967, Kates became the youngest attorney ever to win a case before the US Supreme Court. The case established that when denied constitutional rights, a person does not have to run the bureaucracy's entire complaint gauntlet before appealing the incident to the courts. Later, in California, Kates won a case that guaranteed Mexican-Americans access to Spanish-language ballots. In 1970, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association gave Kates an award for being the country's best "poverty lawyer."

Kates started working in 1973 as a legal advisor to a number of police agencies. He admits that it was quite a change from his work in police-misconduct cases but sees no contradiction in defending the rights of a cop or someone who is victimized by a cop. Then in 1976, St. Louis University asked Kates to join its faculty as an associate law professor. It was while teaching constitutional and criminal law and criminology, that Kates started researching the handgun-ownership controversy.

For three years, Kates took a long, hard look at the role of guns in criminal violence. He was interested in the issue because liberal fellow-travelers were willing to sacrifice civil liberties for their ends. "There had been a lot of result-oriented work by people who wanted to get rid of firearms and some on the other side, too," Kates says, "but firearms owners don't tend to be particularly literate or represented. It ranged from highly partisan to downright shoddy, and many perspectives were simply overlooked."

The biggest hole in the anti-gun argument, Kates says, is the assumption that would-be assailants will switch to knives if handguns are banned. The anti-gun literature says that handguns are five times as deadly as knives, so a ban would lower the attack death rate. Kates found, though, that guns are actually about two-and-a-half times as dangerous as knives and, even so, assailants' second weapon of choice often is a shotgun or rifle, both of which are much deadlier than handguns. This raises the possibility that a handgun ban would actually increase attack-related deaths.

"No dispassionate scholar doing homework could ignore this issue," says Kates, "but hundreds of articles were written arguing to ban handguns, and it was never mentioned." So Kates published a number of articles in journals and, eventually, his first book on the subject.

So meticulous a researcher is Kates that he rarely makes an unqualified statement about anything he has not spent a great deal of time studying—which is why his work on gun control and registration has held up so well. When Kates started exploring the subject, he didn't know what he would find. Now that he knows, Kates does not fear criticism from liberal friends who abhor the notion that people should be allowed to carry handguns for self-protection.

In person, Kates struck me as the archetypal 1960s' civil-rights activist. A full beard and a passion for freedom make him look the part. But from his swagger and gravelly voice, one easily imagines him trapping caribou and grizzly in the old Northwest Territory. Perhaps the two roles are not mutually exclusive, but in the modern world he is occupied tracking down shoddy research and fallacious arguments on the subject of handguns. Only months ago, Kates successfully challenged in court San Francisco's handgun ban.

Besides being a partner of a law firm that fights gun control nationwide, Kates is editing Firearms and Violence. The book "will destroy, once and for all, the phony claims of those who want to take handguns away from honest, peace-loving people," says Kates. "It will expose the phony scholarship that has passed as authoritative and return the right of gun ownership to what it should be—a civil liberty."

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer and a frequent columnist for USA Today.