Calling the Shots

The American public is largely uninformed about guns and crime, because the American media largely ignore the facts and figures.


The September 20, 1975, issue of the Nation, a left-liberal weekly opinion magazine, ran an article entitled "The Demography of Gun Control." Its author, University of Massachusetts sociologist James D. Wright, struck a rather urgent tone. According to the article, the United States has far and away the most heavily armed civilian population in history; as a result, the United States tops all other industrial nations in injury and death resulting from crime. Therefore, Wright argued, the United States badly needs tougher gun controls—controls that, according to public opinion polls, the vast majority of Americans, even a majority of those who own guns, favors.

So why hadn't gun controls routinely been enacted? Wright answered that the National Rifle Association—the powerful "gun lobby" representing the hard-core, anti-control minority among gun owners—had been able to thwart efforts to enact such measures. In arguing for controls, Wright warned that this relatively small, unrepresentative minority had to be kept from subverting democratic processes. "Those 23,000 people who will otherwise be accidentally shot next year, not to mention the 8,000 who will intentionally be shot to death, will no doubt be grateful," he wrote.

Wright's discussion of gun control in his 1975 Nation article still reflects the assumptions held by many today, particularly among the media. Those assumptions are: the US citizenry is heavily armed; this extreme degree of civilian armament accounts for the high rate of violent crime; gun controls will significantly reduce violent crime; a majority of Americans favors highly restrictive gun controls; and only a powerful "gun lobby" is blocking the enactment of controls.

Significantly, Wright himself no longer holds all of those views. The metamorphosis of his position on gun control and related issues is an unusual story—and it reveals how deeply the above assumptions are embedded among the media.

Wright began to question his widely shared assumptions about guns and crime in 1978, when the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice (NIJ) presented the University of Massachusetts's Social and Demographic Research Institute with a grant to study the scholarly literature on the gun issue. The NIJ wanted to know what claims could reasonably be accepted—and what could not—concerning the link between guns and crime. Wright and his colleague Peter H. Rossi, both specialists in social-scientific methods, set out to answer the NIJ's question.

Wright and Rossi took three years to complete their exhaustive critical review of gun-crime scholarship, and in 1981 it was published by the NIJ under the title Weapons, Crime, and Violence in America: A Literature Review and Research Agenda. Two years later, in 1983, Wright and Rossi (along with a third coauthor, sociologist Kathleen Daly) published a slightly revised and updated version of the NIJ study, this one called Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime, and Violence in America.

So what did Wright and Rossi conclude as a result of their meticulous critical review? They found, to their surprise, that most gun-control studies, including those federal and otherwise that are regularly cited to justify the enactment of stricter gun controls, were very politicized and extremely poorly done. Sifting through the volumes of studies to separate findings supported through research from those not backed by empirical data, Wright and Rossi reached some specific conclusions: (1) Though there are millions of guns in civilian hands in the United States, there may be tens of millions fewer than are generally claimed both by advocates of stricter gun controls and by those who oppose them. (2) There is little reason to believe that Americans are engaged in a domestic arms race brought on by their fear of street crime, militant minorities, the breakdown of law and order, and general civil disorder. (3) Evidence that widespread gun ownership is either a cause, effect, or deterrent of crime is inconclusive. (4) While approximately two-thirds of all gun crimes in this country involve handguns, there is no conclusive proof (partly due to definitional problems) that "Saturday night specials"—inexpensive, easy-to-obtain, small-caliber handguns—are more likely to be used criminally than are other handguns, about half of which are acquired for sporting purposes. (5) While there is widespread public support for gun controls, the kinds of controls widely supported are no more restrictive than those regulating the ownership of automobiles and other "intrinsically dangerous objects"—in other words, there is little support for handgun bans or for undue restrictions on gun ownership. (6) There is little evidence to suggest that existing gun laws have reduced violent crime appreciably, if at all. (7) "The prospects for ameliorating the problem of criminal violence through stricter controls over civilian ownership, purchase, or use of firearms are dim."

As Wright acknowledges in Under the Gun, he began this study accepting "the progressive's indictment of American firearms policy," and Rossi had shared his views. But as they write in Under the Gun, "The more deeply we have explored the empirical implications of this indictment, the less plausible it has become." Incredible! Wright, the author of pro-control articles that have appeared in prestigious national publications and an established sociologist with six books and some 50 scholarly articles and papers to his credit, and Rossi, a past president of the American Sociological Association with 20 books and more than 125 articles and papers to his credit, as a result of their critical exploration of the literature on the subject, have both backed away from the pro-gun control position that is part and parcel of the intellectual establishment's conventional wisdom.

Such a shift in position on gun control in intellectual circles is unprecedented. And given the caliber of the researchers involved and the fact that their findings undermine almost all of the information on gun control regularly disseminated by the major media, it would seem that there is an important story in all of this—if the objective of the media, as stated ad nauseam, is to keep the public informed. So much for lofty mottoes!

As a sociologist with a particular interest in how the media treat the gun issue, I have followed it rather closely over the years, and in recent years I have kept an eye out for newspaper, magazine, and TV-news reports about Wright and Rossi's landmark study. What I have noticed among the major media is a near-universal disregard or quick dismissal of this study.

After the release of Wright and Rossi's NIJ study in late 1981, one of our two daily newspapers here in Evansville, Indiana, carried a brief United Press International report on the study under the head "Gun Study Results Are Inconclusive." The article was stuck back on page four. In less than 250 words it summed up so much that little sense could be made out of the study's findings. Within a few days of this newspaper report, I happened to be watching one of the evening national news broadcasts when the NIJ study was briefly mentioned. The TV newsman dismissed Wright and Rossi's thorough work with a scoffing comment to the effect that he could not imagine how the gun-crime link could be questioned. The only mention of this study in our other daily paper, as far as I am aware, came in my own letter to the editor in January 1984.

Since the release of the NIJ findings in 1981, media treatments of the gun issue (news reports, editorials, columns, TV specials, etc.) that I have read or watched run into the hundreds. But of these, only the Public Broadcasting Service's Frontline TV show, in its 1983 segment "Gunfight U.S.A.," has reflected any familiarity with Wright and Rossi's work. Wright, in fact, was one of several gun-control "authorities" interviewed for "Gunfight U.S.A."—and it may be significant that this Frontline segment is one of the very rare major-media treatments of the gun-control issue that has questioned the utility and desirability of such measures.

If the pattern that I have observed locally holds for the rest of the nation, it appears that after an initial tiny splash of acknowledgement by some major and lesser urban newspapers and the TV networks, the NIJ study has hardly created a ripple in the standard, overwhelmingly pro-control, major-media coverage of the gun issue. A quick search through the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature did nothing to dispel that conclusion. Neither did a phone call to Wright, last summer.

I asked Wright how his book Under the Gun had been received by the major media. He told me that with a few exceptions the book had been ignored, even though review copies had been sent to all of the major urban newspapers and to the news and intellectual magazines that regularly review books. So there is a very good chance that the great majority of Americans who are exposed to the gun-control controversy exclusively through the major and lesser urban media (newspapers, news and general-interest magazines, and the TV networks) have never heard of or know very little about a thorough study, conducted by reputable social scientists, that calls into question almost everything that these media disseminate regularly concerning the gun issue.

As a long-time follower of the media's treatment of the gun issue, none of the preceding surprises me. However, as I've acknowledged elsewhere, the major media's shutout of information and arguments that question the desirability of strict gun controls has not been complete. In fact, major-media dissemination of the views of the critics of such controls seems to have improved significantly since the late 1970s. A handful of TV segments have called gun controls into question, and anti-control or reasonably balanced articles and columns have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Harper's, Commonweal, Penthouse, Playboy, Esquire, Glamour, and New Woman.

Yet the major media have a long way to go before their coverage of the gun issue could be considered even-handed. According to one anti-control organization, pro-control information and arguments get 37 inches of print to every anti-control inch in the print media and more than 7 minutes to every minute in the electronic media. And there is a certain tokenism about the media's occasional presentation of information and arguments that tend to undermine the pro-control position—with few exceptions such information and arguments seem to have little impact on the major media's everyday editorializing and reporting on the gun issue.

When guns are the subject in question, the "reality" of the standard media seems to be based on three unquestioned—or even unquestionable—assumptions that coincide with the articles of faith of pro-control organizations: (1) Guns, especially handguns, are troublesome unto themselves, apart from the people who misuse them; therefore, (2) all reasonable and informed Americans want to do something about the "gun problem" as (3) other modern, urban, industrial nations have done through gun controls. These assumptions affect news coverage and commentaries directly, because they provide reporters, editors, columnists, and broadcast news directors with themes on which to build stories and editorials—"here is another case of gun crime," or "here is another case of responsible citizens trying to do something about gun crime," or "here is another case of the 'gun lobby' blocking needed gun legislation." Problems arise, however, when potentially reportable events, situations, or conditions cannot readily be interpreted in terms of these three articles of faith. The release of the findings of the NIJ study produced one such anomaly, and others come to mind.

If it is a given that guns are troublesome unto themselves, how are the media to cover a study that criticizes research claiming to have proven guns' inherent troublesomeness—especially when that study has been conducted by very reputable social scientists who supported stricter gun controls before they critically analyzed the scholarly literature on the subject? Here is an obvious anomaly that cannot be readily dismissed by labeling the researchers as stooges of the National Rifle Association. So because nothing much can be reported about this study without calling into question the unquestionable, nothing much is reported about it.

The early 1980s have produced many gun-control "events," some of which made headlines across the nation: the Morton Grove, Illinois, handgun ban via a village trustees vote (rather than a referendum) encouraged some other city governments to follow suit—and still others to follow the lead of Kennesaw, Georgia, and require residents to possess firearms. San Francisco banned handguns, but the ban was overturned on the grounds that it violated California's state constitution. A handgun-freeze referendum was defeated in California. And now there is a ruckus over the outlawing of teflon-coated bullets that can penetrate the soft "bulletproof" vests often worn by policemen. Yet, not only have the many pro-control editorials and columns commenting on these events that I have read shown no familiarity with Wright and Rossi, but many of the news reports of these events have reflected one or more of the three unquestioned assumptions.

For example, on January 11, 1984, the Evansville Courier carried an Associated Press news brief headed "Gun toting town has crime increase," which began: "Kennesaw, the first city in the nation to require residents to own and maintain firearms, was the only city in Cobb County with an increase in crime last year, statistics show." One armed robbery and one attempted rape (no gun involved) in 1983 increased crimes of this sort by 100 percent over 1982, and crime increased overall by 9 percent during this period, while county crime was decreasing by 5 percent. Thefts accounted for most of the community's crime increase. But as a well-informed reader pointed out through a letter to the editor, the AP story "failed to mention that in 1981, the year before Kennesaw passed its controversial law, there were 17 violent crimes in town: nine assaults, three rapes, four armed robberies and one homicide. In other words, violent crimes fell from 17 in 1981 to one in 1982, but then went up to three in 1983." And Kennesaw's dramatic decrease in residential burglaries from 55 in 1981 (before the law), to 19 in 1982 and nine in 1983 was ignored. Selective reporting helped to maintain the guns-are-inherently-troublesome assumption.

On the other hand, three months earlier, on October 7, 1983, the Evansville Press carried a story by a Scripps-Howard staff reporter under the headline "Dire predictions of crime wave after handgun ban prove false." The article was about Morton Grove, of course, but what it did not mention was that the residents of that Chicago suburb had turned in only 17 handguns to the police at that time. How can the effect on crime of a handgun ban be determined if that ban has been widely ignored?

If guns are in fact troublesome unto themselves, what is to be made of Switzerland, where hunting and target shooting are very popular and where, aside from the weapons that citizens acquire for use in these sports, the government provides practically the whole able-bodied male population between the ages of 20 and 50 with military weapons for militia use? As Wright and Rossi found, the United States is not the only modern nation with a heavily armed civilian populace. And since Switzerland has hardly any gun crime and has not been involved in a war for ages, we have another anomaly. Though comparisons between the United States and other modern nations with respect to gun crime and gun control are commonly found in the media, little is said about Switzerland.

But sometimes the Swiss cannot be avoided. Recently, for example, syndicated columnist Sydney Harris wrote a piece in which he forthrightly took the guns-are-troublesome position. In a letter responding to that column, a reader brought up the Swiss. Rather than question the unquestionable, Harris indignantly tried to salvage his claims in a second column by arguing that the Swiss, though armed, keep strict control over the weapons in civilian hands and the government issues only rifles to militiamen.

Here we have another journalistic attempt at handling gun issue anomalies through shallow and selective examination. Actually, while the Swiss government keeps track of militia weapons and specifies how they can be used legally, sporting rifles and shotguns are subject to little regulation and civilian handguns require only an easy-to-get permit and registration. Obviously, none of these minimal restrictions can prevent the misuse of guns in civilian hands. The Swiss issue not only rifles to their militiamen; they issue whatever weapons are required by the individual militiaman's specialty—including fully automatic rifles and submachine guns (weapons difficult for American civilians to possess legally) as well as handguns. In other words, the anomaly does not go away—but it can be avoided through selective reporting.

If all reasonable and informed Americans want strict gun controls, how are the media to handle the sound defeat of a handgun freeze via referendum in California in 1982 and the more than 2-to-1 defeat of a handgun ban via referendum in liberal Massachusetts in 1976—the only two statewide gun-control referenda conducted to date? More anomalies, these are again handled by reporting as little as possible about the defeats. (The Morton Grove, Illinois, handgun ban via a 4-to-2 village trustees vote, by way of comparison, made headlines across the country.)

But to the extent that comments could not be avoided, the media routinely pointed to the powerful "gun lobby" as having thwarted the will of the people again. The issue of Newsweek that came out the day before the November 2, 1982, California referendum, when polls accepted by the media were claiming that the Proposition 15 vote was too close to call (it initially enjoyed 2-to-1 support), carried a two-and-a-half-column article about the handgun-freeze proposition. The post-election issue of Newsweek carried only a 5-line comment acknowledging the rejection of the proposition and implying that the "gun lobby" had bought victory. A few days before the election, one of our local dailies, possibly anticipating the defeat of the proposition, pointedly mentioned the millions of dollars that the "gun lobby" was spending to that end. After the election, one local paper briefly reported the proposition's rejection. Four months after Proposition 15's defeat, the Wall Street Journal carried a column by supporters of that proposition, who claimed that valuable lessons had been learned from this first statewide confrontation with the "gun lobby" (ignoring Massachusetts in 1976) and that gun-control victories were assured in the future.

According to typical media analyses of these referenda defeats, the "gun lobby" simply spent its way to victory. In California, for example, though estimates on expenditures vary, it is generally claimed that the "gun lobby" outspent supporters of Proposition 15 by a margin of three to one. But these media analysts seldom mention that while the opponents of the proposition had to purchase media time and space to promote their position, the pro-control forces had the almost unanimous free support of the California major media and even some free support from the national media. As University of Illinois sociologist David Bordua has noted, the 15-minute pro-gun control segment of 60 Minutes that aired nine days before the Proposition 15 vote alone would have cost about $6 million at that program's going advertising rate. Opponents of the proposition spent a total of about $6 million to defeat the measure. Yet this point didn't make it into the major media's account of the events.

If all reasonable and informed Americans want strict gun controls, then it follows that only unreasonable or uninformed Americans—or those who have been misinformed by the "gun lobby"—are left to oppose such measures. Therefore, the major media typically deal with the anomaly created by the decisive rejections of the Massachusetts and California gun-control referenda by relegating a large portion of the eligible voters of Massachusetts (where 77 percent of voters turned out for a better than 2-to-1 defeat) and of California (where 72 percent of voters turned out for an almost 2-to-1 defeat) among the unreasonable, the uninformed, or the misinformed categories—particularly the last (despite the media's massive free support of these referenda).

But the anomaly still persists, for among critics of gun controls are many respected experts who have extensively researched one or more aspects of the issue and cannot easily be dismissed as being unreasonable, uninformed, or misinformed: Colin Greenwood, Cambridge University scholar and Superintendent of the West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police; Joyce Lee Malcolm, Harvard Law School authority on the English common law origins of the Bill of Rights; John Kaplan, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford University; Mark K. Benenson, New York attorney and past chairman and present legal advisor of the American chapter of Amnesty International; David Bordua, prominent University of Illinois sociologist; Don B. Kates, Jr., San Francisco civil-liberties attorney and ex-civil rights activist in the South; and, of course, sociologists Wright and Rossi. Perhaps a handful of articles have covered some of the so-called liberal critics of gun controls. But the major media have yet to publicize the existence of this collection of extremely well-informed and impressively credentialed gun-control critics or to publicize the existence of the collection of devastating scholarly critiques of gun-control measures that these individuals and others have produced.

Neither have the national media seemed interested in publicizing the fact that 55 of 58 California sheriffs, more than 100 police chiefs, and 33 law-enforcement organizations opposed Proposition 15 in 1982. And the media have seemed puzzled by the fact that both the US Treasury and Justice departments oppose recently proposed legislation aimed at outlawing the armor-piercing "cop killer" bullet (which, apparently, has yet to kill or wound a cop). So puzzled, in fact, are the media, that in much of their editorializing against the National Rifle Association's opposition to this legislation, there is no mention of the Justice and Treasury departments' opposition. The anomaly created by reasonable, well-informed people's opposition to various gun controls remains—as does the media's way of coping with anomalies.

If other modern, urban, industrial nations (England and Japan are those generally mentioned) have solved their "gun problems" through gun controls, then what are the media to make of Firearms Control: A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales? Conducted by the aforementioned British police superintendent Colin Greenwood, it is the only thorough study of the effectiveness of gun controls in England and Wales done to date. Strict English gun controls were not enacted until 1920, and, according to Greenwood, "no matter how one approaches the figures, one is forced to the rather startling conclusion that the use of firearms in crime was very much less when there were no controls of any sort and when anyone, convicted criminal or lunatic, could buy any type of firearm without restriction." Greenwood's book was published back in 1972 by the highly respected publisher Routledge & Kegan Paul of London, and it has received quite a bit of publicity in the gun press in this country. But if the major media have ever so much as acknowledged the existence of this work, I am not aware of it.

And I have yet to run across a major-media commentary on gun crime or gun control in Japan that shows awareness of the fact that for various historical, political, cultural, and geographic reasons, the civilian possession of guns has never been widespread in that country. Cross-cultural comparisons of crime rates, always a risky business, abound in the media, of course, but seldom if ever is it pointed out that the murder rate among Japanese-Americans, who have easy access to firearms, is lower than the murder rate in Japan where firearms possession has never been widespread, or that the Japanese suicide rate is higher than the American rate, in spite of the fact that Americans have easy access to guns and the Japanese do not. Nor do the media have much to say about such countries as France, where, according to French firearms authority Michel Josserand, strict gun controls are widely ignored.

Despite the existence of abundant anomalies of this sort, the major media, by and large, continue to hold the assumptions that guns (especially handguns) are inherently troublesome, that Americans want laws to strictly regulate or even prohibit the civilian possession of guns (especially handguns), and that other modern nations have effectively regulated guns and reduced gun crime through such measures. What explains the persistence of these assumptions? Part of the explanation is simply that many media folk who report or comment on the gun issue know very little about guns and almost nothing about the wide range of legitimate uses to which guns, including handguns, are put. Neither do these individuals have more than superficial knowledge concerning the criminal use of guns. Anomalies may often be ignored, therefore, because reporters and commentators are honestly unaware of the existence of anomalies, and the assumptions that they accept do not encourage questioning.

But there seems to be something else operating among the media in addition to basic ignorance—something that is far more disturbing. Gun Week editor Joseph P. Tartaro has compared the media's reaction to scholarly gun studies by Wright, Rossi, and others to the Roman Catholic Church's reaction to Galileo's work. "Given the opportunity," Tartaro recently wrote, "many journalists of print and electronic genre would still like to see science and scholars who disprove their superstitions burned at the stake. In many cases, they have excommunicated such thoughts and thinkers from the news church by exorcising them from their pages and broadcasts."

I suspect that those individuals to whom Tartaro refers can be divided, though not neatly, into two groups, both of which are part of the gun-control movement. One group is composed of sincere reformers, to whom the three assumptions about guns are articles of faith, part and parcel of the urban, upper-middle class (or aspiring upper-middle class) world view that appears to permeate media and intellectual circles in general. These individuals truly believe that the world would be a better place without guns—and as is commonly the case with "true believers" and prohibitionists, they do not care to have their views challenged.

The other group is composed of elitists who themselves have nothing against guns but who want to keep guns out of the hands not only of criminals but of the potentially troublesome common man. The evidence suggests that neither media reformers nor media elitists balk at creative, or at least selective, reporting or editorializing on the gun issue.

Whether the scandalously distorted media coverage of the gun issue is primarily the product of honest media ignorance, reformist zeal, elitist tendencies, or some combination of all of these, the end result is one that should alarm those who care about a free society. After all, the "gun issue" is nothing less than a national debate over the ownership of the means of protection.

William Tonso is a professor of sociology at the University of Evansville (Indiana) and the author of Gun and Society.