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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review of "Guns Across America"

American Gun and Book Reviews
Brian Anse Patrick 

Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights. Robert Spitzer, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 277 pages.

I am uncertain if this is a serious attempt at a scholarly book, or merely a dashed off effort in the recent literary counterattack on the successful advances of the American gun rights movement over the last several years.   

In either case we can be fairly certain that owing to its publisher, the prestigious Oxford University Press, it will find its way onto the shelves of academic libraries where it will serve to dis-inform many an earnest undergraduate essay on gun control.  

Professor Spitzer builds on sands of assumption with structural materials that often appear substandard. His book is well organized but poorly argued, his cites/sources often questionable. 

An example, in a chapter on so-called Stand Your Ground Laws, Spitzer reproduces a table from an Urban Institute blog that purports to show patterns of racial discrimination in justifiable gun homicides in Stand Your Ground versus Non Stand Your Ground states. Results reported in the cells of the table are percentages. No sample or subsample sizes are reported. Regarding operational definitions of terms, a crucial matter in social science, there are none. It is unclear if the table includes—or not—shootings by police, or how many shootings there may be. In other words there is no way to gain any idea whatsoever about the magnitude of the phenomenon being alleged. Whether Spitzer is talking about 10, 100, or 1,000 homicides is unknowable. This is not how serious social scientific findings are reported. Generally, stand-alone percentages signify a perceptual scam, an attempt to raise funds or alarm; if the frequency of some phenomenon increases from one to three, then a 150 percent increase is reported.

The author also relies on sources such as the reflexively antigun group Violence Policy Center, which is more public relations office than research center. (In addition to sensationalistic journalism, which it does well, VPC also frequently plays the percentages game.) To the semiotic ingenuity of VPC staff we owe the popularization of perceptual red herrings such as assault weapon, gun show loophole and universal background check, terms that seem to mark the cognitive limits of the uniformed. 

Spitzer seems to treat VPC and similar organizations as sources of revealed truth. Evidence of this slant are comments on how the  “gun industry” has “poured money into NRA coffers.” And, “NRA sealed its decades–long political hold on the gun industry when it spearheaded enactment of national legislation that provided the gun industry with unique protection from lawsuits, the Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005.”  But Spitzer doesn’t quite get it. Sure, the gun industry gives money to NRA, but NRA’s finances derive largely from its five million members. NRA is not a corporate lobby, but a citizens group. NRA is not the gun industry, which has its own lobby. The 2005 Act was created more to protect would be gun owners when anti-gun groups adopted a strategy of frivolous (but expensive) lawsuits in an attempt to bankrupt the industry, and destroy Second Amendment rights from the supply side. Spitzer seems to confound these things, although appears unaware of the latter facts. Myself, I use VPC’s polemical analyses as examples of equivocal language, tendentiously selected data and ill-defined terms when I teach propaganda/persuasion classes. They provide excellent examples of bad.

Spitzer also seems to misapprehend the nature and origins of Stand Your Ground laws, even while discussing them at length. In his chapter, “How Did We Get From Self Defense to Shoot First?” he seems to think that these laws mean that anyone who feels threatened can kill someone. No, absolutely not. The recent stand your ground laws have changed nothing in basic self-defense law. Commensurate force is justified only when a serious imminent threat to life or person exists, and the person defending himself must be in a place or situation in which he has a right to be, e.g., an armed robber cannot claim he shot his victim in self-defense because the victim resisted. The standard applied is that of the reasonable person, i.e., what would a reasonable person do under the same circumstances? This does not equate with “shoot first.” There is also room for reasonable error, e.g., a lethal response to a realistic toy gun. Spitzer correctly understands that the George Zimmerman/ Trayvon Martin case was not an incident of SYG, although he quotes a vacuous comment by President Barack Obama about how if Zimmerman stood his ground then Martin also stood his, which suggests that Spitzer stands not alone in his misapprehensions. This homicide was justified on the grounds that Martin, who was physically larger and more powerful than the diminutive and apparently idiotic Zimmerman, was pounding Zimmerman’s head against concrete while smashing in his face. I have seen photographs showing Zimmerman’s damages. This seems to be reasonable self-defense; at least it did to an impartial jury.  

Spitzer seems indignant that stand your ground laws shield self-defense shooters from investigation. (They don’t.) But he doesn’t get it. Apparently he thinks the legislators who passed these things in so many states are homicide enablers. What SYG does is (1) shield citizens from overzealous and ruinous prosecutions, and (2) removes a burden of proof that had been placed upon a citizen in some states to prove that she had attempted to retreat before shooting. SYG laws were designed to prevent the horror situation where a homeowner shoots in self-defense, and then is immediately jailed for weeks or months, interrogated, losing job and home (signed over to defense attorneys) because she cannot prove she attempted to retreat. Prosecutors have power to destroy the powerless. SYG is meant as a shield to honest folk.  Spitzer then cites as an example of the evils of SYG law a Montana case where a homeowner trapped (apparently baited) a burglarious young person and killed him in a garage. But the homeowner was convicted in the killing, a result that points in the opposite direction than Spitzer’s conclusion of the uncivilized nature of SYG laws. The fact that Spitzer uses what is really a counterexample to his point suggests his fundamental confusion over SYG and self-defense law. Murder is murder and remains so under SYG. 

The big thesis/assumption of the book is based on a historical argument against the straw man of Second Amendment absolutism. Spitzer cites 20 pages of old gun laws dating back to colonial times proving, he says, that the Second Amendment is not and was never regarded as absolute. Therefore modern gun advocates have no case and must take whatever restrictive legislation is imposed upon them. Thus, according to the book’s after-the-colon title, gun rights are reconciled with rules governing ownership and use. 

But who ever said the Second Amendment was absolute? No one I ever met throughout gun culture, and I have known many from high to low, ever stated such a thing. Spitzer has confused slogans with doctrine. Felons may not bear arms. Guns should not be used to threaten or coerce people, not fired in the town square, or randomly distributed to infants, children and the mentally feeble. These are undisputed norms. In some places and times restrictions extended to Catholics (in England), Blacks and slaves. New York’s 1911 Sullivan law that restricted concealed carry and gun purchases was aimed almost entirely at Italians and Southeast Europeans. A Florida law that barred possession of Winchester repeating rifles was intended to prevent Blacks from having these useful weapons, the assault rifles of their time; the law was never intended to apply to white people, said a Florida judge, and would have been deemed unconstitutional if such had been attempted. Many laws prevented hunting on the Sabbath. Game laws affected magazine capacity and gun types, e.g., no punt guns for duck hunting. Many post-bellum laws were aimed against free blacks; the Fourteenth Amendment was necessary to correct this and other rights abuses. So-called time, place and manner restrictions abounded and still do, e.g., no guns in schools, which has not prevented murderous deviants with guns from killing schoolchildren. Many of these past laws were obviously unconstitutional, others not. Many were unchallenged, many obsolete, lapsed or superseded. NRA has for many years attempted to shame governments into enforcing existing gun laws instead of passing new ineffective ones.

Spitzer’s argument is absurd despite its great length. A parallel: do past laws against libel, counterfeiting and pornography mean that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and press is somehow invalid or should not broadly apply?  Of course not!  Free speech and expression are not, were never, absolute, but remain rigorously protected. The 1798 Alien and Sedition Act criminalized expressions that criticized the government, obviously an unconstitutional law at odds with any kind of absolutist or liberal interpretation of the First Amendment, but was passed by Congress.  The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime to undermine the US war effort via criticism and also empowered censorship; so many people were jailed that the ACLU formed as a result. I understand that Spitzer is attempting to debunk historical arguments that favor the Second Amendment, but his method does not convince.

Interestingly Spitzer seems to think he discovered something new with the existence of these past laws. He crows about it, claiming that some old magazine capacity laws are reported in his book for the first time anywhere. Maybe the latter is true, but NRA has been reporting for decades the existence of some 20,000-gun laws in the US.  And Spitzer just discovered that such things existed?  He also seems oblivious to work by scholars whose approach and conclusions fall outside of the narrow waveband of VPC approval. Many scholars have discussed these laws, but he cites scholars financed by anti-gun money. I suggest that Spitzer read St. George Tucker’s original commentaries on the US constitution instead of relying on interpretations as promulgated in work that came out of the now defunct (no longer funded by the anti-gun Joyce Foundation) Second Amendment Research Center at Ohio State University. Spitzer might also try Fordham Law Professor Nick Johnson’s volume, Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, because Spitzer doesn’t really seems to know all that much about guns and their history.    

Why do I say this? Because Spitzer in his apparent astonishment over all these laws resembles exactly the kind of person I often meet in academia, who has no clue that any guns laws exist at all. Seemingly informed by hysterical editorials in the New York Times and television news, they are misled by the cognitive red herrings mentioned above. After the recent Orlando murders some of my academic colleagues were surprised to learn that no automatic weapon (machine gun) was involved, the shooter had passed an FBI background check done by all licensed firearms dealers on all sales, and that one cannot just buy assault weapons (or any other firearm) online.

Spitzer ties up with a chapter on how he built a gun, an AR-15, which must have really wowed the editors at Oxford University Press, and also acquired a gun permit to purchase a handgun in New York State. For only $160 he was able to acquire what he calls the “Legos–like” items to complete the lower receiver which he had to purchase through a federal firearms licensed dealer. Spitzer leaves it at that, but this amount may be misleading, because the rest of the gun, upper receiver and so on, costs a great deal more—maybe $600 additional—so one cannot put together an AR-15 for $160. With help, he makes a New York compliant AR-15 that holds only 7 rounds. His gun permit allows him to purchase a pistol that he may keep in his home and is not a carry permit. If he want to learn the meaning of the word “no,” I suggest that he apply for a New York concealed pistol license. Even though New York’s relatively tough laws seem to be no more effective at what he calls “lax” gun laws in other parts of the country Spitzer concludes that the New York SAFE gun law, hurriedly passed in the days after the Sandy Hook murders, are “feasible” because they are clear and therefore compliance is easy. This standard, like his other arguments, also seems absurd to me. Is this how we formulate just and reasonable laws? Whatever seems feasible may fly? God help us if this is intended as a serious policy proposal.

Oxford University Press must be using the same standard these days to evaluate new book proposals.


28 June 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review of "The Gunning of America"

American Gun and Book Reviews
Brian Anse Patrick  

The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of the American Gun Culture. Pamela Haag, New York: Basic Books, 2016, 496 pages.

This book recalled for me an incident of acute moral posturing that I was exposed to back in graduate school at the University of Michigan in the late 1990s. 

For politeness sake I had invited a fellow Ph.D. candidate to shoot at targets with a pistol, who declined for what he called “moral reasons.” Apparently mere possession, touching or association with a firearm was inherently evil. I had not known this. I was also to understand, so I gathered, that by sheer dint of this virtuous expression this sensitive soul had established himself as my moral superior. Forever. Absolutely. At this point in the semiotic exchange I declined and still do. Prissiness is not in my world an acceptable medium of exchange for moral worth.  

The parallel? From Dr. Pamela Haag’s history one gathers the impression that Oliver Winchester and other “gun capitalists” snuck up on the American playground in the mid-19th Century and immorally beguiled innocents into a culture of firearm addiction. Until then, she seems to imagine, America’s children enjoyed a largely bucolic existence, and while they might murder with ax, fists, knife or bludgeon, they had existed in a largely gun free safe zone. The emergent “gun capitalists” simply lacked the social conscience of more enlightened beings; sociopathically they ignored collective moral accountability and grasped for personal profit at human expense.

Transcending mere history to speak as the voice of anachronistic conscience, Haag views American gun culture as somehow inorganic or unnatural, a synthetic product or chimerical trick; it is not a true social growth but an immoral business enterprise that created its own fog of cultural dissimulation. In advancing this case, however, she takes some highly impressionistic flights.

A first set of fancies might be called assumptive. Haag’s work is not the first attempt by a publisher to package a sermon on the phenomenon of American Gun Culture as counterintuitive scholarly analysis. One is reminded of historian Michael Bellisiles’s allegation of a rarity of guns in colonial America (Arming America, Knopf, 2000), which was withdrawn by its embarrassed publisher after historian Clayton Cramer showed that Bellisiles cited nonexistent sources and selectively misquoted others (Armed America, Thomas Nelson, 2007).  Early on in her book Haag makes a crucial elementary mistake identical to Bellisiles, the assumption that because American revolutionary armies experienced difficulties in obtaining firearms, that guns were therefore rare in the colonies. No, there were many guns, but the differences were immense between a ragtag collection of fowling pieces and blunderbusses appropriate to farm life, and the uniform stands of arms necessary for a modern colonial army. The colonies were inadequately industrialized for European style war. This doesn’t equate that guns were unpopular or rare. Too much historical and cultural evidence suggests otherwise, e.g., all those spent lead bullets that litter old settlements came from somewhere.  She also assumes axiomatically, that firearms are teleologically murderous. There is little demonstrated understanding of possible positive benefits—the firearm as a tool, a necessity, a device to liberate or preserve self or social unit from coercion and violence. She sees Oliver Winchester as a sociopath for all the murders/killings committed by his guns by individuals and governments, even though his conduct suggests elsewise. In the same way we learn as the sermon thunders up, that modern gun industrialists must be held accountable for their lethal products. She appears to believe she has made the case to hold them accountable in an emerging era of social collective conscience and justice.

Just an annoyance, but she repeatedly misidentifies the Union Metallic Cartridge Company as the United Metallic Cartridge Company.

A second set of flights might be described a highly fanciful tropes, speculative in nature. In many ways this book appears to be a fusion of Creative Writing 101 and an initial graduate class in historical methodology. Haag uses terms in virtually idiolectic fashions derived in creative digressions along the way, suggesting little understanding of the conventions or mechanics that she attempts to describe, e.g., repeatedly referring to the lever action Winchester rifles as “semiautomatic” and even “automatic.”  She uses the terms “bullets” and “ammunition” interchangeably. She weaves a huge romantic moral tale based on pure conjecture. Sarah Winchester, the wealthy reclusive and deeply spiritualist widow of Oliver’s son, the tuberculin Will, whose children had died in infancy, moves to the California coast where, provided for by the immense Winchester fortune, perpetually builds and rebuilds a bizarre 200-room mansion with parquet floors, an organ, blind stairways, ghost cabinets (popular with spiritualists), minarets, and with chimneys, windows and balconies opening to nowhere. The isolated insomniac Sarah ghostlike flits through the rooms after midnight and furiously plays the organ, sort of, maybe, like in that old Don Knott’s film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Haag speculates that the purpose of this incessant building was some form of spiritualistic atonement for the legions of Winchester-manufactured ghosts. Was Sarah’s mysterious house a spirit house, built on spiritualist principles, meant to wash away or protect herself from the Winchester blood legacy? Pages are dedicated to an imaginary meeting between widow Sarah and a prominent spiritualist of the era. Haag evokes the stories of Persephone and Demeter to amplify Sarah into a tragic mythical figure. (Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, by the way, recommended use of such classical tales when the orator needed to amplify or celebrate some figure about which there might not really be all that much to say.)  At some point all this becomes absurd, although I suspect it may play well on daytime television talk shows where it would be treated more or less as a slogan. Now, the legend of Sarah vies with the legend of Oliver Winchester, so we are told. Yeah, right. (Nevertheless, I would like to someday visit the mystery house of Sarah, as it still stands as tourist amusement site, and see what the poor rich woman had built for herself.  So I am grateful to Haag for telling me about it.)  

As a scholar of propaganda, I must agree that history may resemble creative writing more than any sort of historical reality. We live daily with Orwellian revisionism.  But just as Haag accuses Winchester and Colt’s of manufacturing a gun culture mythos, Haag appears to be engaged in the business of manufacturing an antipodal Sarah mythos by the decidedly ahistorical methodology of free association.

Several excellent chapters are usefully straightforward, informed by numerous archival sources. We learn of Winchester’s well-organized aggressive marketing efforts; the company leaders’ realization that guns did not just sell themselves on a civilian market; the early reliance on sales to foreign governments that established the brand and financial footing; the reorganizations, the overbuilding and collapse as a result of production in the Great War, a time when Winchester officials wondered that the U.S. government might nationalize their plant if they didn’t cooperate with demands for armaments.  Soon after the war demand fails, the family connection in Winchester Repeating Arms Company is gone, sold out, and the business was in receivership.

We also learn that the Wild West wasn’t all that wild; a setting-to-rights chapter is called, “The West That Won the Gun.” Buffalo Bill was a fraud and all that Wild West Show stuff, hokum, Hollywood westerns, too. But I suspect everybody older than about ten years of age already knew this. I think that the measured version of the Western hero offered in books such as The Virginian is more true to the actual ideal of the West. And yes, the gun merchants stimulated demand, but could not create it out of nothing. Demand was and remains real, despite “gun cranks,” whom may fetishize firearms along any number of dimensions.  

The above mentioned, well-grounded chapters read as if they were written for a different book or occasion, for soon we are back to the heavy handed interpretive overlay. This may have been an editorial decision: market the book with drama. The penultimate chapter is “Merchants of Death,” wherein Haag pulls out all the stops on her whacky organ. She even references an early Superman comic book to support her argument. Enough said.

Haag also drags the Pope into her picture, quoting his denunciation of those who manufacture weapons. But the Pope is surrounded by a machine-gun toting Swiss Guard, lives in a walled city (i.e., gated community), travels about in a bulletproof Pope-mobile, and should not be throwing stones. Others may not be so insulated from those who would do them harm.    

Haag’s imaginings run for nearly 500 pages.  That’s a lot of imagining; sandwiching some good history at times. The moral of her story is corporate accountability. She dismisses efforts to control individuals.  Just control the manufacturers, the Evil Olivers of the world, and the problem of American gun pathology will be solved.  A chain of accountability is all we need, manufacturer to aorta, as she quotes from a source. She has made this case, or so she seems to think.  She mentions a gun control movement a few times, but who cares about the modern NRA and the millions of people who comprise the new American Gun Culture social movement that has arisen steadily since about the late 1960s?  To Haag, such people apparently seem to be dupes of the gun industry mythos-making machinery, and therefore lacking in political and mythos validity. She has explained them away.

I suggest also she might consider taking a law class in torts to understand, if nothing else, the notion of proximate cause.

Casting about for paradigms to support her concluding argument, she cites Chicago as an example of a successful approach to the gun problem. Say what?  As of May 2016 Chicago police reported that 318 shootings had occurred so far in 2016, and accounted for 317 victims, 66 of them dead. These shootings were attributed almost entirely to gang-related violence among blacks. Corporate accountability? Whose?  When? Where? How? Are the killers just victims, too, of what Haag keeps calling an “agnostic” gun industry?

Who then is to blame for the excesses in this book? Gutenberg seems a likely candidate, although is perhaps too remote to be convincing.  It can’t be the author, who labors presumably under the influence of organized corporate outpourings on the nature of books and scholarship, and is therefore a victim too. Maybe it should be those Merchants of Books who run a publishing industry that produces luridly simplified accounts of impossibly complicated reality in order to cater to the ego-defense needs of people to feel smart and empowered.  Or superior.

Enough.  I decline this semiotic offering.


2 June 2016