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December 23, 2012 8:11 PM The Atlantic declares death “a good thing”

By Kathleen Geier

In the old Woody Allen movie Bananas, there’s a memorable scene of a TV anchorman announcing the day’s top news stories. One of those stories is more timely than ever: “The National Rifle Association declares death a good thing!”

This month, the venerable American magazine, The Atlantic, features a long article by Jeffrey Goldberg entitled “The Case for More Guns,” that reads as if it were all but bought and paid for by the NRA. The gun policies Goldberg advocates in the article would undoubtedly lead to more deaths — shockingly, Goldberg even admitted as much in an email to Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald last week.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but first, I want to discuss Goldberg’s article more generally. It may be the single most spectacularly ill-timed piece of journalism that’s been published since Bill Ayers told the New York Times he didn’t “regret setting bombs” on September 11, 2001. It’s admittedly masterful, in its way. Goldberg, while striking the pose of a nonideological reporter who is simply reviewing the facts and is open to arguments from both sides, has written an extraordinarily shoddy and shameful piece of work. It ranks as one of the most infuriatingly dishonest and breathtakingly irresponsible articles I have ever read in a serious journal of opinion.

There are so many things wrong with it, I hardly know where to begin. Last week, Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald published a fabulous article that humiliatingly debunks every major claim Goldberg makes in the piece. You definitely need to read Seitz-Wald’s piece in its entirety. But while Seitz-Wald is the last word on ol’ Jeffrey, I have some things to add as well:

— One of Goldberg’s central arguments is that it’s “too late for gun control.” He says that America already has some 300 million guns, and we will never get rid of them all, so we might as well throw up our hands and learn to live with them. This, however, is a load of garbage.

Even with such an enormous number of guns in our country, there are still policies we could enact that could control their use and greatly reduce our national epidemic of gun violence. For one thing, according to UCLA crime expert Mark Kleiman, it’s not the old guns that are the problem:

Kleiman says, the evidence suggests that these old guns aren’t huge contributors to gun crime. “The fact that we have all these guns in inventory doesn’t seem to matter much because crime guns are young,” he says. “Bad guys like new toys fresh out of the box. Now, maybe they’d adapt if you made those guns hard to get. But your local branch of the Crips isn’t arming itself out of the proceeds of burglaries. They’re buying new Glocks.”

Some simple measures that would control new guns, such as more extensive background checks and waiting periods, and banning certain types of firearms, have been proven to reduce gun violence. We can also pass laws to control ammunition, which has a much shorter shelf life than guns, and which, unlike guns, is difficult to make at home.

It’s true that at the end of the article, Goldberg briefly calls for what amount to a few token gun control laws. But that’s just ass-covering, to make himself appear “moderate” and reasonable. 95% of the article is a brief in favor of every American being armed to the teeth.

— Then there’s the second huge problem with Goldberg’s piece — oy vey, the “experts” he relies on! In the Salon piece, Seitz-Wald quotes one prominent firearms safety expert as saying, “I am surprised that the editors didn’t ask their national correspondent why he didn’t bother to talk to at least one mainstream criminologist, policy analyst, physician or public health researcher.”

Indeed! Here are the “experts” Goldberg talked to for the piece. On the “pro gun control” side: a couple of gun control advocates and politicians, but not a single actual researcher or academic. And on the anti side? His “experts” consist of a law professor (sorry, law professors are not trained in social science research methods like statistics), some dude at a libertarian think tank I never heard of, a college professor whose work has been thoroughly debunked by researchers at Harvard and elsewhere, and John Lott.

Yes, that John Lott! Back in April, I wrote a post explaining that Lott’s research had been authoritatively debunked, that he has been accused of fabricating data, that he has never held a tenured or tenure-track academic position, and that even all the wingnut think tanks have washed their hands of him (he has not held a think tank affiliation for some years). Oh, and there was that sock puppet scandal too. Really, the dude has deservedly been held in contempt and ridicule for close to a decade now. Even if Goldberg was too lazy to bother checking the guy’s bona fides by googling his Wikipedia entry, you’d think that at least his editors or fact checkers would look into it.

— Contrary to Goldberg’s claim, more guns do not lead to less crime; instead, they increase crime. The most rigorous studies that have been done on the right-to-carry laws he thinks are so awesome show that such laws are associated with a one to nine percent increase in aggravated assault.

In addition, guns are also linked to increased homicide rates and increased suicide rates, and gun owners are about 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than non-gun owners.

Finally, states with more guns have been found to have lower levels of mutual trust and civic engagement.

— When pressed, Goldberg finally admits to Seitz-Wald, “Of course the more guns there are, the more deaths you’re going to have” (emphasis mine). And yet, chillingly, he still refuses to retract his pro-gun arguments. Once again, the ancient question we always have about wingnuts and wingnuts-in-centrists’-clothing like Goldberg rears its ugly head: is this dude evil, or just plain stupid? And as usual, my answer is, why choose?!

I read his article carefully, and it’s clear that Goldberg is irrationally obsessed with the idea that, if there were more guns, gun-toting macho heroes would constantly be riding to the rescue to save the rest of us from the bad guys. Goldberg admits he first started thinking about defending himself with a gun back in the 90s, when a crazed gunman on the LIRR, where he had commuted, shot and killed six people. Now for most rational people, a horrific tragedy like that powerfully reaffirms the need for serious gun control laws in this country. But Goldberg uses it as an excuse to start fantasizing about his inner Dirty Harry.

Goldberg’s macho obsession reveals itself further in the stories he tells of shootings in progress that were allegedly stopped by good guys with guns. It’s telling that in every single one of these stories, he seriously misrepresents the facts — check out Seitz-Wald’s piece for the details of this.

In fact, in the real world, it is very rare for people to successfully defend themselves with guns when they are unexpectedly attacked; indeed, such attempts often prove counterproductive. Seitz-Wald has more on this, but I urge you to check out this fascinating video, which illustrates the general point. Overall, the serious health and safety risks of owning a gun almost always outweigh the negligible benefits. That is generally true at the individual level. It is definitely true on the level of society as a whole.

And yet, Goldberg is simply incapable of thinking clearly on this point. Instead, he spouts libertarian gibberish and wanks off to macho fantasies about whipping out his penis substitute and blowing the bad guys away. Toward the end of the article, he writes, “I am sympathetic to the idea of armed self-defense because it does often work” (not!) and “because encouraging learned helplessness is morally corrupt.”

Does Goldberg believe that the majority of Americans, including a large majority of American women, who do not own guns are “morally corrupt”? What, exactly, is “morally corrupt” about leaving the business of armed defense to the trained professionals in our police departments and military who make this their life’s work? Isn’t one of the fundamental reasons of forming any kind of government in the first place to provide for a common defense, instead of having to bear the totality of that burden all by yourself? Did Goldberg ever take political science 101?

It’s clear that, in the end, Goldberg’s article is informed by the same bloody, puerile macho fantasies have made also made the man’s writings about Iraq, Israel, and the Middle East so pernicious. “The Case for More Guns” is a morally reprehensible piece of work, precisely because Goldberg’s “centrist” pose makes him appear to be so reasonable, and because his dishonest handling of the evidence is so artful that the dangerous ideas he espouses appear all the more persuasive.

While I read Goldberg’s piece, I kept thinking about the Newtown victims, and it kept giving me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I’ll close with Adam Gopnik’s powerful words, from his recent blog post:

In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.
The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made
.

Like them, The Atlantic, and Jeffrey Goldberg, have clearly made their choice. Of that there can be little doubt.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • Daryl Cobranchi on December 24, 2012 3:25 AM:

    We can also pass laws to control ammunition, which has a much shorter shelf life than guns, and which, unlike guns, is difficult to make at home.

    Huh? Unless you're talking about zip guns, I'm pretty sure your local hoodlums lack the technical ability to manufacture guns at home.

  • c u n d gulag on December 24, 2012 7:58 AM:

    Yes, Mr. Goldberg, channel your inner "Dirty Harry," and fantasize that you're the hero, whipping out your... 'gun of many bullets.'

    When will the stupid people in this country realize that what happened in Newtown, can happen anywhere?

    Just call all guns that arenít simple handguns and hunting rifles, WMD, because thatís what semi, and automaticís, are Ė WMDís!

    We went to Iraq to find one form of them, only to find that our home WMDís would kill far, far more people, than any imagined weapons Saddam Hussein ever had.

    Those are WMD's are meant to use in battlefields, far, far from home,
    Not AT home.
    Or work.
    Or carry in your car.
    Or in a bar.
    Or in a church.
    Or on your person.
    Or in your child's school.

    Lately, the "Killing Field" was a Kindergarten and Elementary School.
    If this doesn't shame us into some sort of action, I frankly don't know what the feckin' Hell will.

    All I can say, Mr. Goldberg, and Mr. Wayne LaPierre, is that I hope you pray every day that no one near and dear to you ends up being shredded to pieces by military hardware, like those poor, dead, children in Newtown last week.

    And that people come to the realization that it can happen in MY town.
    And YOUR town, too.
    Any day.
    And every day.
    Every damn dayÖ

  • navarro on December 24, 2012 8:09 AM:

    i come to the gun control table with a slightly different background than most. being raised in rural central texas i was immersed in hunting and fishing as part of the culture of the place from a young age. i have fired a multitude of different types of firearms for target shooting and have done some hunting. i also am a passionate advocate for rational gun control policies which could make a difference in the annual carnage. i think a clip-size limit and background checks for all weapons purchases would be a great starting point. i also think that a regulatory regime that would make legally owning an assault rifle as difficult as legally owning a fully-automatic weapon would be very helpful.

    as regards your musings about controlling ammunition, you should be aware that saving your brass and reloading them is a frequent part of the culture and not a terribly difficult task. i also know a few people who cast their own bullets to use for reloading purposes which, while somewhat more difficult than reloading, requires only a propane burner like a turkey fryer, a supply of lead, a set of molds in which to cast the bullets, and the ability to use a file or sander to finish the round.

  • Kurt Cooper on December 24, 2012 8:31 AM:

    Perhaps we need a sort of MADD for guns. MADD successfully enacted many an anti-drunk driving law and probably made our streets safer at night.

    So why not a MADD style org called something like Stop Indiscriminate Killings Now (SIKN)? It might take a while to catch on but would have a strong effect.

  • troglodyte on December 24, 2012 8:57 AM:

    Navarro's comment about ammunition actually supports the point made in the blog post. Someone with a history of hunting and sport, with sufficient knowledge to fabricate his or her own bullets, is far more likely to have a responsible attitude toward firearms. The people we want to keep ammo from are neophytes like Jeffrey Goldberg, whose naive attitude toward personal weaponry makes him susceptible to the using a gun to satisfy his twisted grievances.

  • DC on December 24, 2012 9:38 AM:

    Unfortunately, the author's thumb is on the scale in the second paragraph when she refers to the title of Goldberg's piece incorrectly. It is titled "The Case for More Guns (And Gun Control)." I'm also not sure if Goldberg's article is ill-timed. In fact it seems perfectly timed, albeit misdirected. What Goldberg's article completely fails at is addressing semi-automatic weapons and, instead, focuses solely on the larger issue of gun control and, to a slightly lesser degree, of concealed carry. And what Kathleen Geier completely fails at is taking a serious look at the issues Goldberg does raise, while instead gleefully inventing the Goldberg-as-Dirty Harry meme by suggesting that Goldberg "wanks off to macho fantasies."

  • James M on December 24, 2012 10:04 AM:

    Excellent comments. I have seen at least 2 times: 1 on Morning Joe and another on a clip from Fox News, where a gun advocate was asked to explain the rationale for civilians owning automatic or semiautomatic weapons. In both cases the gun advocates responded by changing the subject. They couldn't answer the question because there is no good answer.

    I get the feeling from the comments I have heard and read so far from knowledgeable guns users that the assault rifle devotees are the gun community's equivalent of 'dude ranchers' ('All hat and no cattle' types). These people are Rambo wannabees whose idea of a good time is to go out into the woods and blow stuff up. Serious hunters and target shooters appear to have no use for these weapons.

    I suspect that the real opposition to an assault weapons ban, in least in numerical strength, is much smaller that we assume.

  • navarro on December 24, 2012 10:40 AM:

    after reading james m's comment i would like to add the following couple of thoughts about assault rifles and extended clips. when i was growing up and my family would head down to the deer camp on the protperty adjacent to my grandfather', one thing was drilled into me about actually shooting at a dear and was that if you can't get a clean kill in one shot you shouldn't be shooting in the first place. these guys mostly used bolt action or lever action rifles with an internal magazine of 3-5 rounds.

    regarding assault rifles with extended clips, i know several people that own them but they never use them for hunting- for the most part they are expensive toys and i really don't see an inherent right to own expensive toys. most of my fellow texans see things differently, much to my regret.

  • Richard Hershberger on December 24, 2012 11:04 AM:

    This post nicely summarizes why I let my Atlantic subscription drop after reading it avidly for years. It has become yet another vehicle for teh stoopid, often in the guise of faux centrism. I think the final straw was reading Ross Douthat's lecture that pornography is the same as adultery. By that time I had come to realize that a significant page count of every issue was going to simply be annoying stupidity. I can be annoyed without paying for the privilege.

  • Ron Byers on December 24, 2012 11:26 AM:

    I am a competitive shooter. The only way I can afford to participate in my competitive shooting sport is to make my own bullets. I have also assembled a gun out of parts to obtain the precise configuration needed by my sport. I can assure you that it is much easier to make bullets at home than it is to make a gun.

    By the way, my guns are all stored in a locked safe, in a locked room, and only come out if I am going to the range. Competitive shooting and hunting are fun sports for an older person like me who can no longer afford to fly, skydive or do other strenuous activities. If giving up large magazines will solve the problem, count me in.

  • Prof B in LA on December 24, 2012 12:33 PM:

    One correction, Kathleen: "law professors are not trained in social science research methods like statistics."

    In fact, an increasing number are. Just one example with which I happen to be familiar: The Empirical Research Group at UCLA Law School. http://www.law.ucla.edu/centers-programs/empirical-research-group/Pages/default.aspx

    You might also be familiar with Adam Winkler's book on the Second Amendment, Gun Fight. http://www.amazon.com/Gunfight-Battle-over-Right-America/dp/0393077411

    Winkler, who was briefly a graduate school classmate, has quite advanced training in statistical and other quantitative methods.

  • susan on December 24, 2012 12:47 PM:

    I gave up on the Atlantic (after subscribing for more than 25 years) when they hired the execrable Michael Kelly. I've yet to see any reason to go back, and pieces like Goldberg's only confirm that the choice was the correct one.

  • Crusty the Ex-clown on December 24, 2012 3:56 PM:

    Won't someone please take up a collection to buy Goldberg and LaPierre one-way tickets to Somalia so they can act out their fantasies in a realistic setting? They must be bored out of their skulls in the US.


  • smartalek on December 24, 2012 8:05 PM:

    "gun owners are about 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than non-gun owners."

    And the problem with this is... what, exactly?
    One could think of it as a (partially, at least) self-correcting problem...
    Or as justice of some kind or another...
    Or as evolution in action.
    (I incline most toward that last, given the probable overlap between extreme gunophilia and disbelief in biologic evolution. God clearly has a great sense of irony.)
    Happy holidays, all.

  • Ted Samson on January 04, 2013 4:40 PM:

    His article was titled "The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control)." Why omit that key part of the headline?

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