The Heller vs. D.C. ruling affirming that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms was a major civil-rights victory building on 15 years of constitutional scholarship. Accordingly, we owe a great deal of thanks to principled and dedicated legal academics including Don Kates, Dave Kopel, and the blogosphere’s own InstaPundit (aka Glenn Harlan Reynolds) for their work on the Standard Model of the Second Amendment.
But there was another trend at work; the beginning of public recognition, after the year 2000, that anti-firearms activism has been founded on systematic errors and widespread fraud in the academic literature on gun policy.
The scholar we have to thank most for this awakening is Michael Bellesiles, the author of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (September 2000). In looking back on the public debate that led up to the Heller ruling, I can think of no other single person who did so much (even if inadvertently) to change the political climate around gun rights.
Bellesiles sought to to show that the bearing of civilian firearms had not been a central feature of life in the first century of the U.S’s history; that American gun culture had been founded on a myth, and the “truth” denied it political legitimacy. His book got a favorable reception (the Bancroft Prize, glowing reviews, near-unanimous praise in the national press) because it told the media-political elite what most of it wanted to hear, that the Second Amendment was an anachronism being defended by dupes and frauds.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the punchline: it was Bellesiles himself who was the fraud. His conclusions were unsupported; his ‘evidence’ was a tissue of deliberate misconstruction and outright fakery. His Bancroft prize was eventually withdrawn for “scholarly misconduct”
The exposure of that fraud sent shock waves through academia and the media, gave the civil-rights advocates who took him down exposure and new legitimacy, demoralized anti-Second-Amendment propagandists, and destroyed the ability their side had previously developed to largely control the terms of the gun-policy debate.
Thank you, Michael Bellesiles, for overreaching. The Heller ruling is the just reward of the skeptics (led by an uncredentialed amateur) who dug and thought and argued their way to a public hearing. But what the public doesn’t fully understand yet is that Arming America was no exception. Bellsisles was the visible end of a long and dishonorable history of manipulation, sloppy practice, and apparently deliberate deception in the anti-gun-rights literature, a pattern of flim-flam and axe-grinding that stretches back decades.
Now that the Heller ruling has come down and administered another salutary shock to a lot of people who thought they could dismiss the Second Amendment and its defenders, I think it’s time that civil rights advocates follow up by exposing the history of junk science and dishonesty in anti-firearms studies before Bellesisles.
Let’s hit a few high spots:
Noel Perrin’s 1979 book Giving Up The Gun. Perrin argued that Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s 1543 ban on firearms was successful and a key factor in the Tokugawa pacification of Japan. Implicitly he proposed this as a model for emulation. But, as an eminent historian of Japan once explained to me, it is known for certain that the great daimyos continued to equip the retainers with firearms after the ban. The truth is that the shogunate merely pretended to abolish firearms and the daimyos pretended to obey, a very Japanese face-saving maneuver. To support his conclusion, Perrin must either have ignored or outright suppressed the most obvious kind of primary documentary evidence — the actual weapons inventories from the Tokugawa period.
The 1986 Kellerman & Reay study Protection or peril? An analysis of firearm-related deaths in the home is the source of the widespread myth that home-defense weapons are 43 times more likely to kill or injure family members than a criminal. Dave Kopel’s refutation, devastating as it is, fails to mention that Kellerman has refused to disclose his entire primary data sets to peers so his statistical analysis could be checked. Kellerman was later a vocal defender of the Arming America fraud; perhaps his data sets are swimming with Bellesiles’ nonexistent probate records?
Kellerman and Reay are nothing if not consistent. Two years later, their 1988 Handgun Regulations, Crime, Assaults, and Homicide: A Tale of Two Cities blatantly manipulated and misrepresented data from Seattle and Vancouver in an attempt to argue for the effectiveness of Vancouver’s firearms restrictions. Among other failings, it omitted to control for socioeconomic and ethnic differences between the cities, and it ignored the actual 25% increase in Vancouver murder rates after the law.
Colin Loftin’s 1991 paper Effects of restrictive licensing of handguns on homicide and suicide in the District of Columbia failed to control for population changes between 1976 and 1987 and fraudulently ignored a doubling of D.C’s murder rate after 1978 that earned it the sobriquet “Murder Capital of the World” even as gun-ban advocates were citing the Loftin study as evidence of the success of their policy. Refutation here.
The 1992 Koop and Lundberg paper, Violence in America: A Public Health Emergency advocated stringent gun control and registration with the claim that claim that “One million US inhabitants die prematurely each year as the result of intentional homicide or suicide”. This could not have been other than outright fraud; there is no honest interpretation of national mortality statistics that can come anywhere close to supporting this 35-fold exaggeration.
Edgar Suter’s 1994 article Guns in the Medical Literature — A Failure of Peer Review documents a longstanding pattern of “the inflammatory use of aberrant and sculpted data to reach illogical conclusions”. It refutes both of the Kellerman & Reay papers cited above, the 1993 Koop & Lundberg paper, and notes flaws in several other less-well-known but equally biased and fraudulent studies.
A 1983 review article, Willam Tonso Social Science and Sagecraft in the Debate over Gun Control, discussed a pattern of particularism, deception, and questionable methodology amounting to a form of class warfare against gun owners. While the authors refrain from making specific accusations, the paper valuably illuminates the context in which these frauds take place since as early as the late 1950s, and explains why they are so difficult to combat.
I described the errors as “systematic” before the jump because there is a pattern of distortions in the anti-gun literature that have been repeated over decades even though they violate known good practice in the social and medical sciences. These include but are not limited to:
Failure to control for socioeconomic differences between star and control groups, even when the differences are known to correlate with large differences in per-capita rates of criminal deviance
Choice of study periods that ignore well-documented trends that run contrary to the study’s conclusions immediately before or after the period.
Selective use of suicide statistics, counting them only in star but not control groups and/or ignoring massive evidence that would-be suicides rapidly substitute other methods when firearms are not available.
Tendentious misapplication of Uniform Crime Report data, for example by ignoring the fact that UCR reports of homicides are entered before trial and therefore fail to account for an unknown but significant percentage of findings of misadventure and lawful self-defense.
And I described this pattern as “fraud” before the jump because the magnitude of these errors would be too great and their direction too consistent for honest error, even if we did not in several prominent cases have direct evidence that the fraud must have been intended.
Civil-rights advocates have an opening to shape the terms of future debate now, but I think it needs to be exploited before the Heller ruling becomes old news and the Bellesisles fraud fades from public memory. We need a history of the flimflam more detailed than this one, we need it to be available on the Web, and we need it to be written in language accessible to journalists and the public.
UPDATE: Thanks to ricketyclick for pointing out that the anti-Heller brief for the District of Columbia and Justice-Stevens’s dissent were both riddled with factual errors — see here and here. Honest error, or fraud? Either way, it is telling that the anti-Heller position relied on it.