When my friend was writing up the text to accompany my appearance on the local NPR station after the Las Vegas shooting, he asked if I should be described as a “gun advocate.”
In both cases I resisted the characterization. Here’s the thing: I don’t see myself as a “gun advocate” or my work as “pro-gun.” As a social scientist, I am a TRUTH ADVOCATE and my work is PRO-TRUTH. What I write about guns is based on my search for truth, not a political position on guns. If there are political implications of my work, I will let others draw them.
By contrast, in the conclusion to my forthcoming book chapter on “Understanding and Misunderstanding American Gun Culture,” I wonder whether social scientists’ excessive focus on guns only from criminological and epidemiological perspectives is driven by a political interest in gun control, rather than the opposite.
I have spent the past 30 years (3/5ths of my entire life!) training to be and practicing as a social scientist. I am the last person who would try to undermine the credibility of social science, either from the perspective of the post-modern left or the populist right. But gun control motivated and anti-gun researchers play a role in undermining their own credibility with people who do not share their fundamental views of the role of guns in society.
Although you can’t hold scholars responsible for how their work is represented by the media, a recent story in Scientific American about guns and crime illustrates what I believe is a symbiosis between gun control motivated researchers and the media that covers them.
The author wants to establish the point captured in the headline above. Although she tries to give the appearance of objectively examining the issue (“evidence shows”), she cannot help but betray her biases throughout the story.
Consider the portrayal of research that contradicts Lott and Mustard’s work on guns and crime (i.e., the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis). I have attempted to read some of this work, and it is extremely complex and there are no definitive conclusions at this point, either way.
The Scientific American author invokes an article by Lott’s critic John Donohue. Fair enough. It provides an alternative to Lott, but is far from definitive, as A.C. Haskins has shown on his Antistupid Project blog.
What caught my eye, however, was that the Donohue article was described as “published this year.”
And yet in the credits for the figure shown above, it clearly shows that Donohue’s is a “Working Paper” posted (not published) on the National Bureau of Economic Research website. The fact that a writer for Scientific American does not know the difference between published research and posted working papers does not inspire confidence.
The bias shines through again in the section of the story on defensive gun uses (DGUs). This issue, like the “more guns, less crime” debate, is complicated and I know of no definitive research on how many DGUs there are in the United States and what they look like. I do, however, assign the article on “The Epidemiology of Self-Defense Gun Use: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007–2011” in my Sociology of Guns seminar and have read it closely several times.
It has some interesting findings, but it absolutely does not speak to ALL defensive gun uses. In the Scientific American author’s biased view, the NCVS does well to “weed out” DGU cases in which people might — to take just any old representative example (sarc) — “wave their gun around during a bar fight and call it self-defense.”
Well, that may be true as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Far more common than people waving their guns around at bar fights, the NCVS “weeds out” any case in which people WERE NOT VICTIMIZED or DID NOT SEE THEMSELVES AS “VICTIMS.” Like my friend who drives a delivery truck locally and used his gun to dissuade someone from entering his truck while he was getting gas one day.
The NCVS also “weeds out” anyone who does not trust the federal government to protect their anonymity. Given the correlation between low confidence in government and gun ownership that I found in my research, those who use guns to defend themselves might be even less likely to appear in the NCVS data.
The example used by the Scientific American author is not only unrepresentative and unhelpful, it also betrays a strong anti-gun bias, one which I regret is shared by too many who study guns, who should also be truth advocates rather than gun control advocates.