Shotgun News, October 1, 2007, pp. 30-32

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Books & Movies

If you read Shotgun News, you almost certainly know who John Lott is. He is an economist who has written extensively about gun control, including More Guns, Less Crime, The Bias Against Guns, and his newest book, Freedomnomics: Why The Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don’t (Regnery, 2007).

Most of Freedomnomics is not about guns. As the cover explains, it is a rebuttal to Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s wildly successful popular economics book, Freakonomics, which was published several years ago. Freedomnomics covers a variety of social and economic questions from a free market perspective, from why restaurants charge more for dinner than for lunch, understanding the wild claims about the 2000 election, and the effects that giving the vote to women had on early twentieth century state government spending patterns. The chapter that is most relevant to Shotgun News readers, however, is chapter 4: “Crime and Punishment.”

Why did crime rates fall during the 1990s? You might not agree with all of Dr. Lott’s conclusions—and indeed, since this book came out, Professor Bernard Harcourt at the University of Chicago Law School has identified yet another possible factor—but you are likely to be surprised by the points Freedomnomics raises. Lott examines the claim that rising abortion rates caused the falling crime rates, as a whole generation of poor black kids were never born—and concludes that the data just doesn’t support it.

Lott points to a variety of studies that have now been completed by economists that analyze, using multivariate correlation analysis, the relationship between the death penalty and murder rates. Of sixteen such studies, eleven demonstrate that the death penalty reduces murder rates, five show that it has no effect at all—and none of the recent studies find evidence that the death penalty increases murder rates.

Lott tells us about changes that seem to have played a part in reducing crime rates in the 1990s, including increases in the number of police officers on the streets, and the dramatic expansion of “right to carry” laws in state after state. He also shows that gun control laws had no impact at all. It is not just that Dr. Lott thinks such laws are stupid, but that when you run the calculations, gun control laws are so minor in their effects that the benefits are impossible to detect.

If you have read some of Dr. Lott’s previous work—especially those publications aimed at other academics, you might be a little worried about how readable this will be. I’ve always found Dr. Lott’s writing clear and interesting (except when he dips deeply into discussions of statistical methodology), but I know that many others cringe a little at what is serious academic writing.

The good news is that Freedomnomics isn’t one of those books that you are supposed to read, but hate doing so. It’s very lively writing, aimed at a popular audience, and I suspect that very few of you who read my column are going to use Freedomnomics as a sleeping aid. Dr. Lott’s writing is occasionally downright funny, and when he includes anecdotes from his professional career, such as the section of the Crime and Punishment chapter titled, “How rent control killed the kitty cat,” you realize that underneath the egghead economist is a person just like you and me.

Another book that I read recently is Kristin A. Goss’ Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America (Princeton University Press, 2007). You are perhaps scratching your head at the moment, wondering what’s “missing” about the gun control movement. What Goss really means is that there is no mass gun control movement in America. By her own admission, gun control organizations are “a small cadre of elites working through staff-driven nonprofit organizations to push legislative change in Congress” (p. 12).

Professor Goss is upset about that, and trying to figure out why mass gun control movements don’t exist. As near as I can tell, Goss never considers the possibility that there is no mass gun control movement in America because gun control is an idea that only “a small cadre of elites” would find plausible or useful.

Even though we are obviously light years apart about whether gun control is a good idea or not, I could still have found her book useful for understanding why no mass gun control movement has developed—but there were so many simple factual errors contained in Disarmed, it was hard to trust her conclusions. It also doesn’t give me much confidence in the competence of her dissertation committee, the faculty members who are supposed to go over dissertations with a fine-toothed comb.

For example, Goss refers to Klebold and Harris, the Columbine killers who were “armed with an arsenal of semiautomatic firearms” (p. 1). Hmmm. Two semiautos, a double barrel shotgun, and a pump shotgun. Even if two guns per killer constituted “an arsenal,” one semiauto gun per killer doesn’t sound like “an arsenal.”

Goss claims that “leading gun control advocates shunned incremental strategies,” pursuing only their end goal on a national basis (p. 29). This is wrong on both counts. Gun control advocates repeatedly pursued incremental strategies, and sometimes even directly stated as much, such as the July 26, 1976 interview in New Yorker with Nelson “Pete” Shields, second chair of Handgun Control, Inc. (now the Brady Campaign). Shields likened his strategy to a loaf of bread, taking one slice at a time. That’s incremental.

Gun control groups also did not limit their efforts to the national level, contrary to Goff’s claim. I fought the battles in California on 1982’s handgun freeze initiative, the 1989 assault weapons ban, and dozens of other state gun control measures. Those of you who lived in other states can list example after example of how gun control groups fought the battle state by state—never demanding only a national solution. To make a statement as silly as this suggests that Goss didn’t bother to read much of the literature from either side.

Disarmed is Goss’ doctoral dissertation, and reads about the way you would expect a doctoral dissertation to read: “Even if ‘movement-ness’ is inherently nonquantifiable, a baseline definition is necessary to lay out the core qualitative features.” (p. 11) It isn’t all that jargon-rich, but this is likely to be a tough read for all but the other “small cadre of elites” who will read this book, and enthusiastically agree with Goss.

Serious information and serious thought comes from books. I’ve always looked down on documentaries as a source of information, but I recognize that not every enjoys reading as much as I do, and so documentary movies serve a real need for those who don’t enjoy reading, or who struggle with reading.

The making of a documentary is always a compromise. On the one hand, it needs to be interesting, or no one watches it. Libraries are full of documentaries that are full of good intentions, and lots of talking heads telling you things that you need to know—and that have cobwebs on the box. Information isn’t enough.

You can take another approach—and make a documentary that is very entertaining, but not terribly accurate. Michael Moore is the acknowledged expert in the field of “documentaries” that are crowd pleasers, but so inaccurate as to be false.

Then there is the third category of documentary: eye candy. If you get the History Channel, you have probably seen the Tales of the Gun series. They sent me a review copy of the “Guns of the Revolution” episode. (Ah, the perks of being a columnist!)

I had assumed from the title that is was about the American Revolution, but really, it is about the use of guns in revolutionary movements. I describe this as eye candy because it shows a lot of guns, uses lots of old video, and provides a number of interesting facts about guns and revolutions. It doesn’t hurt to watch it, but as an historian, I expect a bit more than simply facts and pictures. Are guns the only methods by which revolutions take place? How did the development of firearms affect the use of guns in revolutionary action? What were revolutions like before the firearm, and how different were such revolutions? “Guns of the Revolution” really doesn’t answer (or even raise) any of these deeper questions. I suppose it makes an okay way to spend 50 minutes, but I can’t claim to be wildly enthusiastic about the results.

A very different documentary is In Search of the Second Amendment, by David T. Hardy. Most gun rights activists know that Dave Hardy is a Tucson lawyer who has been active for many years in both litigation and scholarly writing about the right to keep and bear arms. He’s also a friend of mine. This documentary, which is available from the website at, isn’t going to win any Oscars (unlike Michael Moore). Its primary purpose is to educate, not entertain.

There’s not much information in this documentary that was new to me—but I’m guessing that a fair number of gun rights activists will find quite a bit of information here that is new, and for the average American, this will be a startling video (if they ever see it). They are going to be shocked at the number of law professors that Hardy interviews about the meaning of the Second Amendment—and who talk quite directly about the revolutionary intent of the Second Amendment.

Generally, Hardy has done a good job of balancing the need to let talking heads speak (including me) with the need to keep the presentation moving forward, using a mixture of images of important documents, and video of re-enactors for various events. In many cases, Hardy has done location shots to enhance the visual interest of what he is saying. For example, Hardy discusses the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which both sparked the Civil War and declared that if blacks were citizens, they would have the right to carry guns whenever and wherever they wished (just like whites). While doing so, Hardy stands in front of the grave of Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the Dred Scott decision. Hardy also films in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, at Colonial Williamsburg, and at the Concord Minuteman Memorial.

One downside of all that location filming is that the sound quality in a very few places isn’t up to the quality of documentaries you see on cable television. Especially in some of the location shoots, wind problems and ambient noise produced some less than perfect results. Similarly, a number of those that he interviewed (including myself), might have benefited from a couple more takes to get the “uhs” and “ahs” out of what we were saying. Still, I wouldn’t call it amateurish—just a little less polished than a million dollar budget might have produced.

Because it is 111 minutes long, it might benefit from being two shown in two parts to many audiences. If I had made this video, I would probably have broken it into two distinct episodes. The first would have been about the Second Amendment. The second part would have been about the Fourteenth Amendment and its part in protecting the right to keep and bear arms from state infringement. But everyone’s a critic; making a video like this is a major undertaking, and I’m glad to see that it is available.

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2007), is available in bookstores. His web site is