The Atlantic declares death “a good thing”

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

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