Responding to Alex Seitz-Wald on Gun Control

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Alex Seitz-Wald, of Salon, has published a piece critical of my Atlantic piece that argued for concealed-carry permitting as one answer to gun violence (the other answers I gave include some mainstream gun control measures -- you can read about my views here). Seitz-Wald contacted me by e-mail before writing his story, and I responded to his various questions, but he chose not to include most of them in his story (which renders in a dishonest way the actual arguments I was making). In his own e-mails, you will see that he makes the argument I was making for me. Since he didn't include so much of the material in his story, I thought I would simply post my correspondence with Seitz-Wald here. This is unedited, except for the removal of some repetitive information:

Seitz-Wald's first e-mail to me:

Hi Jeff,

I'm a fan of yours and really respect your work, but wanted to give you a heads up that I'm working on a big piece for Salon for tomorrow that will disagree sharply with your story on guns. I've spoken with several academic gun researchers who criticized the piece for a lack of inclusion of scientific studies on gun violence, which they say shows pretty conclusively, as one just told me: "Where there are more guns, there are more deaths."

I just wanted to alert you and offer an opportunity to respond, specifically on exclusion of scientific research, if you cared to. I can send more info later in the day as my piece comes together. Filing later tonight for publishing tomorrow morning. Thank you very much.

I wrote back:

I think you should call Adam Winkler at UCLA for comment before you write. Also, I was making a specific point in the piece: There is no proof that concealed-carry permitting has led to a rise in violent crime. And there is evidence (National Crime Victimization Survey, etc.) to suggest that many law-abiding people use guns to defend themselves successfully, most often without actually firing.

But of course the more guns there are, the more deaths you're going to have. But it's not the population of concealed-carry permit holders that is, generally speaking, causing those deaths. The whole point of the piece was to argue that since we are a gun-saturated society, and since the police cannot protect civilians from gun massacres (Connecticut being only the latest example), people who are well-trained and vetted and screened ought to be able to participate in their own defense. I find the Canadian model very attractive -- as I wrote in the piece -- but it's too late to turn this country into Canada.

I assume much of the criticism is about the John Lott quote?

Seitz-Wald wrote back a few hours later:

Apologies for the slow response, was on the phone with people.

I'm certainly sympathetic the problem of having so many guns already out there, and to the desire to protect oneself, and I like shooting guns, but I don't think more is the answer because 1) they're often not effective in a heated situation (though they occasionally have been) and 2) more importantly, then you have the gun sitting around waiting to be used in an emergency, but  we know that access to guns often leads to more conflicts and suicide attempts turning lethal than they otherwise would be. That's my big issue.

The Lott quote certainly drew criticism, but I don't have a problem with it. You cite him as an advocate, not an academic, and that's fine. I should note my piece is not just responding to your story but to the more guns, less crime argument overall, so I will talk about Lott, but on his own right in advancing the argument, not because you quoted him.

As for research, I'm mostly been speaking with researchers so far and don't have all the links at the moment, but can pass them along and will summarize. There's are several studies showing that keeping a gun in the home increases the risk of violent death 2-5 fold. Here's some quick things: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/index.html

On CCW, there's a criticism of the data showing lower arrests and criminal activity because the CCW population is very different from the general population: It skews older and is people who have pass a background check, so is a demographic that's far less inclined to commit crimes.

On the 2.5 million defensive uses of guns, there's criticism that many of them aren't actually defensive (Hemenway at Harvard took the responses to a judge to get opinions and many would not count as lawful uses).

This really quick, and I can provide more, but still digging in and crashing on this.

(The bold is mine, because, of course, this is the precise point of my article.)

I wrote back:

I think, based on what you've written, that we have more of a philosophical difference than a data difference. I start from the position that we live in a tragic reality, in which there are 280-300 million guns in circulation already, and no Constitutional, or practical, way to seize them. As I said, Canada looks like a very nice place from the gun perspective, but we're not going to be transformed into Canada. And also -- the headline of the piece was "The Case for More Guns." and I'm not going to complain about headlines -- they are what they are -- but I'm not advocating the addition of more guns into the population.

What I'm saying is that law-abiding, vetted and trained people who have guns have a right to self-defense, and that, since the police and other government agencies obviously have failed to prevent many gun massacres, citizens who are screened and trained could have a role to play in stopping violent crime. The training is the biggest problem -- in places like Florida, it's far too easy to get a concealed carry permit.

But to answer specific points:

Sometimes guns aren't effective in a heated situation; sometimes they are. Your point re: suicide is a good one; 35 percent of all suicides (roughly) are committed with guns. We need better mental health screening for gun buyers, obviously. And I guess we just have a different perspective on the frequency of gun violence around the house. The vast, vast majority of people who own guns store them responsibly, use them responsibly and never run into a problem with their guns. In a way, this goes back to the training issue. I have no problem at all with gun control measures that would lead to more careful vetting of those who buy guns legally. (Illegal gun ownership is its own problem, obviously.) 
 
I don't believe I wrote in my piece that we should have more guns. I believe that responsible, law-abiding people can own and even carry guns with limited downside. I'd like to get the guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, and the violent, and the very young. But a large number of Americans don't fall into these categories.
 
On (concealed-carry), yes, exactly. Thank you for making my point for me. My article is about concealed carry. The people who have concealed carry licenses are generally older, and have passed a background check, and commit crime at lower rate than the general population. So they are not the problem. The debate is how much a part of the solution they can be. (Again, my bold.)

On the safety issue, yes, having a gun around the house can be very dangerous. Children die every year when they discover a gun around the house. More children, however, die in backyard swimming pools. Careless parents and guardians are the real vector when it comes to accidental child death.

(Also), as you read in the article, I give more credit to the 108,000 number (as does Winkler), than I do the 2.5 million number. 

Please feel free to quote any of this.

 Seitz-Wald wrote back soon after:

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think you may be right about the ideological vs. data difference being the main issue, but I think there is a data difference as well.

You say you're not advocating the addition of more guns into the population, but that's the invariable product of more people arming themselves to defend themselves. It seems to me like a bit of a distinction without difference. The title of your piece is, after all, "The Case for More Guns." I get that the vast majority of those people are law abiding citizens who just want to protect themselves, but it still adds up to more guns in circulation, and we know that more guns around means more death. 

I'm taking on the larges more guns = less crime argument, which is obviously bigger than your essay and is not the exact case your essay is making. But I view your essay as the smart and reasonable version of this theory, which I argue is inherently flawed, so I want to address it in that context. It's easy to knock down John Lott or Louis Gohmert or the gun rights absolutists, but your essay is far more compelling and thus prone to sparking vital dialog. But if law abiding citizens arming themselves was the solution, then we should have very little crime now considering the number of guns out there.

I will add another philosophical difference which is that you are looking at the things mostly from the individual's perspective, where it's obvious that anyone err towards gun rights -- who wouldn't want a gun? But I don't think that's not the right way to look at public policy questions, which should be viewed in the aggregate. I'd love to not pay taxes...

I imagine we don't really differ much on policy prescriptions. I favor a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and closing the gun show loophole, along with more rigorous training for CCW, and better checks on mental health. I'm not at all satisfied with this as a solution, as you say, given the existing number of guns out there and the Supreme Court's current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, it's the best we can do fo now. But I think it's kind of defeatist to just assume it's hopeless and fend for ourselves. Maybe it's a kind of progressivism: I think the government and police can be pretty farkakta often, but I'd rather leave it to them, where there's rigorous checks and accountability, than empower every citizen to make life and death decisions. I don't really have a better alternative, which I realize weakens my point, but I'm not ready to give up.

Thanks.



I wrote back:

I don't think the piece makes the case for "more guns." It makes the case, given the failure of gun control advocates to advance their cause, and given the failure of police departments (the understandable failure, mind you) to protect innocent citizens in these types of shootings, concealed-carry by vetted and screened and trained civilians is something we ought to consider.

I'm taking on the larges more guns = less crime argument, which is obviously bigger than your essay and is not the exact case your essay is making. But I view your essay as the smart and reasonable version of this theory, which I argue is inherently flawed, so I want to address it in that context. It's easy to knock down John Lott or Louis Gohmert or the gun rights absolutists, but your essay is far more compelling and thus prone to sparking vital dialog. But if law abiding citizens arming themselves was the solution, then we should have very little crime now considering the number of guns out there.

Thank you thinking more favorably of me than you do Louis Gohmert. Re: your larger point, crime is, in fact, going down. I'm not going to argue causality (I would argue that general crime statistics suggest that concealed carry is not sparking a violent crime wave) but how do you know crime wouldn't be higher if people were disarmed? In other words, how do you prove that law-abiding citizens arming themselves isn't the solution, when you have the National Crime Victims Survey stats (see Winkler's quote in my story on the 108,000 number).

I will add another philosophical difference which is that you are looking at the things mostly from the individual's perspective, where it's obvious that anyone err towards gun rights -- who wouldn't want a gun? But I don't think that's not the right way to look at public policy questions, which should be viewed in the aggregate. I'd love to not pay taxes...

Yes,  believe an individual should have the right to defend himself from crime, especially since we know that the police do this so imperfectly. I suppose I wouldn't feel this way if you could prove to me that the 9 million concealed-carry permit holders in this country were robbing banks on a regular basis, but bank robbers aren't the sort of people who present themselves to their local sheriff for fingerprinting, background screening, gun-safety classes, etc.
You don't hear the word "farkakta" too often at gun shows, in case you were wondering. Yes, I basically support the laundry list of items the Brady Campaign wants, but I also -- it is true -- fatalistic about the capacity for the country to reverse itself on guns. Buy-backs might be useful on the margins -- and unlike the Brady Campaign, which has closed the door to debates on the 2nd Amendment -- I wouldn't mind seeing a public debate on the subject. But here's the point -- many times we are on our own. That's the tragic truth. That school was undefended. Those kids were on their own. The principal and the school psychologist had to throw their bodies at Lanza in an effort to tackle him. That's all they had, and it wasn't enough.  Closing the gun-show loophole would not have helped that school. Having a police officer, or an armed security guard or someone with a gun who knew how to use it, that might have led to a different outcome.

Sometimes I think I should take a much more radical stance and argue for gun eradication, but then I can't imagine a way to pull it off -- I can't figure out the policy that would induce most Americans to turn in their guns.  And to return to my first point -- this is a real philosophical difference. I think most Americans can be trusted with guns. I think the fact that we have somewhere in the range of 300 million guns in circulation, and crime is as low as it is, is something of a miracle. The truth is is that millions and millions of Americans keep guns, store them safely, use them properly and never hurt anyone. I don't really get southern and western gun culture myself, but I recognize that the people who are enamored of guns are, in the main, not criminals.

Seitz-Wald didn't respond to this last e-mail. As you can see, we had a reasonable discussion about the issue. I was hoping that his article might reflect more of my thinking, contained in these long e-mails to him, but, unfortunately, it did not.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward, and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

His book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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