The Washington Post Magazine

(Page 5)

IN 1994











Kleck's work is the scientific heart of the NRA's attack on the public health approach to guns, but he has no ties to the organization, and has been careful to distance himself from it. In both Targeting Guns and its 1991 predecessor, Point Blank, he included a highly unusual "voluntary disclosure notice." It mentioned the author's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA and Common Cause, "among other politically liberal organizations," and the fact that he "is not now, nor has he ever been, a member of, or contributor to, the National Rifle Association, Handgun Control Inc." or any other advocacy group on either side of the gun control issue. Kleck says he doesn't think that broad-based gun controls would work, but he does support a range of more narrowly targeted measures, most of which the NRA opposes.

Brian Wiersema
Criminologist Brian Wiersema in the Prince County Police Ballistics Lab, where he collects homicide data.
He got into the defensive gun use question in the early '80s, he says. He looked at the available surveys that bore on the issue, but "they weren't very good." He thought Kellermann's first guns-in-the-home study was especially dumb, because it ignored any defensive use that didn't result in someone's being killed, and he published a paper titled "Crime Control Through the Private Use of Armed Force" that used data from a Peter Hart poll to produce an estimate of 1.8 million cases of defensive gun use in America each year. He explained why he thought that a widely cited and much more comprehensive Justice Department crime survey, which had produced a vastly lower number, was unreliable. Then, in 1995, he published – with Marc Gertz, an FSU colleague – the results of "the first survey ever devoted to the subject of armed self-defense." It produced the estimate of 2.5 million defensive gun uses in America each year.

Case closed?

Not a chance.

Kleck's finding has been called "an enormous overestimate" and "the gun debate's new mythical number," and it has been sharply attacked from a variety of angles. It makes no sense, its critics say, because it is wildly out of sync with what researchers know about how often crimes are committed. Defensive use is impossible to measure, they say, because it has never been properly defined. And even if you did define it carefully, it would remain such a rare event, statistically speaking, that a tiny number of "false positives" could – and almost certainly would – skew the results drastically.

"Using surveys to estimate rare events typically leads to overestimates," wrote David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health, the chief proponent of this critique, last year. "For example, the National Rifle Association reports 3 million dues-paying members, or about 1.5 percent of American adults. In national random telephone surveys, however, 4 to 10 percent of respondents claim that they themselves are dues-paying NRA members."

Kleck has responses to these critics; the critics have replies to his responses; and the defensive gun use question is still very far from resolved. But it's not necessarily stalemated either. It should be perfectly possible for intelligent laypersons, given the basic information and the arguments of both sides, to reach some conclusions for themselves.

Assuming, of course, that they're not blown away by an incoming rhetoric barrage.

Lawyers, Guns and Money
Before you're allowed to talk to the NRA's chief spokesman on science and guns, a little orientation is required.

"Also present will be Elizabeth Swasey, Director of NRA CrimeStrike, who will furnish information on how the NRA combats the violent crime all of us abhor," is the way Thomas Wyld, the Institute for Legislative Action's communications director, puts it in an eight-page letter laying out the ground rules for a session with Paul Blackman. The letter slams the public health research on gun violence, lauds the "landmark" work of Gary Kleck and notes that the head of "the award-winning Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program" will be attending the interview as well.

Together, CrimeStrike and Eddie Eagle sum up the NRA's take on gun violence. It is caused by criminals, not ordinary citizens. The latter can be taught to use firearms safely. The former must be arrested and imprisoned.

Preliminaries over, Paul Blackman takes center stage.

Blackman is a small, slightly rumpled-looking 53-year-old political scientist by training who looks as though he'd fit right in at a Washington think tank (in his pre-NRA incarnation, he did studies for a couple of them). For well over a decade now, he's been stockpiling information and counter-arguments – for use by legislators, NRA officials and other interested parties – relating to the public health research on guns. He says he's on friendly terms with a couple of the prominent researchers and has "moderately decent relations" with most of the others. He doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd write you a Christmas card calling you a liar, though one of Brian Wiersema's colleagues, criminologist Colin Loftin, says this once happened to him. "I was a little surprised," Loftin says, "but I was new at the game." Blackman is a prolific writer whose papers come with catchy titles like "The Federal Factoid Factory on Firearms and Violence" and are full of phrases like "simply lied" and "deliberately distorted data to reach a conclusion." Asked about this kind of rhetorical escalation, he says, "I'm allowed to. They're not." In other words, he's a pure advocate, unconstrained by the polite conventions of scientific discourse.

He goes after the public health approach on every level. Why does research show that murder victims are more likely to have guns themselves? Not because guns cause violence, Blackman says, echoing Kleck; it's the well-founded fear of violence that leads murder victims to pack heat. Why do public health researchers lump homicides, suicides and accidents into one statistic? It's a trick to make the numbers look worse. Why do they imply that violence threatens everyone equally, when "it is epidemic only among young blacks and Hispanics"? And by the way, the numbers on gun accidents have been going down. If the CDC is so interested in injury trends, how come no one investigates that?

Finally, of course, there's that explosive question about guns in the home. According to Blackman, the "fatal flaw" in Kellermann's work is that "no study of homicide, however sophisticated or simplistic, can evaluate the protective value of firearms."

The public health researchers are used to Blackman by now. "He'd always come to our presentations and sit in the front row," the CDC's James Mercy says. "He gets red in the face and very worked up, and says sort of bizarre things." But only a few take his rhetoric personally, and many were at least as amused as shocked, a couple of years back, when Blackman was caught submitting strident letters and essays to a number of newspapers under an assumed name.

"I think he's a smart man," says Arthur Kellermann, whom Blackman once tried to have investigated for scientific fraud. "I think he says some things purposely to throw people off base. His job depends on him doing what he does."

But if Blackman is a kind of predictable mercenary, an expert witness for the defense of the status quo, Don B. Kates Jr. is the status quo's Johnnie Cochran.

Kates is a free-spirited 58-year-old California lawyer who says he started carrying guns for protection as a civil rights worker in the '60s and who has written prolifically on gun-related issues from a civil-liberties perspective. He is also the lead author of an 84-page, take-no-prisoners attack on the public health approach that was published in the Tennessee Law Review in 1995. "I cannot emphasize enough the importance of considering this document," the NRA's Wyld urges, helpfully providing a copy. "One cannot presume to cover the waterfront without a chart. On guns and CDC, Kates et al. provide the chart."

The article, published in a student-edited publication and not subject to peer review, exhaustively summarizes the various arguments against the public health approach to firearms violence, including all those mentioned above and many more. The defensive gun use views of Gary Kleck, with whom Kates recently coauthored a book, are accorded a place of honor. The failure of public health researchers to sufficiently respect Kleck's work is advanced as prima facie evidence of bias.

Kates's language makes Blackman's look tame. Practitioners of public health "sagecraft" are said to be working in "lock-step orthodoxy" and to "prostitute scholarship" by "systematically inventing, misinterpreting, selecting, or otherwise manipulating data to validate preordained political conclusions." They are presumed to suffer from a kind of "gun-aversive dyslexia," unless of course they are guilty of the "fraudulent omission of material fact" or of the "overt misrepresentation of facts" in a way that is so "misleading, tendentious and defamatory" that "the ordinary demands of personal honesty and integrity" are overwhelmed.

The article repeatedly damns the many for the sins of the few. In the main text, Kates builds his brief against the so-called "health sages" as a unified class. But his 368 footnotes ("I love footnotes," he says, needlessly) are heavily weighted toward the most inflammatory writings and sayings of the class's most outspoken members.

At one point, Kates charges that "neither medical and health writers nor the journals which publish their writing seem embarrassed by their agenda's close relationship to political lobbying organizations." But he displays no trace of embarrassment over his own relationship with the gun lobby, which includes the fact – as Kates himself cheerfully volunteers – that the NRA has recently retained him "to represent gun owners in a number of lawsuits."

Wouldn't that taint the credibility of his own writings? "They don't pay me enough to buy me," Kates says, and after a couple of hours of lively conversation, punctuated by squawks from his pet parrot, Che, one is left with no inclination to doubt this. But those whose own motivations have been so relentlessly questioned might view the situation differently.

Do all these things mean that Kates's underlying argument – that a conscious or unconscious bias against guns is skewing public health research on violence – is wholly without merit? Not necessarily. But like a lawyer pulling out all stops to impeach the credibility of a witness, Kates has muddied the waters of truth so thoroughly that wading into them is a daunting task.

A Defining Moment
In the fall of 1994, as the number of firearms-related deaths in the United States was dipping to 38,505 from its 39,595 peak, another statistic came to bear on the gun violence numbers war. For the first time in 40 years, more than half the 435 members elected to the House of Representatives were Republicans, many of them indebted to the National Rifle Association.

Around this time, as the euphoric House Republicans were talking up their own "revolution," the CDC's Mercy started to detect "a more organized effort to respond to our stuff." He began to take the threat more seriously when people other than Paul Blackman got involved. "Like the guy from California," he says – meaning not Don Kates, but a less well-known gun defender named Edgar Suter, who practices family and emergency medicine out of an office in San Ramon.

Suter, who describes himself as a registered Libertarian, heads a group called Doctors for Integrity in Policy Research. Six years before Newt Gingrich and company came to power, Suter experienced what he calls "a defining moment." In January 1989, a young drifter named Patrick Purdy, who apparently resented the success of immigrants, had walked into a California schoolyard with an AK-47 and murdered five Asian American children, wounding 30 other people. By the end of the year, the state had banned 56 kinds of semiautomatic weapons in response. "I was a target shooter," Suter says, "and all of a sudden the state decided my guns were a health threat." He moved his collection out of state and started the doctors' group.

Doctors for Integrity is completely independent, Suter says, though naturally he talks to the NRA's Blackman. "Paul is brilliant, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject," he says.

To Suter, there are two main problems with public health types. First, since medical ethics require them to minister to anyone who needs their help, they can't see that three-quarters of the victims of gun violence "are criminals and drug dealers and not really a net loss to society," and that mourning their loss makes about as much sense as "weeping over the cancer in the operating room bucket." Second, unlike criminologists, "the public health community is in no position to measure the protective use of guns." Take, for instance, the time he was leaving a favorite San Francisco restaurant one rainy night. "I saw these three gangbangers coming at me," he says. "I reached for my holstered, high-capacity semiautomatic plastic pistol ... the gangbangers disappeared so fast I didn't even have to break leather."

After the 1994 election, the Internet was flooded with Suter postings. "Goodbye CDC," he crowed on May 1, 1995. "A favorable makeup of the Congress puts our goals within reach." Suter called the public health firearms research "politicized" and made another charge that would soon become a refrain: The CDC's entire injury prevention effort was just "an expensive duplication of programs in other Departments."

"That was something Paul pointed out to me," he says.

Suter urged his readers to write members of Congress on relevant committees and demand, among other things, that "tax subsidies of politicized 'junk science' " be ended and that "CDC employees such as Mark Rosenberg MD and James Mercy PhD be investigated for possible illegal political lobbying while on-the-job." Those seeking more information were pointed toward "Dr. Paul Blackman's excellent monographs."

Meanwhile, the NRA was pushing the same anti-CDC message through its powerful friends on Capitol Hill. On October 19, 1995, 10 U.S. senators, including Majority Whip Trent Lott and presidential candidate Bob Dole, wrote a "Dear Arlen" letter to Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversaw the Department of Health and Human Services. It urged the elimination of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control on the grounds that its work was wastefully "duplicative" and driven by "preordained political goals."

The duplication charge was knocked down (the National Academy of Sciences, after all, had specifically recommended that the CDC take charge of injury research), and the NCIPC survived. "They were never going to eliminate the whole center," Kellermann says. "Too many people would have screamed about baby walkers and smoke detectors."

But Kellermann also says he knew what would happen next. "The endgame was, okay, well, we'll spare you, but you drop firearms research." The broader attack on injury prevention research, he says, "gave permissive cover for people to 'save' the center by ditching this one area of work."

On May 1, 1996, Mark Rosenberg found himself at an appropriations hearing being grilled by Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.). "Dr. Rosenberg," Dickey asked, "did you make the statement that you 'envision a long-term campaign similar to tobacco use and auto safety to convince Americans that guns are first and foremost a public health menace'?"

Actually he didn't, Rosenberg explained – the words were those of a journalist writing about the public health research into gun violence. They don't even make logical sense, he said: Obviously, cars are not "first and foremost" a health menace. What he was quoted as saying, he said, "was that we don't even use the word 'gun control' and we don't think that you have to ban guns to prevent these injuries, the same way that we never had to ban cars but we saved hundreds of thousands of lives on the highway."

Rosenberg's explanations were not enough. In June, the House Appropriations Committee approved a Dickey amendment cutting $2.6 million out of the NCIPC's budget – the precise amount it was spending on firearms research of all kinds. The Senate eventually restored the money, but earmarked it for traumatic brain injury surveillance. And the CDC was prohibited from using injury prevention and control funds "to advocate or promote gun control."

This didn't necessarily mean that it couldn't do any firearms work. After all, the CDC had never believed that it was advocating or promoting gun control in the first place. But there was no money. Other programs would have had to be killed to keep the firearms research going. And there was always the risk, if the CDC pushed too hard, that Congress would strike again.

"That's got to have a pretty chilling effect on people," Kellermann says. "I mean, do you just kind of walk through the minefield and see if any of your footsteps blow something up?"

In Search of the Tipping Point
"This is unusual – a rifle," Brian Wiersema is saying.

He's up to Murder No. 68 now. "01-Nov-97," he types. Race of victim: "2" (black). Gender: "2" (female). Age: "30." Type of firearm: "6." Description: "Rifle discharged after V and O struggled over it; V struck in torso."

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