At the airport on my way to Drupalcon Portland, I picked up Glenn Beck’s Control: Exposing the Truth About Guns. I already had Rachel Maddow’s Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power in my bag for the flight, but it caught my eye: I’m a sucker for bestsellers, it’s been a big topic lately, and I try to grant at least some time to the opinions of those with whom I generally disagree. My only regret is that he got some of my money.
I tried to go into this book with an open mind, despite generally disagreeing with Beck on just about everything. The first part (the first 2/3 of the book, really) lists quotes from politicians and pundits, and Beck’s arguments against what was said or written. The second part (the last third) sort of addresses the potential causes of gun violence (short version: video games).
On the whole, the book was OK. I wasn’t strongly swayed toward his side, and I only occasionally muttered “well that’s bullshit,” but I definitely took his points under consideration. This was hard at times, though: his most common response to quotes with which he disagreed was to dissect them, to return to the original study being cited and look for issues with it. For example: the claim that 40% of gun owners purchased a gun without a background check, which, if true, would indeed be troubling. Maybe it is true (I haven’t fact-checked anything Beck said in the book, and take all of his claims with a grain of salt), but Beck’s claim is that this commonly-cited number comes from a 1997 study based on a 1994 phone survey, and specifically from a question that only 251 people elected to answer. So: data that’s now almost 20 years old, from an incredibly small data set, and the percentage was rounded up from 35.7 to 40.
Now, like I said, I haven’t fact-checked any of this, but if true, that’s a pretty crappy piece of data to still be using to make arguments. My problem with the book, though, is that Beck makes the same mistake that he points out on this and many other stats and quotes: he mentions some percentage or number or generalization, without mentioning how old the data is, how many data points were available, or what wording was used for the question. To his credit, this was not always true, and in many cases he was very explicit about the data he was citing.
There’s going to be a certain amount of internal inconsistency like this (or outright hypocrisy) in any book, but it certainly detracts from the author’s ability to make a compelling case. I didn’t note many passages as I was reading, but here’s one in a similar vain that struck me. From page 121 of the paperback edition:
Just as good parents don’t leave their children with unfettered access to pornography, good parents would never let their kid play a game where the goal is to commit increasingly heinous violent acts so you can move up the ranks of a criminal organization.
It does not mean, of course, that everyone who plays a game like Grand Theft Auto will become a spree killer, just as 90 percent of lifelong smokers will never get lung cancer. Unfortunately, this has become one of the most effective excuses of those who defend the industry: “I played all of those games and I’ve never killed anyone,” they say.
It’s hard to tell from print alone, but Beck seems to say this without even a hint of irony. How many times have we heard people say things like “There are 300 million guns in America, but only a tiny percentage of those will be used in a crime.” You can’t dismiss one of these statements while using the other to make your case.
The paragraph immediately following those quoted above seems to actually make a pretty good case against what he’s been trying to say:
That, of course, is true: most people who play violent games or watch violent TV don’t commit violent acts. But that’s not the way reasonable people look at an issue. Most people who fly in airplanes never die—but that doesn’t mean we stop trying to improve aviation safety or never explore the causes of the rare accidents that do occur.
Bingo. Reasonable people, as you say, look at an issue and wonder how we can improve something. This is exactly why I get so pissed about the “cars kill more people than guns” argument, and the “criminals won’t follow gun laws anyway so they just inconvenience law-abiding people” arguments. Yes, there are more lethal killers than guns. Yes, criminals will do what they do with (some measure of) disregard for the law. Most gun owners never use it to shoot someone else. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to improve things.
That said, I did agree with Beck on some things, but probably on things where there really isn’t any debate. From page 155:
Here’s one example: When purchasing a gun from a licensed dealer, a buyer must fill out ATF form 4473 for a background check. Lying on this form is a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison. According to a report done for the Department of Justice, 72,600 people lied on this form in 2010 alone. Of those, “prosecutors pursued just 44.” Not 44 percent: 44 total cases. In other words, only .06 percent of all people who committed this felony by lying on an ATF form were prosecuted. Does something about that seem wrong to you?
Agreed. We should do something about that. Immediately following:
Given how badly most gun control advocates want to expand the background check system, it might be nice if we first pushed to fix the system we have. After all, if we don’t prosecute those who lie on this form, then what is the point of the form? People with a clear issue in their part will just lie and hope for the best, while everyone else still has to go through the motions.
When the NRA brought these lack of prosecutions up to Joe Biden, they reported that he responded by saying, “[W]e simply don’t have the time or manpower to prosecute everybody who lies on a form, that checks a wrong box, that answers a question inaccurately.”
You don’t have the time? To enforce the law? To prosecute felons?
This is where Beck and I look at the same problem, but I suspect we come to different conclusions. His seems to be that we should enforce the laws already on the books, and I agree. And he doesn’t explicitly mention this, but I think he just accidentally made the case for a stronger ATF with a larger budget. This doesn’t come up in the book, but my understanding of Beck’s position on ATF funding is that he would probably be against growing it, but how else are we to enforce the laws we’ve already got? Furthermore, any new legislation around the background check system would presumably come with some budget stipulations that would ensure that that background check system, NCIS, is properly funded: he mentions on the next page that from 2009 to 2011, Congress has “appropriated just 5.3 percent of the total authorized amount” for NCIS. I agree that we should fix this; will he agree to spending tax dollars to do so?
And finally, there was one passage that kind of took me by surprise. On page 157, he mentions one instance of putting an armed police officer in a school:
Finally, I do believe that putting armed and trained officers in our schools will help save lives. In Simpsonville, South Carolina, a town of about eighteen thousand, an officer who previously worked in a community service office relocated his desk to the elementary school. “All I needed from the school is a desk and Wi-Fi,” the officer said. “[I]t didn’t cost a dime.”
So far, the teachers love it, the kids love the officer and give him high fives every day, and the parents feel safer. As he told NBC News, in explaining why he made the move, “I’d rather be here and not be needed, than be needed and not be here.”
That…is a pretty great idea that never even crossed my mind. If a school has a desk available, and there’s a local cop with a job that can be done from there, having that officer working there—and not standing out front like a storm trooper—seems like a pretty good middle ground.
Anyway, in conclusion: I wouldn’t bother buying this book. You can have my copy if you really want to read it. Parts were interesting, like the anecdote about the cop in Simpsonville, but on the whole, I didn’t have particularly strong feelings either way.