Warren Olney’s news discussion program, To the Point, from KCRW in Santa Monica held a conversation about the recent shooting in San Bernardino and gun control generally. The guests included Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at UCLA, Craig Whitney, author of Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment, and Michael Hammond, chief counsel for Gun Owners of America.
The points that each made are exactly what were to be expected, coming from the left and right wings of American politics. We’re informed that refugees are flooding in, that background checks would stop bad people from getting guns, especially if we’d tie in the terrorist watch list, and that it’s paranoid to believe that such checks would ever be used for confiscating guns. And multiple times, the assertion gets repeated that we’ve had over 350 mass shootings this year. (That’s a mix of what the three guests and the host said.) But is any of this true?
Start with the claim about how many mass shootings have happened in 2015. This has been reported by “The Wonk Blog” of The Washington Post. More than 350 sounds shocking, but delve into the source, a Reddit discussion that compiles headlines. In many cases, the shooter isn’t identified, the number killed don’t meet the FBI’s definition of a mass shooting—four or more persons killed in a single incident. In fact, many of the incidents have zero persons killed. And the Reddit list doesn’t follow up to find out what type of incident occurred—gang violence, terrorist attack, or attention-seeking wacko on a rampage. Exploring the particulars shows the greater-than-350 claim is an attempt to erase details into one easily repeated, but never thought through sound bite. To the general public, and as was repeated on the To the Point segment, “mass shooting” means lots of people killed in an incident. Reddit’s numbers are not false, but they are deceptively used by equivocating on the meanings of the term.
What about background checks? California has the universal background check requirement that gun control advocates keep telling us we must pass nationwide, and one of the guests declared that there are no private sales of guns in that state. This illustrates wishful thinking, since it’s not clear how the attackers in San Bernardino got their guns, but the possibilities appear to be either that they bought them legally or that they received them from someone else. If a person isn’t listed as prohibited from buying firearms, what good will a background check do? And when criminals get guns from friends, from an act of theft, or from the black market, how would a check system affect that?
And then there’s the terrorist watch list that keeps getting so much attention. Republicans in Congress blocked an effort by Democrats to include this infamous list in background checks—specifically, an attempt to get people on the list blocked from buying guns. This is the list that is a secret with no due process and no oversight, something that sounds like an outrageous power grab when the president in office does not belong to our party, whichever that might be. People of principles have to be consistent in how they apply their convictions, though, regardless of momentary political advantage.
And journalists and experts ought to spend more time becoming informed about the facts before merely repeating what others have claimed. I say this to myself as an opinion writer in the gun media as I do to my colleagues. The evidence is complex and doesn’t by itself justify any position on gun rights or gun control, but certainly, it doesn’t permit the simplistic picture all too often given in the media these days.
In any subject of interest in American life, those of us who care have a responsibility to keep the news honest. We have to check the facts, dig into the details, and question the claims in our areas of specialty. This is especially true with regard to guns and gun rights. The information is available, and it’s up to us to find it and pass it on to people with a national voice and to refuse to accept what we’re told to believe.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.