- How America Got Its Guns: A History of the Gun Violence Crisis by William Briggs
With shelves groaning under the weight of books on firearms violence and policy, a new effort needs strong justification. William Briggs, emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Colorado, Denver, offers a personalized crack at the forces behind America’s gun debates. The book is written as a kind of bildungs-roman, as Briggs learns about gun policy and history, stressing the “the history of gun laws and court cases and the tortured compromises that led to major legislation and court decisions” (7). More than half the book is devoted to the constitutional law of civilian guns. It is a fine review, impressively cautious about unknowns like the Founders’ original intent.
Briggs’s perspective is guided by equivalency. Gun and gun control advocates, “both sides in the modern gun debate . . . use their own versions of history” (7). Here Briggs begins to struggle. As a media trope, equivalency largely disappeared in the first decade of the 21st century. In part this was because polarized media began to sell better. No less important, journalism criticism acknowledged that equivalence tends to mislead, minimizing the greater responsibility of the most active and effective side. If Fox News defines “fair and balanced,” went the critique, equivalence must be used with care. No one involved in the American gun debate would say the two sides are remotely equal.
Equivalence also breaks down in the text. Briggs seems more interested in gun rights than control advocacy. He has portraits, for example, of gun rights stars like Harlon Carter, Marion Hammer, and David Kopel. But there is nothing comparable from the gun control side. I think this reveals more inattention than a hidden agenda, but it weakens a book promoted by its publisher as “balanced and painstakingly unbiased.”
No less troubling are two oversights. One is the lack of attention to research on armed violence and gun policy. Contrary to the book’s title, there is not much here on gun violence. Instead, he offers mostly examples of recent massacres. The vast social science and public health literature is barely acknowledged, except to be dismissed as “a cautionary tale about overreliance on data and methods” (39). This extraordinary claim would be more justified if Briggs devoted attention to statistical research. Ironically, he ends with a plea for more research, rightly noting it is almost entirely illegal—because of gun lobby legislation—for the federal government to fund such research today. More research is vital, but attention to recent scholarship would be a better place to start.
The second oversight is economics. American gun ownership doubled in the last 20 years in large part because [End Page 214] companies and advocates found enormous profits and influence promoting gun ownership and mobilized to maximize it. Briggs notes that “the most frequently cited single reason for gun ownership in America is self-defense” (282). But he does not ask why that is. A visit to a gun show would eliminate the mystery. American gun owners are saturated with media designed to enhance fear. Members of the National Rifle Association or many other gun rights organizations get daily messages reminding them of the dangers of not carrying a gun and the threat of “gun grabbers.” Advertising leaves no doubt: the survival of your family requires ready access to pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles, and access to these weapons is endangered.
Briggs concludes by appealing for compromise between the two sides. That sounds reasonable, but the equivalency argument misses something. Gun control advocates are so used to losing, they will jump at a chance to compromise. They look to marginal reforms as evidence they can at least matter, a little. But gun advocates are on a winning streak. Any of their leaders who suggest compromise risk repudiation and excommunication, as former spokesmen have discovered. Compromise sounds great, but it cannot advance anyone’s agenda. Briggs needs to try again.