Gun violence myths debunked; quest for profits exposed

By Tom Diaz
Published by The New Press, $26.95

Though many have seen the problem of gun violence and mass killing in the United States as a matter of moral depravity, few have argued as persuasively as Tom Diaz that the root of the problem lies in the deadly sin of greed. Through a painstakingly researched and carefully documented body of facts and anecdotes, The Last Gun challenges the myths of liberty and security purveyed by the gun industry and the gun lobby that serves it, and exposes the quest for profit that drives these myths.

Some of these myths have been busted before: Those who searched for the unvarnished facts may know that most of the deaths by guns are suicides, not homicides, and that most homicides are of family members and acquaintances. Acquaintances, not masked burglars, are also the most common home invaders, and such invasions most often take place when nobody's home.

However, Diaz also lays bare the enduring and dangerous myth that the proliferation of military-style weaponry has been brought about by the desire of law-abiding citizens who seek to protect themselves from invasive criminals and intrusive government. Rather, Diaz argues that the increasing presence of assault weapons and the increasing number of instances in which they have been used to mow down Americans result from organized efforts of lobbyists and legislators who suffer little to no scrutiny from a timid news media.

Diaz cleverly replays the media "ritual" that follows senseless shootings. It begins with the breathless coverage of shocking events and then proceeds through silent commemorations, interviews with friends and neighbors of victims, speculations on causes, and finally the makeshift memorials of "candles and teddy bears" at the scene of the crime. Conspicuously absent from the daytime dramas created from these disastrous events is any extended coverage of what guns were used and the process by which they were obtained.

Yet, to Diaz, the media's cowardice pales in comparison to the Supreme Court's "snow job" in the 2008 Heller decision that struck down the District of Columbia's ban on the private ownership of handguns. Though gun proponents laud Heller as a triumph of Second Amendment rights, Diaz traces this decision not to frightened D.C. residents seeking a means to secure their persons and property, but to a well-funded and meticulously orchestrated scheme devised by Florida attorneys and libertarian think tanks to dismantle federal regulations, the result of which, as Diaz indicates through statistical probability, is more likely the deaths of innocents, not vicious criminals.

More ironically, those innocent victims tend to be the very people whom the gun lobby purports to protect: women and children. Indeed, women are more likely to be killed by their own or their companion's weapon than saved by them, as Diaz's statistics on suicides and crimes of passion show. He narrates the amazing story of the pistol-packing soccer mom Meleanie Hain, who famously and successfully fought the revocation of her license, only to be shot and killed by her husband in a murder-suicide.

Regardless of these true stories, the gun industry and gun lobby's cant that guns defend the "castle" and represent a constitutionally-protected empowerment of citizens has led Florida to deregulate the concealed-carry laws -- a step that has endangered and killed more police than criminals -- and to enact the infamous "stand your ground" statutes that killed Trayvon Martin and entitle gang members to protect their turf.

Increasingly, the weapons that gang members and mass murderers choose are assault weapons, which, Diaz argues, have simultaneously saved the fortunes of the gun industry and brought about unconscionable loss of innocent life. Responding to the steady decrease in gun sales through the 1980s and faced with the problem of fewer Americans desiring to own guns, the gun industry has manufactured a greater variety of militarized semiautomatic rifles and handguns, aggressively marketing them as fantasy fulfillment for those disinclined to enlist in actual military service. Expensive accessories like holsters, magazines, lasers and the like substantially increase industry profits.

The fantasies purveyed by the gun industry and its proponents owe their persuasiveness to legislation that suppresses the collection and dissemination of facts on guns used in crimes. Relying on the fallacy that public knowledge of tracing of weapons used in crimes to their sources compromises criminal investigations, the National Rifle Association and like organizations have shielded guns and the gun industry from public scrutiny and legal action, and have enabled the myth that militarized weapons actually make us safer. Indeed, that the NRA has wielded such influence is surprising, because as Diaz reveals through the analysis of voting patterns, its ability to sway elections has been grossly exaggerated, not only by the NRA, but by the politicians who lose elections and blame the gun lobby rather than their own unpopular policies or failed record.

Though Diaz's crusade to battle myths with facts entails a staggering amount of data, his book attains its power and readability from such stylistic touches as his contrasting the story of two Murfreesboro, Tenn., natives, one the proponent of child-safety restraints in cars, and the other, a developer of a popular assault weapon. Also, Diaz's allegiance to disinterested analysis doesn't prevent him from characterizing Wayne LaPierre as the "orifice through which [the NRA's] assertions are vented" or likening the fallout of Antonin Scalia's majority opinion on the Heller case to "toxic waste thoughtlessly released into the water supply." Clearly, Diaz hopes to counter the cynicism he perceives in the gun industry with his own invective, which the reader may choose to cheer or tune out.

Diaz concludes with a list of realistic and feasible solutions, and they boil down to a challenge to his readers: Will we become an informed citizenry and support proven public health policies that will truly ensure our safety, or will we surrender to the gun companies and the myths that enrich them?

[Dennis McDaniel is associate professor and chair of the English department at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.]

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