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Under the Gun, Loose with the Facts

Months after appearing at Sundance, Under the Gun debuts to the general public [1] on Sunday through the cable channel and streaming service Epix. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric, the documentary strives to explain American gun politics, with a special focus on post-Sandy Hook activism for gun control.

It will be hard for anyone—and it was certainly hard for this father of an 18-month-old—to watch the footage collected here of parents lamenting the deaths of their children. The filmmakers deserve credit for making the issue of gun violence resonate. And to be sure, Under the Gun makes some legitimate points. I myself am sympathetic [2], for example, to the ideas of expanding background checks and making the crime-gun-tracing system more efficient.

But as an attempt to grapple with the political debate, the movie mostly fails. As it flits from issue to issue, it says too much that is untrue or misleading in the service of promoting gun control. Pro-gun viewers will find it hard to be convinced by something that tries so little to understand, much less represent, their point of view.

The worst mistakes here rise to the level of factual error, and they undermine the film as a whole. There is no law, for example, “making it illegal to sue gun manufacturers”; rather, the law lays out the specific circumstances in which such lawsuits are allowed. These include cases stemming from illegal sales and design defects. The law was enacted amidst a wave of lawsuits against companies whose legally sold guns had eventually been used in crimes.

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Further, despite what was claimed in an al-Qaeda video [3] featured here without correction, one cannot “go to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card.” Fully automatic weapons, which fire continuously when the trigger is held down, are heavily regulated [4]. Gun owners have been harping on the media’s failure to grasp this automatic/semiautomatic distinction for decades.

And even when the film gets its facts right, it often makes little attempt to explore both sides of an issue. While everyday gun owners and activists make numerous appearances—some flattering and some definitely not—pro-gun experts are sorely lacking. Gun-control advocates are well-represented by folks like Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Robyn Thomas of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Mark Follman of Mother Jones. Viewers are left believing that there are no similarly well-informed researchers and journalists on the right.

John Lott—the most well-known researcher on this issue who takes a pro-gun view—mentioned on Twitter [5] last week that he was interviewed for about four hours for Under the Gun. He suspected his comments would be shortened to a few minutes; in fact he doesn’t appear at all. Another strong possibility could have been Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, who supports background checks but is highly dubious [6] of many anti-gun claims, or Eugene Volokh, a prominent constitutional lawyer who often writes about gun issues.

The result is that gun-control proponents peddle well-worn talking points and no one presses them to make a stronger case. A few examples that stand out:

There are smaller issues, too. The filmmakers offer a confusing description of how the background-check system works, for example, with narration about the current system (which requires checks only at licensed dealers) accompanied by on-screen text concerning a proposed reform (universal background checks).

They also miss an opportunity to drive home how badly the attempt to expand background checks flopped in 2013. As they note, one bill would have required background checks on all sales; what they don’t mention is that the legislation was severely watered down [11] before it fizzled out. The compromise that failed to pass (the “Manchin-Toomey” amendment) would have applied only to advertised sales and gun shows, not to transfers among family, acquaintances, etc.

I could go on, but that would get tedious in a hurry, if it hasn’t already. I’d mainly be repeating things I’ve written elsewhere (e.g., about the aggravating claim that places with higher gun ownership have more “gun deaths [12],” or the nuances of the “Charleston loophole [13]”) or addressing points that were debated to death by others long ago (e.g., whether those on the Terror Watch List [14] should be allowed to buy guns). The film rarely advances the discussion. It settles for capturing one side of it.

Under the Gun is at its best when it offers emotionally jarring portraits of Americans whose lives have been wracked by gun violence; it is at its worst when it tries to sort out what can be done to reduce such violence. A good argument presents a serious challenge to those who disagree, but to the well-informed gun-rights supporter, much of Under the Gun is merely grating.

Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen [15]

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Under the Gun, Loose with the Facts"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 14, 2016 @ 1:10 am

When someone believes their cause is so important that it justifies lying to accomplish its goals, the dishonesty itself discredits the cause. There’s a severe lack of respect for the integrity of others when you believe you need to trick them into decisions they wouldn’t make for themselves if they knew the truth.

The truth about the propensity to violence among Americans stems from a belief that if the grievance and offense taken reach a sufficient level, then it is justified. Like the widespread belief in torture, it works.

The problem is it weakens the taboo against killing, and the evaluation of offense can be highly subjective and emotional. There are people who overreact – and the taboo is too weak to prevent losing self control when emotion is heightened.

Society is not likely to put brakes on the idea of redemptive violence by teaching it morally unacceptable. There is the elevation of killing to a religious level, first with 1776 and then the crucible of the Civil War, with its strong religious overtones of moral cause, martyrdom, betrayal, all drenched in a crucible of the blood of 750,000 dead.

The great rise of America as world empire engaged in the continuous wars necessary for subduing foreign peoples requires millions of those who can carry out the necessary killing, and more millions willing to support them in it. A very low moral threshold against using weapons to take human life and a willingness to believe violence justified is the citizenry such a society’s imperial warmaking needs. One need only look at the lack of gun control in the government itself and its colossal killing arsenal that dwarfs all others on the earth combined, making America preeminent in violence.

Economic hardship also produces a heightened level of grievance among the population, leading to more readiness to use violence, but it is also necessary to pressing a sufficient number of recruits to consider joining up for wars in order to earn a living.

These are the real reasons for Americans’ unique violence, for which guns are not the cause, simply the means. In earlier eras, access and possession of guns did not correlate to the deadly use of them at the current higher rate, even with the lack of regulation.

Now it may be possible to reduce gun violence by means of police state tactics, itself built upon threats of violence against the population, but losing liberty is a terrible cost to maintain the psychology necessary to world empire. Better to withdraw from empire, a concept of ruling over foreign peoples itself profoundly unAmerican, and start to teach nonviolence as a societal moral imperative.

#2 Comment By J Harlan On May 14, 2016 @ 9:21 am

A invariable characteristic of gun control advocates is not knowing what the current laws are. In Canada a RCMP officer recently had to be corrected on the need to have a firearms licence to buy ammo by a radio interviewer (you do). The cop was adamant that no licence was required. He later apologized for his error but if the police don’t know what the law is you can understand why the run of the mill gun control advocate is confused.

#3 Comment By J Hall On May 14, 2016 @ 10:57 am

” Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. ” -Albert Einstein

We have had gun control as a public safety measure since 1934, on a federal level, with the NFA34; followed by the GCA68 in the 1960’s (which some may argue is Wiemar/Nazi plagiarized), and Brady in the 90’s. Including the now defunct “assault weapons ban” (also the 90’s), thats 4 major federal laws passed in almost 100 years, add to that the thousands of local and state laws, and if you ask me, if gun control worked as a public safety policy, then gun control proponents would not be constantly needing to “demand more”.

With all those laws being passed encompassing almost 100 years of our history, if weapons laws made for good public safety policy, we’d all be living in the violence free utopia that those proponents constantly promise will be the result of letting them violate, yet again, that which shall not be infringed.

The most glaring indictment of modern American weapons control laws is in the FACT that gun control is an abject failure as a public safety measure.

If background checks worked, and so-called “universal background checks” and government being able to deny Americans their rights based on secret watch lists would do that much better- then explain the ever-growing list of modern mass shooters who passed their BG checks and were able to buy their weapons in accordance with such laws?

Gun control has had almost 100 years, four major federal acts and countless other laws to prove any merit it may have had as a public safety measure.

Yet we still “need more”?

Why should we surrender further our natural, unalienable rights to self defense for their failed policies?

Why should we allow their previous violations to deprive us of the same?

We need to REPEAL “gun control”.

Not acquiesce to these peoples outright lies and give them more “reforms”.

The only way they can even get anyone reasonable to listen to them is by dancing in the blood of shooting victims that their laws failed to defend, and by outright LYING.

Not -ONE- of these new proposals from the anti-gun left will result in success in stopping mass shooters that armed resistance will.

Not even the ridiculous new demand that government have the authority to deny people their rights without due process and based on secret lists would have stopped the San Bernardino California massacre, as both Farook and Malik had recently had no problems flying abroad, with Malik passing the “extra scrutiny” required of foreigners entering the US from nations with terrorist problems!

GUN CONTROL FAILS.

#4 Comment By Rossbach On May 14, 2016 @ 8:17 pm

The anti-gun lobby should take heart. The same demographic change that is weakening first amendment protection is also weakening support for the second amendment. By mid-century, private firearms ownership will have gone the way of politically incorrect speech.

#5 Comment By Hans Nicolaisen On May 15, 2016 @ 10:45 am

Thanks for writing that and it will be something to keep in mind when new gun laws are proposed in state legislatures. I don’t think we have much to worry about here in Maine, but in other states there might be some people who have seen the film and then propose new laws that are not well thought-out.

#6 Comment By Jon On May 15, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

In an interview with The Guardian the director says that John Lott’s segment was cut because he’s “discredited”:

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This of course is the same director who repeats the lie that 40% of guns are sold without background checks.

After Colorado passed universal background checks and 1 year under the new law had passed, the checks on private sales turned out to be 4% of the total number of background checks. When you combine that real world data point with the fact that California (one of the largest gun markets) already has universal background checks, the notion that 40% of guns are sold without background checks is completely ludicrous.

#7 Comment By Drake_Burrwood On May 16, 2016 @ 10:35 am

My biggest Beef with background checks is that if they really wanted to improve use. It wouldn’t be a felony for a non-FFL dealer to use. They seem to want to require it along with masses of professional calibre and expence record keeping. Which they have already explained the won’t waste money of persueing down checks, but will rigorously prosecute technical violations of paperwork.
Second the Constitution Requires the setup of SOP of Training for the Militia for the States to use. Militia, not organized militia, not enrolled militia, not privately armed militia, not christian militia, Militia until the they create universil militia training, which is directly reqired.
They can’t come before a court with clean hand and say.. We want to do something else.

#8 Comment By Myron Hudson On May 16, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

Any problem must be defined before it can be solved. Misrepresenting a problem will not lead to an actual solution.

I think Fran Macadam nails it. We as a culture have given ourselves permission to deal death in the name of justice. And, we are highly tuned to perceive injustice.

Peak gun violence was around 1994 if I recall correctly. Started going down under Clinton’s now politically incorrect sentencing laws.

I do have a problem with modern gun culture though. When I grew up it was part of hunter culture. Vigilantism and politically motivated armed confrontations with law enforcement were not normal or should I say common. I have a gun myself, but my biggest concern is not the jack-booted thugs of the gummint; it’s all these yahoos waving them around like some kind of flag.

#9 Comment By john On May 16, 2016 @ 11:02 pm

Murder control isn’t working either. Murder is illegal and yet still goes on. Plainly the laws against murder are ineffective and should be scrapped.

#10 Comment By AG On May 17, 2016 @ 12:38 am

I agree with pretty much everything that the author says, but we gun owners are going to have to do more then complain about those darn liberals.
The great majority of us agree that keeping guns away from people that really should not have them isn’t a bad idea.
At this time, though, conservative lawmakers have completely failed to come up with constructive ideas. It’s only a partisan issue because only one side is willing to take action. Dragging your feet is not the same as being a Statesman.

#11 Comment By Johann On May 17, 2016 @ 9:37 am

When one commits murder, there is a victim. When one possesses a gun, there is no victim. When a gun is used in a crime, there is a victim, and there is already a law against the criminal act.

#12 Comment By Moe On May 25, 2016 @ 6:49 am

Katie Couric is a complete liar with no journalist integrity. She ask a question of the membership of the VCDL…”if there are no background checks for gun purchasers how do you prevent felons and terrorist from say like walking into a license gun dealer and purchasing a gun?” The membership responded with a lucid and detailed answer. In the movie however, they cut to footage of the members sitting silently for 8 seconds as if they had been dumbfounded by the question. In the raw unedited audio found in the link below, you can advance to 36:40 to hear what was really said. This deliberate deception should make any rational viewer seriously question the credibility of the entire film.

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#13 Comment By Sailorcurt On May 26, 2016 @ 6:19 am

“The great majority of us agree that keeping guns away from people that really should not have them isn’t a bad idea.”

The problem is that as soon as you agree to that premise, the question arises: “who, specifically, is defined as “people that really should not have them”? Who gets to determine that? Under what criteria?

If a person is so dangerous that they can’t be trusted in society with a firearm, why are they trusted in society with any number of other potential lethal weapons? Why are they allowed to own a car? A chainsaw? An axe? Gasoline and matches? If they are that dangerous to society, they don’t need to be on a “can’t buy a gun” list, they need to have a keeper.

Should a felon who was convicted of the heinous crime of selling orchids without a license or packaging lobsters in plastic rather than paper lose their right to own the most effective tools of self defense? If so, why?

Should a gang-banger with multiple misdemeanors (undoubtedly plea bargained down from felonies) be allowed to buy a gun?

What about the terrorist watch list? You know…the one that has had the names of sitting US Senators and decorated war heroes on it…should the people on that secret list be prevented from having a gun, even though being on that list requires no due process, the people on the list don’t even know they are on it until they are denied access to travel (or gun rights in this case), they aren’t allowed to know why they are on the list, face their accusers or defend themselves?

How about members of organizations that fit the FBI criteria for a potential domestic terrorist group…you know, organizations that promote such subversive activities as quoting the Founders of the nation, displaying historical patriotic flags, using patriotic slogans, voicing support for the Constitution, things like that?

The problem is that once you agree that some free people should not have access to guns, it then just becomes a matter of who gets to decide. The antis love that idea because then they can just chip away and chip away and chip away until, a few generations from now, the only people allowed to own guns will be the politically connected, wealthy, and famous…or no one, which is the ultimate goal.

#14 Comment By Sailorcurt On May 26, 2016 @ 6:32 am

“Katie Couric is a complete liar with no journalist integrity.”

Absolutely true. This “documentary” is nothing more than propaganda as evidenced by the clear and convincing case that she misrepresented the responses of the pro-gun group that she interviewed.

There is unequivocal evidence of this as linked by Moe above.

It was an intentional act of dishonesty. And the “smoking gun” evidence is plain to see. This is the fact that needs to be trumpeted loud and far. It undermines the credibility of the entire piece.

They interviewed John Lott for the piece but didn’t air any of his interview, the director claimed it was because he had a credibility problem.

They also interviewed the President of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, Phillip Van Cleave, for several hours and didn’t include any of that interview either. Are they claiming that Phillip, a well respected fixture in Virginia politics, is also not credible?

No, the problem wasn’t with credibility, the problem was that these two (and probably more) are intelligent, articulate and convincing proponents of gun rights and their interviews would not have supported the propaganda purposes of this project.

The unsuspecting public needs to know that this piece is nothing more than a dishonest infomercial for gun control and that Katie Couric is not an unbiased journalist but a partisan activist.

#15 Comment By Rob On May 26, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

It has been well documented that the various anti-gun organizations are simply using universal background checks as a stepping stone to far more draconian gun legislation and restrictions. Considering the fact that the justice department has done a horrendous job of enforcing existing checks, there is zero reason to be for such legislation. There is such shoddy enforcement of the laws on the books, and the fact that they serve as a hindrance only to the law abiding, that passing more laws is absolutely off the table for anyone with common sense.

#16 Comment By ernest meyer On February 16, 2017 @ 3:24 am

Its quite obvious to any thinking person that a gun-violence tax, to pay for the $16 billion per year in gun violence costs born by the taxpayer, would reverse the continuing climb in deaths and injuries, as pressure groups would have an incentive to reduce the tax. It’s also quite obvious that such a utilitarian method is too rational to withstand the emotive, fear-driven attacks on it by those who profit from manipulating the weak-minded into buying more weapons. The truth being, guns are far more dangerous to their owners than to anyone else. But that truth is too close to the truth.