21st: Gun mad

While the oldest, nastiest debate online remains deadlocked, gun rights activists on the net get organized as their opponents fall behind.

By Andrew Leonard

Published March 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Just minutes after the March 24 shootings that left four students and one teacher dead at a public school in Jonesboro, Ark., gun control flame wars began, once again, to rage across cyberspace. Not that they had ever really simmered down. Incessant "gun thrashes" are one of the defining features of virtual life, and have been for as long as anyone can remember. In newsgroups, chat rooms and via dueling Web pages, the "gun grabbers" (pro-gun control) and the "gun nuts" (pro-gun rights) are constantly whacking each other over the head. Jonesboro just raised the volume.

The typical exchange left little room for compromise.

"Here's whom I blame," wrote one participant in the Usenet newsgroup talk.politics.guns, "two boys with redneck parents and guardians who kept guns at home and raised their little rednecks-to-be with firearms as central values in their lives."

"If that teacher ... had been packing," riposted another, "she could've perhaps returned fire. Ditto for any other teacher or adult on site."

Arguably, more words have been exchanged online on the topic of gun control than on any other single subject. And for what? To an observer surveying the wreckage of a forum like talk.politics.guns, where the ratio of Nazi references to actual messages approaches 1-to-1, the hopeless sound and fury of online gun fervor truly does seem to signify nothing. What good is the greatest medium of communication ever invented if all we do with it is scream at each other?

Such surface hostilities, however, obscure the real role of the Net in the gun control debate: as a tool for grass-roots political activism. The Net's potential for fostering political change is well-hyped -- but examples are hard to find. Gun politics deliver on the promise: Gun rights activists in the United States are effectively employing the Net as part of a state-by-state campaign to push for legislation that will make it easier for citizens to carry concealed weapons. While the yahoos on both sides blather on in the newsgroups and chat rooms, the gun rights activists are marching.

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The first thing one notices about guns and the Net is a gaping disparity: One side outnumbers the other.

"The information on the Net is overwhelmingly pro-gun," says Bruce Gryniewski, executive director of Washington Ceasefire, a gun
control group in Washington state.

"There is a certain asymmetry," says Jake Bassett, office manager for Californians for Responsible Gun Laws. "I think a lot of it is that the NRA has a long history of being a grass-roots movement that has been able to mobilize in every other medium, so the mobilization that they have achieved on the Internet is no surprise."

Advocates of gun control are quick to attribute the preponderance of pro-gun information on the Net to their own lack of funding and dependence on volunteers, and they are eager to blame the deep pockets of the National Rifle Association for their own underdog status in cyberspace. To be sure, the NRA has an immense Web site, and NRA representatives have no qualms about taking credit for the high profile of gun owners on the Net.

But a good look at the Net shows that, if anything, there are far more dedicated volunteers active on the Net fighting against gun control than working for it. It isn't just a matter of NRA funding; this passion runs deep.

"Many gun owners are absolutely driven by their gun ownership," says Simon Chapman, a medical professor at the University of Sidney who maintains a set of pro-gun control pages in Australia. "It is almost a defining characteristic of their very being. I know very few people on the gun control side for whom it so dominates their lives. For many, gun ownership and the idea that there may be restrictions is fundamentally threatening to something profoundly psychological."

The dominance of gun rights activists online is partly a result of the historical demographics of Net use. Until recently, the Net has been home to a disproportionately large number of libertarians for whom the right to bear arms is a first principle. According to Joe Olson, the organizer of a grass-roots group in Minnesota pushing for gun-friendly legislation, gun rights activism follows naturally from the computing background common to Net libertarians.

"It is incredible the number of people of our organization who list themselves as programmers, information managers and the like," says Olson. "People who deal with factual information and make rational choices on the basis of real information tend to come down on our side of the issue, so I have a coterie of top-notch computer people who want to see the issue moved ahead."

But demographics alone don't explain the fervor of anti-gun control opinion on the Net. From the gun owner point of view, the Net offers the possibility to redress imbalances in how the gun control debate is presented by mainstream media.

"Gun control certainly is one of the issues on the Net," says J. D. Tuccille, the "guide" for a Mining Company site devoted to civil liberties. "More than any other medium, the Net gave a voice to
supporters of the right to keep and bear arms. Most major newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets tend to show sympathy to emotionally satisfying, if brain-dead, 'ban 'em now' reactions to tragedies like the Jonesboro massacre. Philosophical arguments and academic studies that tend to favor gun rights get short shrift on CNN."

"The simple fact is, there is a wealth of information supporting the idea of private gun ownership that is not discussed in major media," says J. Neil Schulman, author of the recently published book "SELF CONTROL Not Gun Control."

"But I don't need the audience of the Los Angeles Times, or Dan Rather, or Tom Brokaw in order to put this information on the World Wide Web, or into Usenet newsgroups," says Schulman. "Gun control advocates, when faced with these facts, dissemble and all but the most obstinately dishonest of them slink away in shame."

But what are the facts? Even if consensus is impossible to achieve online -- even if the medium does prove to be bankrupt as a forum for the swaying of undecided hearts and minds -- that doesn't mean that the Net, as a storehouse for information, can't help facilitate a more informed debate, on or offline. But is there any connection between the deluge of factoids and infobytes available online and the real world of public policy and legislative change?

Tuccille thinks so.

"The best example of the impact of the Net is the 'Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns' study by John R. Lott and David B. Mustard of the University of Chicago School of Law," says Tuccille. "The Lott-Mustard piece basically showed that letting people legally carry pistols helps to drive violent crime rates down. Now, that's counter-intuitive if you're a regular reader of Time magazine, but it's a good, solid study. And when it came out it was buried deep inside of the New York Times, never to be heard from again."

"The study's power lies in the fact that it is, dare I say it, ammunition for gun rights advocates that appeared just as the Net was becoming the sort of mass medium that could spread such information far and wide," says Tuccille. "Whereas 10 years ago you might've got into a chat with a good ol' boy about guns and heard him tell you the old 'you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers,' which isn't the most soothing argument ever heard, now he's as likely to cite a few choice statistics from the Lott-Mustard study and other papers that he's run across online. I actually had this happen to me at the counter of a gun shop -- the clerk beat me to the punch with the study cites."

The Lott-Mustard study examines crime data from thousands of U.S. counties from 1977 to 1992. The study examined what
happens to crime rates in counties that have passed laws letting citizens carry concealed weapons. It found that "allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes, without increasing accidental deaths."

The implications of this study intersect with the Jonesboro tragedy. When the talk.politics.guns regulars started declaiming how lives could have been saved in Jonesboro if the teachers had been "packing" guns, those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the gun control debate might be excused for deeming the assertions ludicrous, if not criminally insane. But in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece published a week after the Jonesboro shootings, John Lott observed that the shootings had occurred in one of the "few places in Arkansas where possessing a gun is illegal" -- within 1,000 feet of a public school. Lott then cited his own study as evidence supporting the thesis that if teachers in Arkansas could have borne concealed weapons, they might have been able to defend the students against attack.

The fight over the right to carry concealed weapons is perhaps the most hotly contested battleground in the gun world today. And while on the national level it may appear as if gun control advocates have been winning the gun control battle -- with the passage of the Brady Bill and the ban on importation of certain models of semiautomatic weapons as the primary exhibits -- on the state level, gun rights activists have been increasingly successful in getting "right-to-carry" legislation passed. According to Tanya Metaksa, chief lobbyist for the NRA, in the last three years alone, "We have doubled the number of states that have right-to-carry laws."

And the publication of the Lott-Mustard study on the Net has played a role in that success, say both gun control and gun rights activists.

"I think it is very much being utilized by proponents of right-to-carry in those states that don't have it as a further justification of why that legislation is needed," says Metaksa.

"I think, on a grass-roots level, [the Lott-Mustard study] has had a great impact," agrees Washington Ceasefire's Gryniewski. "People always refer to it. I think there is a direct connection."

The Lott-Mustard study is impossible to miss. It is widely linked (even by its opponents) and widely copied. According to Lott, its primary author, there were 46,000 downloads of the paper in the five months following its August 1996 Web publication.

"For me as an academic, lots of times you feel lucky if 10 people read your paper," says Lott. "When you are talking about tens of thousands downloading a paper, it's pretty overwhelming."

"To the extent that people are better informed about an issue, and given that [this could be] the most debated topic on the Net, I think it helps dispel myths. I think it makes it harder for people to pass laws that may be well-intentioned but may actually accomplish the opposite of
what they want to do," says Lott, whose book, "More Guns Less Crime," is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

There is a downside to Net publication, of course. It's easy to disseminate information but it's just as easy to rebut it (although it must be noted that the rebuttals to Lott-Mustard are much scarcer than references and links to the study itself). Anyone who seriously digs into a hotly contested issue is likely to find more questions than answers.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Gun Policy and Research Center and at Georgetown University have attacked the Lott-Mustard study on numerous methodological grounds. Gun control advocacy organizations have taken the fight even closer to home. According to the Violence Policy Center, John Lott is a "biased" activist researcher who has also authored papers that attack environmentalism and promote smoker's rights.

Ideally, the Net allows interested parties to research any topic endlessly. Not only are rebuttals available, but there are also rebuttals to the rebuttals, ad infinitum. The charge of bias can be reversed in a flash: The researchers at Johns Hopkins, for example, are primarily funded by the Joyce Foundation, which specifically grants funds from its "gun violence" program to "foster broader public understanding of the health implications of gun violence, including an understanding that will lead to strategies that emphasize prevention and do not rely solely on punishment."

The more information, the less truth? Ultimately, there is support for every argument somewhere on the Net. That, in turn, makes it more important to examine how the information is used than to simply celebrate the Net's ability to make all that information available.

"[The Lott-Mustard study] puts steel in the spines of gun rights supporters," says Tuccille. "Now, they don't just have strong feelings at odds with the talking heads on TV. They have access to studies, research, online publications and information that might have been missed by the major media. It's a community that reaches everywhere that somebody has a .22 rifle, a PC and a phone line."

Joe Olson, whose Minnesota right-to-carry Web site has a prominent link to the Lott-Mustard study, says, "We now have the ability, for example, to contact about 300 people directly in an instant and their turnaround is to contact an average of 50 each. We can generate an enormous number of phone calls in an afternoon. We now reach close to 20,000 people, and those people reach their legislators, and we couldn't have done it without the Net. An average mailing is 50 cents a piece. It would cost $900 to send out a mailing, and take a week to 10 days to get it there. The problem in the past with political activism has been cost and time, and the Internet resolves both of those very favorably."

There is no Web page devoted to gun control advocacy in Minnesota. Jake Barnett, of Californians for Responsible Gun Laws, admits that gun control activists lag far behind their gun rights competitors.

"There's a long way to go," says Barnett. "They need to catch up on a number of fronts, and the Internet is merely one of them. The NRA is a model of what grass-roots activism can do -- to get legislation passed and interest in these issues as widely distributed as possible."

Indeed, that is the lesson to be learned from the gun control debate --
beyond the discouraging stalemate in the endless flame wars over the issue online, political action is taking place. Whether you agree with the gun rights activists or not, you can't ignore that they have recognized this vital power of online communication, and are among the first to make effective use of it.

"What it boils down to is that the Net favors freedom," says Tuccille. "By empowering individuals, making communication easier and easing the dissemination of information, the Net bypasses political and media gatekeepers and advances the cause of personal liberty. Free speech, medical marijuana, encryption, financial information -- it's not just guns; it's everything that we use guns to defend."

Tuccille's rhetoric will make gun control advocates wince. But if they hope to prevail, they'll need to learn to use the Net as adroitly as their opponents.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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