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Private Guns, Public Health

David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard University, harbors a deep aversion to guns. His book embodies the institutional prejudices of a cohort of academics notable for their abiding predisposition for state control over individuals for “the public good.” So ingrained is the bias that it almost dashes one’s hopes that firearms can ever be treated fairly in the academic literature.

The political movement to ban gun ownership began in earnest in the 1970s. Its partisans relied mostly on emotional appeals rather than on any scientific evidence of the efficacy of banning guns. When the faction’s allies in organized medicine and public health began in the 1980s to publish advocacy research supportive of gun control, gun banners smelled victory.

But two parallel currents in the academy changed everything. First, as constitutional scholars began seriously to study the origins of the Second Amendment, they concluded with near unanimity that the founders meant to affirm an individual right to own and use firearms. Second, a mounting body of criminology research refuted the medical advocacy researchers’ claims that gun owners are unstable, dangerous, and generally responsible for what the advocates called the “disease” of gun violence. The two most prominent criminology scholars disputing the public-health advocacy researchers are John Lott and Gary Kleck. Hemenway directs considerable firepower toward these two, since their work seriously impeaches his own.

One section (Self-Defense Gun Use) reprises a 1997 tussle between Hemenway and Kleck in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology over how to determine the frequency of defensive gun uses. This episode, which Hemenway now revisits with apparent gusto, was made possible by the inherent difficulties in studying complex phenomena such as gun ownership and use. Both sides marshal seemingly credible arguments, and one would need graduate-level competency in statistics and econometric modeling to sort out their conflicting claims. Unfortunately, the necessary imprecision of the social scientists’ methods invite the influence of bias. And it is Hemenway’s manifest bias that most characterizes his book.

A disturbing feature is his sprinkling of bigotry between bits of science. In the first chapter he pays brief tribute to typical gun owners being over 40 and in the higher income groups—not exactly a crime-prone demographic. But then quickly come withering deconstructions of the American frontier cowboy (“a hired hand with a borrowed horse, a mean streak, and syphilis”), owners of semiautomatic guns (“more likely than other gun owners to report that they binge drink”), and combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (“likely to kill animals in fits of rage”).

Hemenway is faithful to the public-health creed of guns as pathogens, and his description of this model reveals much about the psychology of public-health activists. Foremost is a nonjudgmental view of human behavior. In the public-health world there are no criminals and no victims. This tenet of progressivism guides the whole public-health anti-gun movement. To acknowledge, for example, a natural right of self-defense would require validating gun ownership and use.

So it’s not surprising that Hemenway gives the public-health treatment to the seventeenth-century classical-liberal philosopher John Locke. Hemenway asserts that Locke’s natural-rights tradition provides little evidence for an individual rather than a collective interpretation of the Second Amendment. He maintains that Locke meant that “rights should be determined and disputes resolved not through private judgment of each individual backed by private force but rather by the public judgment of the community.” Thus does Hemenway in one sentence dispose of the notion that self-defense is a natural right.

Locke’s second treatise, however, is unambiguous on the matter of self-defense. True, Locke’s concept of political society requires resolution of disputes (for example, a highwayman taking a traveler’s money by guile) through the judgment of the community. But in a separate example, the highwayman tries to take the traveler’s money by drawing his sword. In this case, Locke writes, the traveler may use deadly force to defend himself against the highwayman, who has put himself into a state of war with the traveler.

Hemenway’s clear misreading of Locke is proof enough of the author’s blinding bias. It colors his science, his reading of history, and ultimately his credibility as a scientist. One need not be a scientist to observe human nature and to discern how it directs human events. Perhaps social science will someday be free of emotional warp and political prejudice. Until it is, common sense and our political tradition of freedom will serve to guide firearm policy.

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