Emory Report

September 27, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 6

Emory's 'gun men' talk about America and firearms

Arthur Kellermann is a professor and director of the Center for Injury Control in the School of Public Health. Michael Bellesiles is an associate professor in history. What both men have in common is an interest in guns. In recent years, especially in the wake of recent shootings across the country, they have been quoted in national publications on the subject-Kellermann for his research into gun violence as a public health problem, and Bellesiles for his work on the American "gun culture," or lack thereof, prior to World War II.

Senior Editor Michael Terrazas sat down with Bellesiles and Kellermann to ask their thoughts on guns and gun violence.

Kellermann: Gun manufacturers are the only major manufacturing concern in America that is by statute exempt from any standards for product safety, mechanical reliability or harm. When Congress created the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Rifle Association's allies in Congress went in and specifically said "this agency will have no jurisdiction over firearms."

Cars are subject to all kinds of product safety regulations, and that is one of the reasons we have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in car crashes--from building safer cars. A teddy bear has to meet product safety regulations-flammability of fabric, toxicity of material in it. The only product controls over guns in America are they cannot be greater than .50 caliber-one half-inch barrel diameter. They cannot be fully automatic, meaning they keep firing after you press the trigger. Or they can't be one of a small number of weapons that have been called assault weapons.

Bellesiles: There's a legal story in this. This is the part that intrigues me the most. Because the standard American law is there's no right without a remedy. In other words, if you have a right as a citizen, you should have a remedy by which you can guarantee your right. The CPSC established our right to safety in any goods we buy that are American-made, and the remedy is to go to a court of law. But because of recent legislation--in Texas signed by George W. [Bush] his own self, and in Georgia signed by our governor--we cannot sue gun makers. So we have a right to product safety, but not from gun manufacturers. There's no remedy in the law.

How did this come to be?

B: Well, my personal judgment is it was very much a product of the manufacturers working to create demand for their firearms in the years after the Civil War because they had a crisis of overproduction, to use the economist's phrase. American gun manufacturers, within the space of four years, had become the most productive gun makers in the world. They surpassed Germany, France and England, which had been the top three prior to the Civil War.

To give you an idea, the Colt Firearm Company's peak production in the 1850s was 2,000 guns a year; in 1864, during the Civil War, they made 1.2 million. So when the Civil War was over, they wanted to continue these levels of production, and the only way to do that is to persuade people that they must have firearms. Before he died, Samuel Colt created advertising campaigns that linked the guns to America's heritage that said, "This is how we attained our freedom--through the gun."

Secondly, he connected it to manliness, and I mean really connected it. On gun barrels, gun stocks, he had engraved scenes of fathers protecting their families, men protecting their womenfolk from savages, from criminals. And he did everything he could to promote this. He was the first gun maker to advertise that your gun was a means of home protection, which is something that apparently had not occurred to Americans beforehand, that they needed a gun for home protection.

K: On a more modern time frame, if there was a pivotal moment in political activism, it was when the National Rifle Association was captured by, for lack of a better term, the extreme right wing. Prior to that time the NRA was largely an organization of hunters, sportsmen, conservationist-types. You know, go out and kill game, teach your son how to shoot, target practice.

There was an undercurrent of the "Second Amendment" crowd, and I use that term very loosely. They essentially organized and captured the organization in one of its annual meetings and radicalized the NRA into an organization that became focused around controlling the political agenda, protecting gun rights, aggressively targeting legislators, etc. The kind of organization it is today is totally different than it was 30, 40 years ago.

Normally you have a bell-shaped curve in an organization, and the leadership more or less represents the middle. In the case of the NRA, you have a bell-shaped curve well to the right of the U.S. population overall, but the leadership is in that 95th percentile--the most hardcore, the most ideologically pure, the most committed. And they pull the entire rest of the organization and its dues-payers with them.

How does it maintain its influence?

B: They have a database that is the envy of any lobby group in the United States. They have it organized by Congressional district, so if your member of Congress is wavering on some piece of legislation, you will receive an e-mail that says, "Send this letter to your congressman." So they have this instantaneous response.

K: The other issue is, there's a passion multiplier. People ask, "How can 3 million or 4 million people or 2 million, or whatever the real number is, have that much impact?" Because they will vote, and they will vote on that issue and that issue only. Just to give you a singular example, I think that [Gov.] Roy Barnes signing that piece of legislation was shameful. I found it abhorrent. But, by and large, I think he's a great governor, and I think he's doing a fantastic job. I totally disagree with him on this issue, but at this point I'm very likely to vote for him again.

On the other hand, if he had vetoed that legislation there are probably 20,000 or 30,000 people in Georgia, if not more, who would have worked day and night to defeat him in the next election, irrespective of what he did in every other aspect of the governance of Georgia. So you're a governor, and you've got all these folks out there that you're going to aggravate but they're basically going to give you a pass because they look at your overall product, or you're gonna hack off a small group of radicals. What are you going to do? It's political calculus.

As long as we're talking about legislation, if you could write a piece of gun legislation and know it would pass, what would it be?

B: I don't do policy; that's his department.

K: Actually, what I would most like to see done doesn't require a bit of legislation: I would aggressively work on re-programming federal, state and local law enforcement to take a strategic and preventive approach to gun violence, rather than wait for the next 911 call. In fact, we're working very hard to do that here in Atlanta.

If there was a policy issue I would promote today, it would be product safety legislation around firearms. I would require all new firearms to meet a standard to be child resistant. That will certainly prevent the deaths of about 300 to 500 kids a year, and it would prevent the injuries of several thousand. It would prevent a lot of unintentional injuries in adults, and the fact of the matter is that the NRA will fight it tooth and nail, with vehemence and vengeance, because it involves controlling the product.

I've seen you both quoted in national publications, especially in the wake of Columbine and all these stories about gun violence and gun control, but often reporters are just looking for quick soundbites. What is it that's been on your minds that you've really wanted to get out and haven't?

B: I'm nasty in this way because I won't do that. I'll send anyone copies of my articles. Historians believe history is complex; we don't like simple answers. I don't want to see myself reduced to a sentence, my research reduced to a sentence. So I've been very satisfied with how my research's been treated, especially by the economists in the European magazines, they're very thorough.

K: My stuff gets quoted a lot and paraphrased a lot, and it lends itself to one-liners--a home with a gun in it is X times more likely to be the scene of a homicide than a home without. But in science, when you paraphrase a number, that can get dangerous real fast. It's easy to make [a mistake] when you're a reporter, and you're under a deadline, and you didn't quite pay attention, or whatever. So, like Michael, more often now I'll say, "I will fax them to you; you've got them in front of you. Read the words. I would be more comfortable with you quoting a sentence out of the paper than have me give you a number and then have you kind of rewrite it."

B: I'm going to change my answer. It's more a picture that I would want people to see, rather than a sentence. [Holds out an old black and white photograph]. This is Dodge City, in its wildest west days. What this sign says is all your firearms must be checked with the marshal. This is not unusual--every "Wild West" town required that you check your guns with the sheriff or the marshal, and the consequence was that murder rates dropped, often to zero.

Dodge City averaged one murder a year after its very first year of founding. Its first year of founding, they had 11 murders. There were no gun controls whatsoever. Gun controls were put into place the second year. And then, till the end of the century, one murder a year on average--there were some years where there none.

K: Hard to make a movie about that.

B: Yeah, I know!

K: It really is hard to run a TV series on that.

How did you get involved in this line of research in the first place?

B: Mine was an accident. I actually skeet-shoot, by the way. So I'm familiar with guns--I used to be in the NRA, as a matter of fact. But it was a pure accident. I was writing a book on economics and law in the frontier in the early republic, and I was using probate records. The meta-phor I like to use is the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," which has the famous line about the dog that didn't bark. And the inspector from Scotland Yard says, "I thought the dog didn't bark." And Holmes says, "That's the point." It's what's not there that is just as important.

So I ended up going through 11,500 probate records that recorded everything those people owned when they died. I wasn't seeing guns. I became obsessed with this idea--where are the guns? They're all supposed to have guns! Everything I've ever read said "universal gun ownership." Then I'd discovered it was everything I'd read that had been published since World War II. I looked at the older histories, and historians in the 19th, early 20th century knew these people didn't own guns, but it was the probate records that made me aware of it. That was just a fascinating topic, and I started researching. Purely academic.

K: I owe my interest to Marvin Gaye. I grew up in east Tennessee, grew up around guns, liked to shoot. Like every good Southern boy, I found them fascinating. I had just finished residency training, very involved in emergency medicine, and was doing a public health fellowship. I was talking over a burger one day in the student center when the news came up that Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed by his father in a domestic dispute, and I remember saying between mouthfuls of burger, "This is nuts."

We have all these people with guns in their homes, ostensibly for protection, yet when I read a story it's usually a suicide, domestic violence or an accidental shooting. I'm still waiting to treat my first bad guy blown away by a homeowner, and I've seen or been involved in tons and tons of gunshot victims, including people shot in their homes.

I was learning about a research method in public health known as the case control technique, which was the research technique used to explore the relationship between cigarettes and lung cancer. And I said, "Why doesn't somebody assess the impact, the protective or dangerous impact of guns in the home, the way we've examined the connection between cigarettes and cancer?" It's academically approachable. This is a testable argument. This doesn't have to be one that's fought out through politics or bumper stickers; it can be answered scientifically.

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