Newspaper Promotes Anti-Gun Nonsense

The story, "Dad, Teen Track Gun Use"
reaches unsupported conclusions,
but gets front-page coverage anyway.

By Alan Korwin, Author
Gun Laws of America

In a nutshell:

An ASU professor and his young son counted some newspaper stories on gun use, and from this concluded that guns are rarely used in self defense. The results of this "research" appeared on the front page of "The Tribune" (Arizona) and is being published in the Canadian journal "Injury Prevention." The results, declared scientific by the professor, were said to cast doubt on a famous scholarly study (Kleck, 1995) that found guns are used constantly in self defense. The father and son conclude that perhaps guns should be sold, "without bullets."

My open letter to Prof. Fabricius (and ASU leaders, the newspaper brass and the journal editor) appears below. The original story appears at the end for reference, after some remarks exchanged candidly by me and the reporter, and another contact at "The Tribune."

Alan.
---------------------------------
April 29, 2004
From: BLOOMFIELD PRESS
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To: Associate Professor William Fabricius
Dept. of Psychology
Arizona State University
P.O. Box 871104
Tempe, AZ 85287-1104

Dear Professor Fabricius,

I was dismayed to read the recent story in "The Tribune" about you, your son, and your tabulation of old newspaper stories, presented as a scientific study of guns used in self defense in America.

It's hard to believe that no one in the editing chain saw the obvious errors in the tale, "Teen, Dad Track Gun Use" (4/8/04). I'm sorry to inform you that you have merely tracked the story selection choices of the newspaper, not the use of firearms in American life. The story reflects an unfortunate and embarrassing lack of judgment.

Although you declared in the story that the work was scientific, it is clearly anything but that. The concept is flawed, the sample unrepresentative, and the published conclusion is literally preposterous. It is a glaring instance of what is meant by the term, "junk science."

Perhaps an example will help illuminate the problem.

Can you imagine conducting a similar "study" that finds most black people are either criminals, entertainers or sports figures, based on an analysis of blacks who are covered in the paper? It is too outrageous to consider! Can you then see how similarly flawed your father-and-son project was, as far as meaningful research goes?

Can you see how the newspaper's non-critical retelling of this nonsense, with no counterpoint whatsoever, is biased and derogatory? Every ethical tenet of journalism and scholarship requires a prominent correction. I understand how difficult this is, but admitting the errors is the honorable course and it is the best choice. Your mistake has been detected, acknowledge it, and move on.

Although your child is quoted as saying: "Almost nobody uses their guns in self-defense," the only accurate statement he could have made from the research described by reporter Marija Potkonjak is that "almost no stories about using guns in self defense appeared in the newspaper clippings I collected when I was 12 years old, six years ago." While it is clever that you spent time to track down judicial resolutions of those shoot-em-up stories, that is no substitute for, and does not mitigate, using such an egregiously biased sample.

This misrepresentation harms a huge segment of the body politic that exercise their civil right to keep and bear arms. It is typical of a kind of endemic bias that observers have noted for many years. By any measure it is a great enough deception to warrant a prominent correction to the front-page Tribune story.

People who unfortunately hate guns and gun owners -- and there are many of them out there, paradoxically thinking of themselves as beyond hate -- no doubt loved your story, took heart in its unsupported conclusions, and will retell it. They have been misled. Your report falsely denigrates cherished rights Americans have, and have always had.

You have exposed, and are a victim of, a situation gun owners know about and constantly lament -- many people think guns are mainly linked to crime, because that's normally all the news media ever show. You and your son were erroneously led to this very conclusion yourselves. The fact that guns save lives, guns stop crime, guns are for safety and guns are why America is still free, these are themes the mainstream media somehow consistently omit. It's not a conspiracy, just business as usual, and would make a good story by itself.

In contrast, true scholarly work is substantial on DGUs (Defensive Gun Uses), with three university-level studies and a study from the U.S. Justice Department under President Clinton. These all point to several million DGUs annually. The virtually total lack of coverage of such incidents by the news media, which your work detected, is thoroughly documented in John Lott's scrupulously researched new book, "The Bias Against Guns." That book would be illuminating for you. You and your son have taken steps to confirm Dr. Lott's work, but nothing more. It's widely recognized that reported incidents have little bearing on total incidents. The FBI and other authorities don't even routinely collect data on self defense because it, and justifiable homicide, are not crimes.

Blatant errors like this, which are obvious on their face to even a simple reader, contribute to the severe lack of credibility the press has been enduring lately. People do not trust the media because the media isn't earning any trust.

Your contribution to this sorry state of affairs cries out for a retraction. If you allow "Injury Prevention" to publish your specious report, knowing now how unfounded it is, you would bring shame to yourself, your son, your university, and the publishers of that hurtful material. One must wonder about the bona fides of a Canadian journal that would give ink to such amateur silliness, and an ASU associate professor who would publicly state this methodology is scientific.

Please do the right thing and make a prompt and prominent correction to "The Tribune" and to "Injury Prevention." A count and analysis of newspaper stories about guns says nothing meaningful about self defense or actual gun use in America.

If you feel a correction to the newspaper story is not warranted, please let me know why, so I can explain that to people when they ask me.

I've copied this letter to some folks I know at "The Tribune", at ASU, and elsewhere, who might have seen your story and been misled.

Sincerely,
Alan Korwin, Author
The Arizona Gun Owner's Guide
Gun Laws of America
------------------------------------------

I suggested a correction that would be accurate if run by "The Tribune":

""The Tribune" ran a page-one story by staff reporter Marija Potkonjak (4/8/04) that said a new study shows that guns are rarely used in self defense. Further examination however shows that the study, conducted by amateurs, was not scientific and its conclusions were not supported by the limited and inadequate research conducted. The study only confirmed that newspaper coverage of gun incidents is neither complete nor representative of what actually occurs in society. The scholarly studies that have found millions of defensive gun uses annually are not impacted by this father-and-son project, as we had erroneously reported. "The Tribune" deeply regrets the errors, apologizes for the aspersions it cast, the abusive denigration of human rights it implied, and is forwarding a copy of this retraction to the Canadian journal "Injury Prevention" that we indicated intends to publish the inaccurately produced report."

Excerpts of what a reporter at "The Tribune" told me:

I loved your "correction," but I hope you realize it's hardly appropriate for our corrections section...

Of course I'm squirmy on this. I agree with a lot of what you said, but I'm not about to trash Marija for this story. Nor do I feel comfortable telling my editor he was an idiot for running this story, which is basically what I'd be telling him if I do what you ask...

I'll trash the content of the story all day long, though. As far as running what people say, we print BS the cops and the governor and our "leaders" tell us all the time...

We depend on our readers to keep us on our toes sometimes when we don't have the time, resources or know-how to check stuff out 100 percent. When people see BS in our paper they need to call us on it. Just like you intend to do. I'll talk to you later...

Alan, I agree the "study" was pure nonsense. However, what you call an "error" I call a matter of opinion. I went back over Marija's story just now and saw no "editorializing." Everything was clearly attributed to the people who were the subject of the article. I did not see any errors of Marija's that could be corrected in the correction section...

And I replied, in part:

"Pure nonsense" (your phrase) that somehow makes it to the front page deserves a correction. What could be more direct than that...

"A matter of opinion," as you put it, we both know belongs in the editorial section, not the front page, and merits a prominent correction on those grounds alone (though the "pure nonsense" aspect is more egregious)...

The widespread media notion that if someone says something it's printable news and factual is complete abrogation of responsibility. The idea that a statement, inaccurate on its face, still deserves the supportive treatment this story got is the death knell of any credibility for the media. Think of all the total BS a person could spew that by this approach would fill the pages of a fine newspaper like "The Tribune." That's totally unacceptable and we both know it...

You should reassess your position and tell your editor that pure nonsense and matters of opinion, which made the front page in error, need correction. I've already written enough to constitute a reply column, but have not heard back (except from you my friend).

Reporter Marija Potkonjak said:

Dear Mr. Korwin,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my story. The story I wrote was about a father and son who worked on an interesting project together... It wasn't meant to be the final word in an on-going debate about the rights of Americans to carry arms... Since the article's publication I've heard from other readers who came to the same conclusions you did. We've printed those responses as letters to the editor in our op-ed section. I invite you to do the same...

And I noted that:

They may have worked on an interesting project together, but they got it completely wrong, and you perpetuated and promoted their harmful error. What could cry out for a correction more than that? An ASU professor who would call that work scientific could merit a story on its own. A letter to the editor, as we both well know, is not a correction...

And let me conclude by noting that:

This attitude is pervasive in the news industry. Rank and file constantly knows of errors, but they won't speak up, and management seems to be in another world. Meaningful rewrites or retractions are virtually never seen in papers or broadcasts.

The public, unfortunately for the media, has in large measure caught on, hence the credibility problem that the media finds "inexplicable."

Columbia Journalism Review recently ran a whole issue on this problem, and expressed stunned disbelief when victim after victim described the stone wall between them and corrections at The New York Times (regarding the Jayson Blair debacle). Just seeing that in print was a milestone. CJR went on to make it seem like Blair was an aberrant case, not the norm, and that since he was exposed, we're saved. Any recognition of the institutionalized bias that permeates the news was not to be found.

And this is not, as "The Tribune" staffer says, an issue of falling a bit short of 100% --

This is blatant anti-rights bias on page one in America's fifth biggest city;

Classic junk science being presented as legitimate findings;

Scholarly work falsely debunked by a child and his dad -- and accepted in whole cloth by a news organization;

An ASU professor who can't distinguish concocted balderdash from real research;

Use of an obviously biased professor (it's his young son's work) to add credibility;

Failure to include any other opinion or research -- the hallmark of responsible journalism;

Exclusion of the mountain of credible evidence that contradicts the story;

A slight to legitimate researchers everywhere;

A stark refusal to make prompt prominent correction to egregious errors when apprised of them; and
An unwarranted and vicious attack on cherished American rights.

The fact that this goes on all the time with the police, the governor, leaders etc. does not mitigate the issue it exacerbates it. Readers know this, and the media ignores it or simply consoles themselves. It is outrageous. The watchdogs have become lapdogs.

The original story:

William Fabricius, left, and his 17-year-old son, John Denton, have been collecting newspaper articles about the use of guns in self-defense from April through June 1998.

Teen, dad track gun use

By Marija Potkonjak, Tribune

A study debunking the notion that guns are used in self-defense started out as a question in the mind of a 12-year-old boy from Tempe. After reading a 1998 Tribune article about a woman facing prosecution for a shooting she claimed was in self defense, John Denton wanted to know how many people actually used guns in self-defense.

With the help of his father, William Fabricius, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, Denton collected articles in "The Tribune" from April through June 1998 and tracked the cases through the courts to get an answer.

His conclusion?

"Almost nobody uses their guns in self-defense," said Denton, now a 17-year-old senior at Mountain Pointe High School.

Denton's study, "Reality check: Using newspapers, police reports and court records to assess defensive gun use," will be published in the April edition of the Canadian journal "Injury Prevention."

Fabricius said the study was conducted in a scientific manner.

Of 81 incidents in which a gun was used, only two were legitimately for self-defense, "and both those instances were socially irresponsible because a child could have been caught in the crossfire," Fabricius said.

In one instance, there were "bullets flying all over the place in broad daylight."

Fabricius said the study calls into question a widely cited 1995 study by researchers Gary Kleck and Mark Gertz, who in a telephone survey of civilians found that 1.1 percent of the population used guns in self-defense.

Using the findings of Kleck and Gertz, there should have been 98 killings or woundings and 236 instances of guns fired in self-defense during the period Denton and Fabricius monitored the newspapers, Fabricius and Denton said.

"People in a phone survey might say it was self-defense, but a judge might not agree," Fabricius said.

Denton and Fabricius found that in six cases where self-defense was claimed, the court ruled only two were actually self-defense.

One unfounded claim involved an elderly Scottsdale resident who fired shots into his ceiling after he heard what he thought were "footsteps" in his attic. The police found no intruder and the man was charged with disturbing the peace.

In another incident, a man shot and wounded two teenagers driving past his home at 3 a.m. because he felt "threatened" by them. He was charged with aggravated assault.

Using newspaper articles and supplementing them with police reports and court records was an innovative approach, said Barry Pless, a pediatric epidemiologist and editor of "Injury Prevention."

"These researchers were imaginative and creative to realize this is an important data set," Pless said.

At first, Denton and Fabricius started a Web site and posted their research in the hopes other kids across the country would start tracking these cases in the newspaper.

"At first we thought it would be very easy," Denton said. "If people know about this they might think about it before buying a gun or think about whether they really need bullets for (the gun)."

Denton said he has no illusions about the impact the study will have on Arizona's gun-toting population.

"We're kind of a Wild West state," he said. "It's obviously not going to turn the state into a bunch of hippies spouting peace and love."

But, he would like to see stricter guidelines for gun purchases and thinks buying a gun without bullets might be enough of a deterrent.

Contact Marija Potkonjak by email (mpotkonjak@aztrib.com) or phone (480) 898-6818.

###

FYI:
The Assoc. Prof.: william.fabricius@asu.edu
Injury Prevention editor: barry.pless@mcgill.ca
Letters to the Tribune: letters@aztrib.com or forum@aztrib.com
The Tribune Reporter: Marija Potkonjak mpotkonjak@aztrib.com
Arizona State University Pres.: michael.crow@asu.edu, president@asu.edu
ASU Student Newspaper: webdevil@asu.edu
ASU Student Magazine: webeditor@asu.edu
Pysch. Dept. Chair, Fabricius' boss: darwyn.linder@asu.edu
The original newspaper story
-------------------------------

Alan Korwin is a full-time free-lance writer and author of seven books on gun law, including Gun Laws of America Every Federal Gun Law on the Books with Plain English Summaries. Permission to reprint this article is granted to non-profit organizations, provided credit is given to Alan Korwin, Bloomfield Press, Phoenix, AZ. All others, just call us.

Alan Korwin
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