Scholarship and journalism

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Scholarship and journalism

Due diligence is the verification of representations and claims made by one party to another. It is a process whereby we compare the results of research or investigation with the facts, expectations, and representations made. The process is simply to gather, check, discover, and verify. This requires the experience and judgment to know when, where, and how to explore further to uncover what hasn’t been disclosed. We tend to think of due diligence as a process applied to business transactions, but, in fact, it is a process that should be applied to any important interaction.

One area in which we do not usually think of due diligence is the analysis of claims made in academic circles and in the news. Many assume that news is just that – news – and that the academic review process will separate the true from the false. This is not necessarily so, which means we may make decisions “ financial and personal “ based on information that is inaccurate. Even worse, the information may be deliberately inaccurate to further some personal, political, social, or financial agenda.

In some cases, particularly when dealing with special-interest groups, we expect this. We have certain expectations of what we will see if we read pieces from:

• The Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

• Handgun Control, Inc. and the Second Amendment Foundation.

• Right to Life and Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

We have, however, a somewhat different expectation when reading or seeing news reports or the results of scientific or academic studies. Nevertheless, both of these areas are being used to further agendas through use of misrepresentation. This means that when making decisions based on public information, there is an increasing necessity and obligation to verify what is being reported. (As one seasoned news editor told a cub reporter, “If your mother says she loves you, check it.”)

To demonstrate this, we will take two examples dealing with gun issues – one from academia and one from the media. We have chosen the gun issue because it is more comprehensible than party politics, and freer from religious and ethical colorations than issues regarding life. We race to point out that we do not own a gun, have never owned nor kept a gun for protection, do not encourage others to do so, and will not be trying to make a case for one side of this issue or the other. We merely want to show examples of why the need for independent thought and verification is as important when making intellectual decisions as it is when making business decisions.

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture

This book was written by Michael A. Bellesiles, and published and subsequently withdrawn by Knopf (which should have known better). According to one online description, “Basing his arguments on sound and prodigious research, Bellesiles makes it clear that gun ownership was the exception  even-on the frontier- until the age of industrialization. In Colonial America the average citizen had virtually no access to or training in the use of firearms, and the few guns that did exist were kept under strict control. No guns were made in America until after the Revolution, and there were few gunsmiths to keep them in repair. Bellesiles shows that the U.S.government, almost from its inception, worked to arm its citizens.”

The book was an immediate success, apparently because it was politically correct and gave the lie to the view that guns had always been available to Americans. In 2001 Bellesiles won the prestigious and lucrative ($5000) Bancroft Award fromColumbiaUniversity, which should have known better (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/01/04/bancroft.html). It was championed by the press. The Economist, which should have known better, wrote (http://www.texansforgunsafety.org/articles/archives/guns.htm)“So, contrary to popular belief and legend, and contrary even to the declarations of the founding fathers, gun ownership was rare in the first half ofAmerica’s history as an independent country. It was especially low in parts of the countryside and on the frontier, the very areas where guns are imagined to have been most important. By no stretch of the imagination was America founded on the private ownership of weapons.”

While the book was rather startling, it did present a minor problem, mostly involving, at first blush, common sense. It didn’t really seem to make much sense. While it is true that guns were obviously easier to make after the Industrial Revolution, even without being much of an historian it is hard to discount Alexis de Tocqueville describing in Democracy in America “typical peasant’s cabin” as containing “a fairly clean bed, some chairs and a good gun.” Or, that in the first three battles of the Revolutionary War, which were over what we would term today as gun control issues, an awful lot of people managed to show up with guns.

Unfortunately for Bellesiles (and The Economist and Columbia University), the book quoted sources that others had seen, and remembered rather differently. As it turned out, Bellesiles imprudently misquoted primary sources (you can be misled by secondary sources, but it is hard to explain how the Militia Act of 1792 went from “every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock” to “every citizen so enrolled, shall…be constantly provided with a good musket or firelock…”), as well as using sources that could not be independently verified.

For those interested, many of the details of how Bellesiles was unmasked can be seen in an interview with Clayton Cramer at http://hnn.us/articles/1185.html, or at http://www.emory.edu/central/NEWS/Releases/Final_Report.pdf, in which EmoryUniversity’s findings of the issue said:

“In summary, we find … that despite serious failures of and carelessness in the gathering and presentation of archival records {E.d., he claimed his notes had been destroyed in a flood in his office at EmoryUniversity. This flood had indeed occurred, but all the other professors who were affected reported the damage, and the university sent around document restoration experts. Bellesiles never reported any damage} and the use of quantitative analysis, we cannot speak of intentional fabrication or falsification”.

…we find that the strained character of Professor Bellesiles explanation raises questions about his veracity with respect to his account of having consulted probate records inSan FranciscoCounty.

…dealing with the construction of the vital Table One, we find evidence of falsification.

…which raises the standard of professional historical scholarship, we find that Professor Bellesiles falls short on all three counts.”

In the end, Bellesiles resigned from Emory, the Bancroft Prize was revoked and he was asked to give back the money he had been given (http://www.upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=20031217-114343-7257r), and The National Endowment for the Humanities also withdrew its name from a Newberry fellowship ($30,000) awarded to Bellesiles for a second book on guns.

License to Kill: How the GOP helped John Allen Muhammad get a sniper rifle, by Brent Kendall, a Washington Monthly editorial assistant.

This editorial in the January/February issue of The Washington Monthly (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0301.kendall.html) is a puzzling mishmash. Again, we are not concerned here with the political views of either the magazine or the editorial assistant who wrote this piece, merely with the accuracy of the piece.

Ignoring the political rhetoric that the Republican Party was directly, and one assumes with malice aforethought, responsible for the illegal acquisition by Muhammad of a gun, the title starts with the inaccurate statement that the gun used in the tragic shootings was a sniper rifle. As it happens, the rifle used in the crimes was not a sniper rifle.

The bulk of the article, again stripping out the political rhetoric, is a series of attacks on the NRA and the GOP. The rest is a paean to the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), which they state has no enforcement power because of the efforts of the GOP and the NRA. The ATF, you will remember, is the organization that, under the Clinton administration, was responsible for serving a warrant in Waco to determine whether certain gun related papers had or had not been filed by the Branch Davidians.

We don’t deal much with the world of gun commerce. So, in order to find out whether ATF’s powers had decreased since Waco, we spoke with a number of law enforcement officers and a number of gun dealers. The consensus view was that the ATF had the power to do pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want, and used that power fairly freely, with one officer saying that some local governments had gone so far as to forbid their police departments to participate in joint operations with ATF.

The editorial then tells a story that differs from any other we have read. According to the Washington Monthly, “Bull’s Eye employees have reported seeing Malvo at the store this summer, and later noticed the Bushmaster was not in its display case. But the store did not file the federally required theft report.” We recall reading other written reports at the time of the incident indicating that when ATF showed up and asked about the gun, they were told that it had not been sold and was still on the premises, and only when its box was opened was it discovered to be missing. We suppose that if the employees noticed the gun was missing when ATF showed up to look for it, and then remembered Malvo had been there, one could make a claim that the editorial is accurate in some cosmic sense…”

In terms of the scope of the gun problem (for perspective, keep in mind that according to the National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 49, No. 12, October 9, 2001 in the last year of record there were roughly 2,405,000 deaths in theU.S., of which approximately 11,000 were gun homicides or accidents), the editorial says, “Every year, more than 200,000 guns used in crimes are traced back to licensed gun dealers like Bull’s Eye,” which sounds pretty bad. According to the Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/), in the last year of record, there were 6,723,930 crimes of violence, of which 6.8 percent involved guns, for a total of 457,274, of which, according to The Washington Monthly, 44 percent involved guns traced back to licensed dealers.

We are given to understand (but can’t document) that ATF will only trace guns made after 1990, and that most guns used to commit violent crimes are not recovered by the police, and thus never traced. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report Firearms Use by Offenders, (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/fuo.pdf?), 79 percent of state prison inmates using guns in their crimes got their guns from family or friends or street/illegal sources, which probably came originally from gun dealers, which means that probably 100 percent of guns used in crimes are originally purchased from gun dealers. This condemnation is thus as revelatory as saying that cars involved in automobile accidents are originally purchased from car dealerships.

The article goes on to say, “Of the 83,000 retail firearms dealers in America, ATF shuts down only about 25 annually.” In talking again with law enforcement officials and gun dealers, it appears that the average profit on a gun is generally under the 10 percent range, and thus few (the article notes that just 1.2 percent of dealers accounted for 57 percent of the guns traced”) dealers would risk their freedom for little or no profit, so, independent of the general standards of the industry, the 25 figure is probably not unreasonable.

In the same vein they note that, “During the 1970s as ATF stepped up its policing of gun dealers, the NRA fought back, portraying ATF agents as jack-booted fascists,” a statement originally made, in fact, by House of Representative’s Minority Leader Dingel (D-Mich) about the ATF.

They also state “By 1995, however, the Brady law was beginning to show results. In its first year, it had blocked 40,000 attempts to purchase firearms by criminals, juveniles, and other prohibited persons–evidence that in fact many criminals were looking to gun stores for their firepower.” This is indeed impressive, if one has not read that the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reports that during the first year of Brady, 95 percent of the transactions were approved without any problem. Of the denials, almost 50 percent were due to traffic tickets or administrative problems with the application forms (prepared or mailed incorrectly, etc.). The GAO notes that of the denials reported by the ATF and later heralded by President Clinton and HCI, almost half of those initially denied applications were subsequently approved following administrative or other appeals procedures. Using the GAO’s own statistics, less than 1/100 of one percent of the 93,000 felons actually denied handgun purchases have been prosecuted under Brady. The GAO concluded that, Brady may not directly result in measurable reductions of gun-related crimes.

The article also makes an obligatory-in-the-anti-gun-world passing mention of problems with gun shows. However, according to Firearms Use by Offenders, only 0.7% of State prison inmates got their guns at a gun show, making it not much of an issue in real terms. The typical gun show experience can be seen in an article by TV station KPLC (http://www.kplctv.com/Global/story.asp?S=1090509&nav=0nqxDSLB), which sent a sixteen year old boy to a gun show to in Louisiana to make a purchase of a handgun, with no success from any vendor in attendance.

Putting aside Constitutional issues (The Supreme Court said For example, no one, we presume, will contend that Congress can make any law in a Territory respecting the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people of the Territory peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances. Nor can Congress deny to the people the right to keep and bear arms, nor the right to trial by jury, nor compel any one to be a witness against himself in a criminal proceeding.), is it possible to make a valid case against civilian gun ownership without lying, distorting, or misrepresenting facts? Of course! As with most issues, there is truth on both sides of the issue, and no valid need to lie when analyzing costs versus benefits unless there is a need to force a specific answer for some purpose that will not be handled by a cost/benefit analysis.

In fine, we are not familiar with The Washington Monthly Magazine, and do not know if this editorial is representative of the magazine. We do know that, at least in this editorial, they are anti-Republican and anti-gun, and play fairly fast-and-loose with facts. Based on this editorial, this would be an appropriate magazine to read if you were rabidly anti-gun and anti- Republican, and wanted support for your views. It would not be a good choice if one wanted facts or news.

Before you make a judgment based on something you see on television, or read in a book, or read in popular press sources such as The Economist, The Enquirer, The Washington Monthly Magazine, the New York Times, or even in The Business Security e-Journal, you should ask yourself if what you are reading makes sense, and then verify the information anyway. The same way you would verify claims made in a business transaction.

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