Arts & Events

‘Lethal Logic’

By Griffin Dix Special to the Planet
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:33:00 AM

Four out of five Americans support specific measures to regulate firearms, such as requiring background checks at gun shows. In the 2006 and 2008 elections, candidates who explicitly backed such regulations defeated NRA-endorsed or “A-rated” candidates overwhelmingly. But now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as the Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House are universally afraid to even raise the subject. Why is that? 

Part of the answer is that the gun lobby’s emotionally powerful, fear-inducing arguments work. In his new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy, Dennis Henigan takes on the gun lobby’s policy-paralyzing slogans and answers them with sound logic and research. 

An example is his answer to the well-known slogan, “When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.” This creates a straw man by implying that supporters of gun regulations want to “outlaw” all guns. But Henigan, who is vice president for law and policy at America’s largest gun control organization, the Brady Campaign, thinks the government has no business telling law abiding citizens they cannot buy guns. 

He says the slogan works by changing the subject from the policies supported by most Americans to ones not well supported, such as banning all firearms. A premise implicit in the slogan is that gun violence is entirely a “criminal” problem and criminals don’t obey gun laws. But Henigan demonstrates convincingly that most gun laws do not depend for their success on compliance by criminals. Since the Brady background check law was enacted in 1993, over 1.6 million legally prohibited gun buyers—most of them felons—have been blocked from purchasing guns and our rates of gun crimes have plummeted. 

Another gun lobby golden oldie is “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” “one of the greatest advocacy slogans ever conceived,” says Henigan. But, he points out, cars by themselves don’t kill people either, yet no one argues against licensing drivers and mandating safety features like seat belts and airbags. 

Unlike cars, guns are sold as weapons and attract many buyers who want to use them to commit crimes. These crimes are more lethal if a gun is used, and less lethal if a knife or fists are used. Citing studies by Frank Zimring of UC Berkeley, Henigan shows that Americans are not more violent than people in other countries but our violence is more lethal because our crimes—such as robbery and assault—more often involve guns. This is another way that, contrary to the slogan, guns do kill people. 

However, Henigan says, most people who buy guns, even handguns, do not buy them for crime; they buy them for self-defense and bring them into their homes. Guns kill people there too; the presence of a gun in the home is associated with an almost three fold increase in homicide rates there and an almost five fold increase in suicide. 

  Things turn surreal when we get to “We don’t need new gun laws. We need to enforce the gun laws we have,” an excuse for inaction recently borrowed from the gun lobby by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to whitewash the Democrats’ unwillingness to address America’s gun violence problem. But this is another false choice, says Henigan; we need enforcement and we need new laws—partly in order to enforce the laws we have. Nonetheless, while offering up this slogan, the gun lobby has succeeded in weakening enforcement of our laws—its greatest victory being the 1986 (egregiously misnamed) Firearms Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA), which, says Henigan, protects gun dealers, “particularly dealers inclined to break the law.” Under FOPA, in order to revoke a gun dealer’s license, the government must get inside the dealer’s head and prove that he violated the law “willfully,” an extremely difficult burden of proof. Because of FOPA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has great difficulty shutting down even the worst scofflaw gun dealers. 

Partly because the slogans are so effective, we don’t do a good job of thinking about gun policy in this country, says Henigan. In answer to the gun lobby’s arguments, he offers a wealth of logical, research-based counter-arguments. 

But are logic and facts enough? 

The fearful emotions aroused by the gun industry slogans can easily override logical arguments, even those in favor of laws proven successful at helping prevent criminals—not law-abiding citizens—from obtaining guns. The success of the gun lobby demonstrates political psychologist Drew Westen’s dictum that, “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.” (The Political Brain, p. 35) In fact, the most compelling parts of Lethal Logic are the case studies showing the lethal effects of our loophole-ridden laws on ordinary, unsuspecting Americans. 

As our children pass between age 15 and 34, gunfire is the second most likely cause of their deaths. Nonetheless, support for reasonable gun regulations is only an inch deep, though a mile wide. Most Americans are like me before my son was shot and killed; they don’t think something seemingly so remote as loopholes in our gun laws could affect their families. But we already know what to do to make our children safer. Now we must martial Henigan’s logic and facts in support of a values-based and emotionally compelling narrative—one that will motivate Americans to act to protect ourselves and our children from gunfire. 


Kensington resident Griffin Dix taught anthropology at Santa Clara University and was then research director at MacWEEK. In 1994 his 15-year-old son, Kenzo, was shot and killed in Berkeley. He recently served as the chapter-elected national chairman of the Million Mom March’s National State Presidents Council. 






By Dennis A. Henigan. 

Potomac Books, 217 pages, $29.95.