Reporters & Guns #1:
Guns Aren't Psychic


Illuminant by
Scott Farrell


August 1999

A moronic syllogism

Amidst all the recent media frenzy over gun control, a theme is emerging. A number of journalists seem to be attacking the Second Amendment with arguments based on the following flow of logic:

  1. I am an average American citizen.
  2. I am also a moron.
  3. I can buy a gun.
  4. With a gun, I am a danger to myself, my family and my community.
  5. I shouldn't be allowed to own a gun.
  6. Therefore, no American citizen should be allowed to own a gun.

As silly as this sounds, such arguments are being used to powerful effect in newspapers and magazines all around the country to dupe unsuspecting readers.

The naive ambush reporter

For example, consider an article in the August 11, 1999 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer about the "ease" of buying a gun in that city. The reporter said:

It takes exactly 22 minutes in the state of Pennsylvania to legally buy an AK-47-style, semiautomatic rifle. All you need is a driver's license and a clean record. The wait is only as long as it takes the gun dealer to run your name through the state police's computer system. You don't need a permit or a gun license. You don't need to tell them why you want the gun. Hell, you don't even need to know how to shoot it. I know. I did it.

According to the story, the reporter set out to see what the reaction of the gun dealer would be when she — a naïve, innocent, inexperienced little angel — asked for an AK-47. In circles of journalism, this is known as ambush reporting, that is, interviewing someone with a secret agenda (in this case, to make the gun dealer appear to be oblivious to the end use of his product) and doing anything necessary to complete that agenda. The author didn't acknowledge that the typical gun dealer might have a little trouble reading her mind.

[I had heard that] buying a gun is as easy as buying a pair of jeans at the Gap. But I found it hard to believe that this particular kind of gun would be such a snap. For one thing, it's not a legal hunting rifle in the state. And for another, it's not exactly as if you could carry that seven-pound bad boy under your coat or in your bag for protection. I figured it would have to be a little tough to buy one. But, I've discovered it's actually harder to buy a pair of jeans than an AK-47 knockoff.

Deliberately buying an "inappropriate" gun?

So, the reporter set out to see if she could prove that even an idiot (like herself) could buy a gun.

Before I walked into [the gun shop] I kept running through the list of excuses I could give to buy such high-powered artillery. What possible reason would I, a 20-something who has never fired a gun and doesn't know the first thing about one, need with an AK-47? Finally, I just settled on the old "I want the gun for protection" bit. But a few minutes after I walked in I quickly realized I'd wasted my time fretting.

"What do you have by way of AK-47s?" I asked the off-duty cop working the counter that day. I braced myself for the question that would require me to say, "I want this extremely high-powered, high-velocity gun with no apparent purpose other than to blow people away so that I could protect myself in my two-story loft in my very yuppie neighborhood."

The dainty reporter gets her rifle

Conveniently, however, the reporter never tells the salesman any of that — if she had, he might have recommended a more appropriate firearm for the intended task. Instead, she asks for the AK-47 specifically, mentioning only that "I've never shot one of these before." Of course, anyone who's been around shooters knows it's not uncommon or inappropriate for someone to buy a kind of gun they've never shot before.

Yet somehow the reporter was surprised, indignant and shocked when the dealer didn't try to:

... persuade me to buy something smaller and daintier, perhaps a nickel-plated .25 caliber semiautomatic. Instead, he asked for my driver's license and ran the info through the state's new Instacheck, which checks to see if I have a criminal history. All clear.

So, she reports with displeasure, the clerk sold her the gun.

It scared me to think it was that easy, when you consider the carnage that can happen when one of these guns ends up in the hands of trigger-happy kooks.

The journalist as trigger-happy kook?

Did she not notice the background check which revealed that she was not a criminal? Is she implying that she is a "trigger-happy kook"? Does she think she should be interrogated before trying to exercise any of her Constitutional rights?

The gun shop salesman never received any indication that the reporter was totally ignorant about a gun she asked for specifically by model number, nor that she had intentionally chosen to purchase a gun that was completely unsuited for her situation. Perhaps most ridiculous of all is her shock at the fact that the clerk was able to verify her lack of criminal background so quickly. One has to wonder if she would have taken umbrage with the lack of bureaucratic red tape if she had been at the DMV or the IRS — nobody complains about getting out of those places in 22 minutes or less.

Misrepresenting the Constitution

In the end, the message of her article is: I intentionally purchased the wrong gun, which anyone can do if they really try, so all guns should be illegal.

Fortunately, not everyone who sets foot in a gun shop does so with the intent of ambushing the staff in order to prove that the Constitution is wasted on them.


© 1999 Scott Farrell

Eugene Volokh's
The Journalist's Guide to Gun Policy Scholars
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