"20/20" Turns a Blind Eye on Self-Defense

Posted on July 1, 2009

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Blind Eye

As big media mounts an attack on gun owners’ rights, a TV “news” magazine mocks your ability to defend yourself.

During the first 100 days of the Obama administration, most anti-gun politicians bided their time, waiting for the right moment to begin their campaigns against the right to arms. But while the politicians waited, our enemies in the news media exploited the anniversaries of tragic crimes in an extraordinary attack on our Second Amendment rights--and your ability to defend yourself against crime.

Many reporters and commentators joined in the attack. There was PBS’ Mark Shields, who said the only reason the 1994 “assault weapon” ban expired is that Congress needed “a vertebrae transplant.” And there was Bob Herbert of The New York Times, who claimed America is “neither mature nor civilized enough to do anything” about armed crime.

But the most outrageous hatchet job against gun owners lately was an hour-long episode of ABC’s “20/20,” billed as a “year-long exploration” of the gun issue. The “20/20” reporters and producers didn’t just claim your rights need to be restricted; they set up a seriously flawed “experiment” to “prove” that you’re too incompetent to defend yourself.

Here was the setup: ABC recruited college students interested in firearm training, and showed them how to fire handguns with special cartridges used for “force on force” defensive training. The cartridges allow a handgun to function normally, but only discharge a low-velocity, paint-filled projectile that harmlessly marks the “attacker” with a pink blotch on his clothing.

ABC then armed one student at a time with a handgun loaded with the marking cartridges and seated the student, along with others, in a college lecture hall. After the “class” began, a person playing the role of a mass killer burst into the room, fired quickly at the “teacher,” and then immediately fired at the “armed” student, to see if he or she would respond effectively. (Later, ABC tried it with two attackers, although research by law-enforcement trainer Ron Borsch shows that 98 percent of mass killers act alone.)

Sounds like a good experiment, right? Well, not so fast. The “attacker” wasn’t the kind of mentally disturbed person who usually commits this kind of crime; he was a police firearm instructor. And each time ABC ran the scenario, the “defender” was made to sit in the same place: the middle seat in the front row, fully exposed to the attack and with no room to maneuver. The attacker knew exactly who he was going for, and where the defender was seated, every single time.

To make matters worse for the good guys, several were given holsters with straps to retain their pistols, the holsters were attached to the wrong place on their belts, and the guns were covered by extremely long, baggy shirts. It’s no surprise that some of the students had trouble getting a grip on their pistols, or got their guns tangled up in their shirttails. The “20/20” crew gave the attacker so many advantages that the project started to look a lot like another infamous news magazine “experiment”--the 1993 NBC “Dateline” report in which NBC rigged General Motors pickup trucks with explosives, and then videotaped the trucks blowing up in collisions, to “prove” the trucks were unsafe.

But even the students who managed to beat ABC’s stacked deck and hit the attacker received no credit. “Danielle has no trouble getting her gun out and shooting,” Diane Sawyer said in a voiceover, as one defender returned fire on the screen, but “she stood up and took a deadly hit to the head.” Though Danielle hit the attacker in the leg, Sawyer implied that this wouldn’t stop a real-world assailant.

Another student also hit the attacker: “Though he hits the intruder,” Sawyer said, “it’s not before he takes a hit in the chest.” In other words, ABC assumed that any wound will stop a good person, but that criminals are unstoppable. Both assumptions are just plain wrong. Military history is filled with soldiers who survived incredible wounds and kept on fighting. On the other hand, law-enforcement trainer Borsch’s research shows that real-world mass killers are “cowardly.” In his words, these murderers “typically fold quickly upon armed confrontation,” with 90 percent committing suicide at the scenes of their crimes.

That’s exactly what happened in cases where armed citizens intervened against real mass killers. A murderer at a Colorado church committed suicide after being shot by a Right-to-Carry permit holder who volunteered to provide security at the church. A killer at a Virginia law school surrendered to a pair of armed students. And a murderer at a school in Pearl, Miss., surrendered when confronted by an armed vice principal.

But the “20/20” reporters didn’t just claim that self-defense is ineffective; in their minds, it’s downright dangerous.

Take another subject in their experiment. “[W]hen the intruder bursts in on Ashley,” said Sawyer, “she does not fumble. ... She and the gunman battle it out.” And although Ashley hit the attacker in the shoulder, Sawyer criticized Ashley for coming “within inches of hitting one of her fellow students.” Of course, ABC never asked whether the chance she might have stopped a crazed killer would outweigh that risk.

In fact, this and every other aspect of the “20/20” experiment is rebutted every day by armed citizens across the country. In homes, in businesses and on the streets, good people use guns to stop violent crime--without hurting themselves or any innocent bystander. You can read about a small fraction of those cases, this month and every month, in this magazine’s “Armed Citizen” column.

But have no fear that this everyday reality might intrude on ABC News. To wrap up the piece, Sawyer told viewers: “And by the way, if you are wondering where are all the studies about the effectiveness of guns used by ordinary Americans for self-defense, well, keep searching. We could not find one reliable study. And the ones we found were contradictory.”

If that’s really what they found, “20/20” might want to hire a new research staff. The landmark study by criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, showing hundreds of thousands of successful defensive gun uses annually, was reliable enough to be endorsed by the leading anti-gun criminologist of the day, the late Marvin Wolfgang--and Kleck’s book covering the research, Point Blank, won Kleck the 1993 Michael Hindelang Award of the American Society of Criminology for the best book in the field.

But Kleck and Gertz are not alone. As economist John R. Lott Jr. noted in a FOX News commentary on the “20/20” piece, “There have been 26 peer-reviewed studies published by criminologists and economists in academic journals and university presses. Most of these studies find large drops in crime [under Right-to-Carry laws]. Some find no change, but not a single one shows an increase in crime.” (Lott was too modest to mention that one of the key studies is his own, discussed in his book, More Guns, Less Crime.)

Sawyer’s claims remind us that there are none so blind as those who will not see. Fortunately, the American people do see, maybe because of the continuing decline in the number of Americans watching TV news magazines. (Ratings for “20/20” and similar programs dropped six to eight percent per year between 2006 and 2008, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism.)

Wherever Americans are getting their information, it’s making them more skeptical about calls for gun control. According to the May 6 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, an April CNN poll showed that only 39 percent of people surveyed wanted stricter laws--down from 50 percent in 2000. And a poll sponsored by none other than ABC News and The Washington Post found that 61 percent favored strong enforcement of existing laws, versus 27 percent who wanted stricter laws. Maybe common sense really is common, after all.

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