By Chuck Ross
Will McAvoy, Aaron Sorkin’s newsman protagonist in his new HBO series “The Newsroom,”claims to be a hard-nosed, truth-telling Republican whose goal is to expose conservative myths. Sorkin’s transparent contempt for the Tea Party and conservatives is why liberal writer Alex Pereene noted that Sorkin “is why people hate liberals.” This is no more apparent than in a recent episode which focuses on gun control.
The scene: Will McAvoy has taken on conservatives such as Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre on the subject of Barack Obama’s desire to enact gun control measures. McAvoy argues that conservatives make false claims about Obama’s stance on gun control in order to monger fear and boost political donations. He cites the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, named for President Reagan’s Press Secretary James Brady, as giving President Obama failing grades on gun control legislation. This disregards President Obama’s pre-Presidential stances on gun control as well as his infamous quip about Rust Belt voters “clinging to their guns”. It also doesn’t answer conservatives’ claims that given carte blanche, President Obama would severely limit Second Amendment rights.
Later in the episode McAvoy discovers a handgun in his date’s purse while rummaging around for “a joint.” Pulling the gun from her purse, McAvoy confronts the woman, who happens to work for Hillary Clinton. In the exchange she tells him that she’s a “southern liberal” and states her reasons for packing heat: “Well, if I’m walking the streets of Manhattan at night and a guy your size wants to rape me, then this is going to happen.” The woman points the gun – the chamber of which McAvoy had already emptied – at McAvoy.
McAvoy responds, “Actually, statistics show that this is going to happen.” Showing her what he means, McAvoy disarms his date with cat-like speed, bumping the butt of the gun from her hands, snatching it out of mid-air, and pointing it gangland-sideways at the woman. Complaints of Sorkin’s sexism (channeled through McAvoy) are beyond the scope of this piece.
It’s easy to see why The Newsroom and Sorkin have been criticized by both conservatives and liberals. The show reduces important and debatable topics like the effectiveness of guns for self-defense down to “statistics show”, stylistic cinematography, and witty banter – McAvoy’s date comments on her being turned on by the newsman’s dexterity.
Inquiries made to Newsroom staff into the “statistics” mentioned by McAvoy were not returned. One of the show’s writers told me that he can’t comment on this and that I should contact Sorkin’s assistant who has not responded as of this writing.
But the most recent and most cited study (among anti-gun advocates) comes from Dr. Charles Branas of the University of Pennsylvania. In a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which both the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence and The New York Times’ Bob Herbert have cited, Branas’ key conclusion was that a person carrying a gun was 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an incident than an unarmed person. It seems likely that this study is a major source of McAvoy/Sorkin’s argument.
But as Dr. Garen Wintemute of the University of California – Davis argued in the same academic journal, the Branas study is flawed. And it certainly doesn’t model the situation depicted in The Newsroom episode. Wintemute showed that previous criminal history and alcohol and drug involvement were not properly controlled for in the Branas study. Ninety-one percent of the control group’s shootings took place indoors while 83% of the case participant shootings took place outdoors. Branas’ study also measures incidents in which the victim and assailant merely have guns in their possession. Thus, a shooting could involve two gang members, a scenario which would naturally be expected to increase one person’s odds of being shot. The Branas study does not measure pure self-defense scenarios like the one depicted in The Newsroom. So while The Newsroom’s McAvoy is complaining that arch-conservatives are fear-mongering, the show’s producers are doing the same thing by applying incomplete research to this highly-charged topic.
Dr. David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center told me “I don’t know of any real evidence on that issue.” He suspects that the claim made in Sorkin’s Newsroom “is not correct.” Hemenway, whose research has been touted by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence as well, said “one problem with knowing [whether McAvoy’s “statistics show” claim is correct] is that there is no accepted definition of a self-defense gun use.”
The Newsroom’s specific scenario has never been modeled in research, and “statistics” have not shown anything on the topic.
World-renowned self-defense expert Massad Ayoob is more pointed. “Sounds like someone with an agenda wrote that script.” As an expert in the field, Ayoob argues that training of all kinds is imperative. Merely owning a gun does not automatically protect a person from attack. More training increases safety.
Chuck Ross is a freelance journalist and blogger.