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David Mamet's Newsweek Eruption: Another Reason We Need Solid Reporting on Guns

Posted: 02/03/2013 3:40 pm

When I called in a recent post for better reporting on gun control, I didn't realize how very desperately we would need it this week

Newsweek has put its respected brand name on a piece of unsubstantiated opinion the likes of which we haven't seen since Newsweek ran a similar piece of unsubstantiated ire criticizing Barack Obama during the presidential campaign.

The new piece is a white-hot eruption on the evils of gun control written by the playwright David Mamet, whose anger and passion is so intense that if he proclaimed this in a theater you'd be able to see the spittle settling like gentle rain on the patrons in the first few rows of the orchestra.

Sadly, intensity is not all we have here. It's accompanied by dreadful lack of reporting, as if this were a first draft Mamet wrote in one sitting and then hit "send" on an email to an editor before reading what he'd written.

Mamet is a brilliant playwright, whose work -- with its anger, intensity, and artful, profane language -- makes him one of the best playwrights of his generation, if not the best.

Yet his piece on guns defies any explanation. Let's give him a chance to speak for himself. Here's the lede:

Karl Marx summed up Communism as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This is a good, pithy saying, which, in practice, has succeeded in bringing, upon those under its sway, misery, poverty, rape, torture, slavery, and death.

This turns into an argument about the villainousness of the U.S. government that goes on for 12 paragraphs before the word "gun" or "firearm" appears. It meanders through such topics as rule by bureaucrats, Obama's tax policies, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, King George, and a bleak view of human nature. "Healthy government, as that based upon our Constitution, is strife," he writes. Then, in an abrupt switch to guns and firearms, we get into what seem to me to be dicey statistics and hypotheticals:

...there are more than 2 million instances a year of the armed citizen deterring or stopping armed criminals; a number four times that of all crimes involving firearms...If, indeed, a firearm were more dangerous to its possessors than to potential aggressors, would it not make sense for the government to arm all criminals, and let them accidentally shoot themselves? Is this absurd? Yes, and yet the government, of course, is arming criminals.

If you're looking for elaboration on that last point -- the government is arming criminals -- you won't find it. I'm struggling to imagine what he might mean, but I'm failing. I can't even make a guess. And I'm trying to come up with something, because I love the guy's plays.

More:

Violence by firearms is most prevalent in big cities with the strictest gun laws. In Chicago and Washington, D.C., for example, it is only the criminals who have guns, the law-abiding populace having been disarmed, and so crime runs riot.

Suppose he took as his example a different big city -- New York, let's say. It has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, making it perhaps the best example of a place where only criminals have guns. And yet crime and homicide are down. I want to be tentative here; I can't be sure I'm right about this without doing some reporting, a strategy Mamet might have been wise to pursue. But again, this was likely a first draft that he emailed without reading, etc.

Mamet borrows directly from a recent ad by the NRA when he notes that the president's daughters get armed protection and nobody else's do:

He [Obama] has just passed a bill that extends to him and his family protection, around the clock and for life, by the Secret Service. He, evidently, feels that he is best qualified to determine his needs, and, of course, he is. As I am best qualified to determine mine.

A few more tentative objections: The president doesn't pass bills. Nor does he make the decision about whom the Secret Service protects, I wouldn't think. I'm not certain about that point, but I might suggest that Mamet shouldn't be so certain about his characterization either.

It goes on in this vein, and now that I've read it, I'm thinking it would make a great monologue for one of the characters in Mamet's play American Buffalo about four angry, uneducated men conspiring to steal a coin collection.

It doesn't make a very good monologue for a brilliant playwright. Nor should Newsweek, if it wants to maintain the respect it has built up over decades, have given Mamet a stage on which to say it.

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

 

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