Book review: ‘The Last Gun’ by Tom Diaz

CorrespondentMay 18, 2013 

  • Nonfiction The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What Will It Take to Stop It Tom Diaz

    The New Press, 336 pages

About the time Tom Diaz’s “The Last Gun” was entering bookstores, the U.S. Senate was conducting a highly publicized vote on whether to restrict gun purchases within the United States.

Depending on the perspective of any given commentator, the Senate vote was either conducive to attention for Diaz’s book, or terrible timing. Conducive because those who want to improve their understanding of the close Senate vote shooting down restrictions will grasp the big picture much better by learning from Diaz. Terrible timing because the vote might keep gun control out of the headlines for a while, sinking notices about Diaz’s important book.

Diaz has written a previous book about the U.S.’s uniquely deadly firearms culture: “Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America,” published in 1999. He is an expert, and also an advocate, having been employed by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Diaz’s passionate yet reasoned advocacy can be captured, as well as any brief quotation can represent an entire tome, in this paragraph:

“The blizzard of gun violence documented in this book is not a ‘gun safety’ problem. Nor is it a problem of legal versus illegal guns. It is a gun problem. It is the direct and inevitable consequence of the gun industry’s cynical marketing, the proliferation of lethal firepower, and the waves of relaxed state laws – concealed carry, shoot first, shoot anywhere, shoot cops, just shoot, shoot, shoot – that the gun industry’s handmaiden, the National Rifle Association, has inflicted on the country to promote new markets for the industry.”

Before the passionate pleas for change, Diaz uses the first three chapters to quantify the extent of gun violence and demonstrate the gigantic gap between the U.S. and all other nations – a gap repeatedly quantified with statistics. Some statistics come from law enforcement agencies and some from shoe leather research by the author, and authors before him. The gap, which Diaz terms “a frightening aberration among industrialized nations,” is both breathtakingly large and shameful for a society that purports to value human life. Yet, Diaz realized, state and federal lawmakers apparently are unwilling to explore how other nations curb gun violence.

After the quantification chapters – which interweave unforgettable anecdotes – Diaz turns his attention to the gun manufacturers and their lobbyist advocates, especially the National Rifle Association.

Most of the book stops short of shrillness. Diaz can let the numbers, anecdotes and in-depth case studies speak for themselves.

He is especially skilled when he examines differences in state gun law cultures. Without a doubt, some states place unfettered gun ownership above the increased likelihood of death by gun, and Florida might be the clearest example. Diaz reveals that gun control advocates like himself are prone to a word play on Florida’s motto, “The Sunshine State,” altering it to “The Gunshine State.”

“The mockery is well earned,” he writes. “The state’s compliant legislature has been used for several decades as a Petri dish by the gun-mad scientists of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action.”

Diaz’s superheated phrasing will likely turn off some readers. Nor is he a stylist of compelling prose. But the book is without question filled with vital information difficult to find elsewhere, despite the advocacy factor and because of the advocacy factor, too. Only a truly passionate author would dig so deep.

Despite the successes of the gun industry within Congress and in several dozen state legislatures, at least four state legislatures (New York, Connecticut, Colorado and Maryland) have tightened gun ownership laws and regulations since the catalyzing elementary school killings last year in Newtown, Conn. Maybe Diaz’s tireless research, advocacy and guarded optimism as reflected in “The Last Gun” will eventually make a positive difference.

Steve Weinberg is a freelance journalist who writes often about the criminal justice system.

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