Bury This Book! Amazon.com and the Gun Issue

I have recently discovered that much can be learned about the gun control issue from an unlikely source: Amazon.com.

I suspect I'm not the first author to be preoccupied by the "customer reviews" posted on Amazon. After all, they are the first, and most conspicuous, indication of how a book is being received by the buying public. As a full-throated attack on the gun lobby and its arguments against sensible gun laws, my recently-published book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009), was destined to be controversial. I leave it to others to decide how helpful the customer reviews are as a source of information about the book. As a window into how the gun issue is addressed in America, the customer reviews are unquestionably revealing.

First, they show just how divisive the issue has become. At last look, the book had drawn 47 reviews, of which 44 gave the book either "5 stars" (the best possible rating) or "1 star" (the worst possible rating). Taken at face value, my book is either very, very good or, as one reviewer put it, "total hogwash". While allowing for the possibility that the book really does deserve "5 stars," I must acknowledge that these extremes of opinion likely say more about the gun issue than about the book. In short, those who have opinions, hold them strongly.

Second, regrettably from my standpoint, the "hogwash" votes outnumber the "5 stars" by a current margin of 28 to 16. This reflects a broader pattern discussed in the book; that is, gun control opponents are more likely to be moved to action than gun control supporters. Generally speaking, Congressional offices hear more frequently from "gun rights" partisans than from constituents who support stronger gun laws. This, of course, says nothing about public support for gun control. For example, over 80% of Americans support legislation to close the "gun show loophole" by extending Brady background checks to private sales at gun shows. But it is a level of support not generally reflected in constituent communications to Members of Congress.

Third, the "hogwash" votes reflect not only motivation, but organization as well. It is fascinating to me that organized efforts have been underway to sink the book under the weight of "1-star" reviews. On several websites followers are urged to send in negative reviews of the book (without, of course, urging them to read the book first). Gunbroker.com urges readers to "bury this book," while giving helpful instructions on how to do amazon.com customer reviews. The Maryland Shooters Association suggests that its members post some "good" (meaning bad) reviews on amazon. These efforts obviously have had some success. Amazon prominently displays an "average customer review" for each book, which for Lethal Logic struggles to reach "3-stars" against the organized "1-star" campaign.

It seems apparent that, at least as to Lethal Logic, the Amazon customer views function more as a forum for the gun control debate than a forum for a debate about the book. Indeed, quite a few of the "1-star" reviews say nothing about the book, but have much to say about the author (my favorite is the one calling me "a liar of the first rank") and about gun control.

As such, the parallels to the public debate about gun control are striking. In both cases, the opponents of sensible gun laws are more motivated, intense, loud and, yes, intimidating. In both cases, the predominant content of the pro-gun message is the use of familiar catch phrases and slogans (e.g. "Guns don't kill people. People kill people.") assumed to represent eternal truths needing little justification through reasoned argument. (It is, incidentally, the point of the book to respond to these slogans.) And, in both cases, the organized communication of these messages has an impact. Like my book, American gun policy struggles to achieve a "3-star" rating.