Sturdy evidence on guns
On Friday, John Lott was at it again, taking aim at another gun control proposal.
This time the target was trigger locks, which, Lott argued, on the basis
of crime statistics from the 15
states that have enacted laws requiring them, would have a very small benefit and significant costs in
terms of increased levels of violent crime.
Remember, a trigger-lock requirement is one of the principal provisions
in the gun control legislation
Gov. Ridge is expected to sign into law later this week, and it has been much debated in Congress.
Lott, of course, has gone much further than bashing trigger locks. He was
speaking at the American
Enterprise Institute in Washington as part of a two-day conference dealing with his earlier research
indicating that the only gun-related laws that reduce crime are those making it easier for citizens to carry
concealed weapons. His thesis is neatly summarized in the title of his 1998 book, More Guns, Less
Lott hasn't won everyone over to his point of view. His views on gun control,
as well as his adamant
conservative stances on other issues, have helped get him hounded out of Penn's Wharton School and the
University of Chicago in this decade. (Lott is currently teaching at Yale law school.)
Moreover, there are few people occupying the middle ground to whom a journalist
can go in search of a
balanced appraisal. "Everyone is one side or the other," says Larry Sherman, the newly elected
president of the International Society of Criminologists and director of the Fels Center of Government at
Penn. Sherman, for his part, thinks Lott's large-scale, long-term study of crime trends doesn't take into
account smaller gun confiscation programs that have been followed by sharp declines in violent crime.
Lott says he is doing further research in this area, but that so far he has found no long-term effect from
strategies like gun confiscation.
But trying to sort out the academic arguments is almost a fool's errand.
You can drown in disputes over
t-statistics, dummy variables and "Poisson" vs. "least squares" data analysis methods. Lott himself sums
up the current status of the dispute over his findings as follows:
"I have made all my data available to researchers at 42 universities,"
he says. "There have been three
studies that have come out that were critical of my book, but none of them have disagreed with my basic
finding that concealed carry laws reduce crime and have no costs" in terms of increasing gun violence.
He specifically invited his critics to the conference in Washington, and
while some attended and
presented papers, Lott believes that his findings remained unscathed.
The one thing Lott's opponents cannot do is accuse him of being a gun nut.
He is not now, nor has he ever
been, a member of the National Rifle Association. Before more or less stumbling into gun control
research in 1993, he had never owned a gun, and his two sons were not allowed to play with toy guns -
even squirt guns - at the Lotts' home in Swarthmore, where he and his family still live. (He has since
bought a small handgun.)
Lott's findings and arguments have undoubtedly had an important, if difficult
to quantify, effect on
political debates over gun control. When the Brady Bill, with its requirements for background checks
and waiting periods, was passed in 1993, it seemed that the dam had broken. Many observers predicted
a flood of additional controls on gun ownership, but no such flood has occurred. The latest attempt at
federal gun control legislation was defeated by a large bipartisan majority in the House.
Lott himself says he has "no idea" what effect his research may be having
on the gun control debate, but
there is no question that his findings have been widely read. The book has become the University of
Chicago's all-time best-seller for a volume about academic research. The scholarly paper on which it is
based was downloaded from the University of Chicago Web site a stunning 45,000 times.
State Rep. Dwight Evans, a gun control advocate, says that when he tried
to argue that the recent murder
of Daily News columnist Russell Byers underlined the need for gun control, many legislators responded
that if Byers had been carrying a gun he might be alive today, which is in essence Lott's argument.
(Byers himself never took a public stance on gun control.)
I, for the record, have often been inclined to come out for some gun restrictions,
but I've never been able
to find a way past John Lott's evidence.
Yahoo's gun control links.
A bibliography of skeptical gun control experts.
Gun Control vs. Gun Rights from the Center for Responsible Politics. Summarizes the political arguments and forces.
The Potomac Institute, anti-gun legal activism
"Proven Solutions to ENDING School Shootings".
The Stop the Guns petition drive - cosponsored by a number of organizations, posted by the American Jewish Congress.
Gunfree.org has a critique of Lott.
John R. Lott, Jr. & David B. Mustard, Crime, Deterrence and the Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns, 26 J.
LEGAL STUD. 1 (1997)
A good overview article: OF HOLOCAUSTS AND GUN CONTROL by DANIEL D. POLSBY
Audio of a Cato forum on the topic with Lott and Ludwig.
A John Lott links page by a gun control opponent.
The strongest critical study is "Do Right-to-Carry Laws Deter Violent Crime?" by Dan A. Black and Daniel Nagin in The Journal of Legal Studies, Volume XXVII, number 1, january 1998, pp 209-220. Not available online. The same issue contains a reply by John Lott beginning on page 221. In my view, the criticism is not conclusive - basically it says that if you leave out Florida and all counties under 100,000 population, some of Lott's calculations are no longer statistically significant. It is a case of "selective skepticism" - applying exceptionally stringent critical standards to studies when we do not like the results. These stringent standards are usually not applied to studies that support the author's preconceptions. There is a summary of this in Daniel Polsby's article OF HOLOCAUSTS AND GUN CONTROL .
Article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, June 5, 1998.
PICTURE this revised version of a grim but familiar scenario: An unbalanced student strides into a
highschool cafeteria waving his dad's rifle. Students scream and dive for cover. A mildmannered assistant
principal pulls a .38 from under his tweed jacket, levels it at the kid, and orders him to put down the gun. The
Or the man blows the student away.
Not fun stuff--but better, John Lott argues, than the usual story, which
concludes with a swarm of ambulances
and television crews converging on yet another school.
Mr. Lott, a fellow in law and economics at the University of Chicago,
has set guncontrol advocates howling
by arguing that the best way to reduce crime--particularly the mass shootings that have made so many recent
headlines--is to permit more people, including school officials, to carry guns. The title of his new book tidily
sums up his views: More Guns, Less Crime.
It's not every day that a book from the University of Chicago Press
gets raves from the National Rifle
Association. an endorsement by Gun Week magazine, and a hearty plug from G. Gordon Liddy, the
Watergate-felon-turned-radio-host whose love of firearms extends to teaching his children to march in drill
formation with toy weapons on the front lawn. The N.R.A. sent 150,000 of its most loyal members a
newsletter promoting the book. Responses to the Gun Week endorsement overloaded the answering machine
of the book's designated publicity person for days.
The book also caused a mini-revolt at Chicago, where salespeople initially
blanched at the prospect of
pitching it to bookstores. Some cited personal views about guns; others thought that the book would alienate
booksellers. The book's editor, Geoffrey Huck, made the case that it was a solid contribution to social
A KNACK FOR PUBLICITY
Even Mr. Lott's fans would have to concede, however, that it is the
volume's buttressing of pro-gun
arguments, not its multivariate regression analysis, that accounts for its selling through the first printing of
10,000 in less than three weeks.
The author himself has a knack for publicity. He used the Jonesboro,
Ark., school shooting as a peg for an
op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which he argued that laws banning guns from schools-- even from
a locked closet in the principal's office--had backfired. "Instead of making schools safe for children," he
wrote, "we have made them safe for those intent on harming our children."
The focus of More Guns, Less Crime is "shall issue" laws, an increasingly
popular type of legislation that
decrees that states must issue a concealed-weapon permit to anyone of legal age, and without a criminal
record, who requests one. Pushed by the N.R.A. and adopted by 31 states, they replace laws that merely said
authorities "may issue" permits to such people. Those laws leave the final decision about approving the
requests to local officials.
Mr. Lott examined 10 states that approved shall-issue laws from 1977
to 1992 and found that violent crimes
had nosedived. In those states, he says, murders dropped by an average of 8 per cent, rapes by 5 per cent, and
aggravated assaults by 7 per cent. The logic is fairly straightforward: Criminals don't want to get shot. When
the likelihood is that a potential victim, or a bystander, might be packing heat, they will decline that risk.
Criminals actually turn away from murder and armed robbery, and to less-confrontational
crimes, such as
burglary, when legislatures pass shall-issue laws, according to Mr. Lott's data.
In an ironic, P.c. twist to his findings, he adds, the greatest beneficiaries
of lessstringent laws regulating
concealed weapons are not the hunting enthusiasts and white male suburbanites who form the backbone of the
N.R.A., but rather women and black city dwellers.
BEING SWAYED BY THE ODDS
Moreover, according to More Guns, Less Crime, those states with shall-issue
laws have virtually eliminated
multiplevictim shooting sprees. The assailants in those cases may be psychopaths, but even psychopaths, Mr.
Lott argues, are usually rational enough to be swayed by the odds that at least one of the people in a train, an
office, a public park--or even a school-- might be prepared to whip out a gun. "Criminals tend to attack
victims they perceive as relatively weak," he says.
In the face of his startling and comprehensive study, gun-control advocates
haven't exactly folded up their
tents. Nor are many other researchers convinced. The book draws upon and extends an essay that Mr. Lott
published in The Journal of Legal Studies in 1997, which inspired an uproar of its own and led several
social scientists to re-examine Mr. Lott's data. Most rejected his findings. He responds to his critics in the
book, but none of those who have read it think he has done so adequately.
John Lott: "Instead of making schools safe for
children, we have made them safe for those
intent on harming our children."
The criticisms range from commonsense observations to arcane points
about statistical methodology. It is
manifestly implausible that the tiny change in pistolwielding spurred by the shall-issue laws could lead to the
sea change in criminal behavior that Mr. Lott describes, the critics argue. Even in states with the mostliberal
laws, they point out, only 1 to 2 per cent of people choose to get the necessary permit to carry a weapon, and
they tend to be people who already own guns. And statistics show that gun owners tend to be white males in
suburban or rural environments--hardly the people at highest risk for homicide or robbery.
"It would be nothing short of a miracle if issuing permits to middle-class
white men reduced murder rates
drastically," says Philip Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University. "If you look at the
demographics of who is getting the permits, that's who it is."
What's more, because some people carry weapons even when it is illegal
to do so, a limited deterrent
already exists, the critics say. Frank Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley,
says the huge drop in crime that Mr. Lott attributes to one piece of legislation would, if true, amount to "a
miracle of the loaves and the fishes."
'A MEDIA-READY THING TO SAY'
To back up those first impressions, however, social scientists have
had to dive into the data themselves. And
there, they say, Mr. Lott has a polemic advantage over them. "There isn't any way to boil down the criticism
into a simple message, and that's a big problem," says Jon Vernick, associate director of the Center for Gun
Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins University. "Lott is able to say, 'My study shows that this law is
responsible for X fewer murders every year, and if every state passed this kind of law, X lives would be
saved each year.' That's a media-ready thing to say. For the most part, the criticisms get at complex
methodological stuff. "
Some of the statistical problems derive from the problem of comparing
crime rates in small counties, many of
which would be expected to have no reported murders or assaults. Those zeros cause some sneaky,
non-media-ready problems in Mr. Lott's data set, Mr. Vernick and others say.
To get around that problem, Dan Black and Dan Nagin, of Carnegie Mellon
University, [see above] re-examined Mr.
Lott's numbers but looked only at counties with populations of 100,000 or more. They found that the
conclusions varied wildly from state to state: Murders climbed 105 per cent in West Virginia after a
shall-issue law took effect, while in Maine aggravated assaults dropped 67 per cent. When they took Florida
out of the data set, the positive effects of the law vanished--a clear sign the findings aren't "robust," as
Mr. Lott's study, however, has stood apart from others not just for
its findings, but for its reception, which has
been simultaneously icy and furious. One chapter of his book recounts his experiences with anti-gun lobbyists
and other academics. The editors of the National Review found his treatment sufficiently outrageous that they
plan to publish the chapter as an article--an object lesson, they say, in the gauntlet that conservative
intellectuals must run when they challenge liberal articles of faith.
When Mr. Lott conducted his study, he says, two dozen academics refused
his entreaties for comments on the
work. A staff member of the anti-gun group Violence Policy Center, he adds, refused to read it-- but then
proceeded to attack it when reporters called. The same group denounced him as a "shill" for the gun lobby
and suggested that his research was tainted because he holds the John M. Olin visiting professorship at
Chicago. The Olin family made its fortune, in part, manufacturing firearms and ammunition. Both the
university and the foundation have made it clear that the Olin Foundation is no more beholden to gunmakers
than the Ford Foundation is to carmakers. Mr. Lott has threatened the Violence Policy Center with a lawsuit.
Citing that threat, the group declined to comment.
The "shill" charge, made often on radio and television shows, led to
a stream of threats and insults on Mr.
Lott's answering machine. "I'm bothered at the time of the attack, but it's afterwards that it hits home," he says.
"I can get anywhere from a few to a hundred phone calls with people yelling and screaming, 'How can you do
this? Have you no shame?' " Mr. Lott suspects that he has paid a professional price, too, for his contrariness.
He has yet to land a tenure-track job, even though he has two more books under contract with Chicago-- one
on complex theories of economic "predation," and the other on an economic theory of reputations.
SHORT SENTENCES FOR RICH CRIMINALS
Demurring at any premature canonization of Mr. Lott as a martyr, his
critics point out that some of his
previous work is a bit idiosyncratic. In one paper, he defends the ability of wealthy people to "buy justice,"
using a line of argument that sounds like a parody of the contrarianby-nature law-and-economics approach
long associated with the University of Chicago. Since the wealthy have more to lose by being imprisoned--in
terms of lost salary and investment opportunities--it follows that they should get shorter sentences than the
poor, and escape conviction more often, he argues. He applies this even to the death penalty: The
"opportunity cost" of dying is greater for the rich than for the poor, and so death is a greater penalty for the
rich. Well-heeled lawyers simply help to rectify the unfairness.
Aside from the noise surrounding Mr. Lott and his new study, gun-policy
researchers say the scientific
process is working more or less as it should. He has presented a striking thesis, and other researchers are
sorting through the data to see if it is justified. Knowledge about the subject--in shorter supply than the
polemics suggest--may be advanced.
"It's too bad, in a way, that the spotlight is glaring so brightly on
the whole process, magnifying the
intermediate steps on the way to a final resolution," says Duke's Mr. Cook.
Mr. Lott considers the issue resolved. Convinced by his own research,
he picked up a .38-caliber pistol.
Chicago's gun-control laws, however, prevent him from carrying it, so he keeps it locked up--in another state.
Letters to the editor
Your recent article on my book "More Guns,
Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press,
1998) contained several important mistakes.
For example, my book examined not just 10
states, but all 3,054 counties for the entire
United States from 1977 to 1994.
Unlike past researchers on gun control, I made
my data immediately available to any
academics who have requested it. To date,
researchers at 35 different universities have
received it. It is inaccurate to claim that "most
rejected [my] findings" and "nor are many
other researchers convinced." No one has had
any trouble replicating my results, and I know
of only two papers using this data that have
been critical of my work and neither claims
that concealed handgun laws have adversely
affected public safety.
The article discusses one of these critical
comments by Dan Black and Dan Nagin from
Carnegie Mellon University claiming that they
found "murders climbed 105 percent in West
Virginia after a shall-issue law took effect."
Yet, their exclusion of all counties with fewer
than 100,000 people means that they are
examining not "West Virginia," but only one
county -- Kanawha. The other 54 counties in
West Virginia, with 89 percent of the state's
population, were excluded from their
estimates. And in fact, even after the Black and
Nagin eliminated the 86 percent of all U.S.
counties with fewer than 100,000 people, they
still found evidence that murder, rape,
aggravated assault, and robbery rates all
declined after the law was passed. It is only
after they also eliminated all the data for
Florida did they caused the drops in murder
and rape rates to be statistically insignificant
for a few specifications.
It is simply wrong to claim that "even in states
with the most-liberal laws . . .only 1 to 2 per
cent of people" obtain permits to carry a gun
and thus it would be a "miracle" to expect a
large drop in violent crime. First, some states
have over five or six percent of the adult
population with permits. Second, even one
percent of the state's adult population is large
relative to the number of violent crimes
prevented. For example, with murder rates of
about 8 per 100,000 people, a 10 percent
change is only .8 per 100,000. By contrast, if
one percent carried guns, that is 1,000 per
100,000. Fewer than .08 percent of permit
holders need deter a murder by either directly
stopping an attack or discouraging a crime
from ever taking place for this effect to hold.
The effect is even more believable when one
realizes that those most at risk are the ones
who are most likely to get a permit.
-- John R. Lott, Jr., The John M. Olin Law
and Economics Fellow, School of Law,
University of Chicago (posted 6/8, 1:58
In my opinion, Lott's research applied econometric methods to a data
set that simply did not meet the necessary conditions. Lott
had collected data for each of America's 50,056 counties for each year
from 1977 to 1992. The problem with this is that America's
counties vary tremendously in size and social characteristics. A
few large ones, containing major cities, account for a very large percentage
of the murders in the United States. As it happens, none of these
very large counties have “shall issue” gun control laws. This means
that Lott’s massive data set was simply unsuitable for his task.
He had no variation in his key causal variable – “shall issue” laws – in
the places where most murders occurred.
He did not mention this limitation in his book or articles. When I discovered the lack of “shall issue” laws in the major cities in my own examination of his data, I asked him about it. He shrugged it off, saying that he had “controlled” for population size in his analysis. But introducing a statistical control in the mathematical analysis did not make up for the fact that he simply had no data for the major cities where the homicide problem was most acute.
It took me some time to find this problem in his data, since I was not familiar with the gun control issue. But Zimring and Hawkins zeroed in on it immediately because they knew that "shall issue" laws were instituted in states where the National Rifle Association was powerful, largely in the South, the West and in rural regions. These were states that already had few restrictions on guns. They observed that this legislative history frustrates "our capacity to compare trends in 'shall issue' states with trends in other states. Because the states that changed legislation are different in location and constitution from the states that did not, comparisons across legislative categories will always risk confusing demographic and regional influences with the behavioral impact of different legal regimes." Zimring and Hawkins further observed that:
Lott and Mustard are, of course, aware of this problem. Their solution, a standard econometric technique, is to build a statistical model that will control for all the differences between Idaho and New York City that influence homicide and crime rates, other than the "shall issue" laws. If one can "specify" the major influences on homicide, rape, burglary, and auto theft in our model, then we can eliminate the influence of these factors on the different trends. Lott and Mustard build models that estimate the effects of demographic data, economic data, and criminal punishment on various offenses. These models are the ultimate in statistical home cooking in that they are created for this data set by these authors and only tested on the data that will be used in the evaluation of the right-to-carry impacts.
Lott and Mustard were comparing trends in Idaho and West Virginia and Mississippi with trends in Washington, D.C. and New York City. What actually happened was that there was an explosion of crack-related homicides in major eastern cities in the 1980s and early 1990s. Lott's whole argument came down to a claim that the largely rural and western "shall issue" states were spared the crack-related homicide epidemic because of their "shall issue" laws. This would never have been taken seriously if it had not been obscured by a maze of equations.