Damn Lies -- or Statistics

Book Review of "More Guns, Less Crime," by John Lott

Review by David B. Kopel

Slightly different version of article originally published in Chronicles, Dec. 1999.More by Kopel on licensed carry.

The most important book ever published about firearms policy is John Lott's superb More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws (University of Chicago Press, $23). No firearms book has ever reshaped the political debate so profoundly; and no author of a firearms policy book has ever been subjected to such a determined campaign of lies and libels as John Lott has been. The intensity of the campaign against Lott is a powerful confirmation of the book's importance, and why it should be read by everyone who cares about firearms policy. Firearms policy is a literally a matter of life or death, and the lobbyists who are trying to prevent the public from discovering John Lott's research are indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people every year.

During the nineteenth century, "the right to keep and bear arms" meant exactly what it said. The right to carry a gun was protected just as firmly as the right to own a gun. Some states, particularly in the South, enforced laws against carrying handguns concealed, but the right to open carry was almost universally respected.

By the 1970s, however, the right to carry had been constricted step by step in most jurisdictions. America was well on the way to treating guns like cigarettes--permissible in private, but completely banned from public spaces.

But in 1988, Florida set off a national trend by enacting a "shall issue" handgun permit law, thanks to the energetic support of the Florida Chiefs of Police Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida. The Florida law specifies that any adult who has a clean record and who has taken safety training may obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun for lawful protection.

Now, 29 states have a law like Florida's, while Vermont and Idaho(outside of Boise) require no permit.

Before John Lott came along, a few researchers, myself included, had studied the effects of these laws, but these studies were far inferior to Lott's. Clayton Cramer and I had analyzed changes in murder rates in "shall issue" states compared to national trends, and found tentative evidence that murder rates fell after enactment of "shall issue" laws. David McDowall had analyzed murder rates in five counties, and reported that murder rates rose. (My study is in the Tennessee Law Review; McDowall's is in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.)

John Lott and his co-author (graduate student David Mustard, now a University of Georgia professor) blew all the previous research away.

Lott's work was the most thorough criminological study ever performed, on any topic. Lott collected data from every one of the 3,054 counties in United States over an 18 year period.  In contrast to the Kopel and McDowall homicide-only studies, Lott's research examined changes in the rates for nine different crimes.

Lott also accounted (far more thoroughly than the previous studies) for the effects of dozens of other variables--including changes in arrest rates, changes in the age and racial composition of a county's population, changes in national crime rates, and other changes in gun control laws, including the adoption of waiting periods.

The results?  Concealed handgun license laws significantly reduce violent crime. On the average, after enactment of such laws, murder falls by 10%, rape by 3% and aggravated assault by 6%

While crime does begin dropping immediately, the full benefits of concealed handgun laws take about three years to make themselves fully felt.  This should not be surprising; in most states, there is a flood in applications in the first few weeks the law is on the books, and a much longer gradual rise in the percentage of population which has permits.  The larger the percentage the population with permits, the greater the drop in crime. (Usually the percentage of the population which obtains permits ranges from 1% to 5%.)

Interestingly, Lott also found a small but statistically significant increase in non-confrontational property crimes such as larceny.  Apparently, concealed handgun laws do not erase criminals' appetite for other people's property, but the laws do encourage the more rational subset of criminals to acquire the property in ways will not risk the criminals' own lives.

Everyone, not just gun carriers, benefits from the reduced crime rates--since criminals do not know which potential victims might have a concealed gun. (The only remaining safe zones for criminals are schools, thanks to laws in many states which forbid gun carrying on school property even by licensed adults.)

Despite the very high level of statistical sophistication in More Guns, Less Crime, the book is a pleasant read.  Lott lays out the data in an accessible manner, building from simpler statistical models to more complex ones.  The book guy serves not only as guide to firearms policy, but as a readable introduction to multivariate statistical analysis.

Indeed, the book is a good antidote to the defeatist "innumeracy" which infects even the best-educated Americans. People with advanced degrees from Ivy League schools throw up their hands whenever they hear conflicting statistical claims from experts. "How can an ordinary person (even an ordinary person with 20 years of schooling) understand statistics?" they ask. The answer is that statistics are comprehensible if you pay attention, and More Guns, Less Crime is an excellent way to overcome fear of numbers.

The most interesting part of the book, however, is the chapter in which Lott addresses criticism of his research.  In marked contrast to the anti-gun number crunchers funded by the federal governments' Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Lott has made his data readily available to any and all researchers.  He has even supplied hostile researchers  with a computer disk of the data, so they won't have to key it in again.

Some of Lott's critics do not re-analyze the data, but instead offer superficial talking points. For example, Lott's figures show that, other things being equal, crime rates tend to be higher in areas with a larger proportion of older Black women.  How can this be, since arrest rate data show that older Black women are a very law-abiding group?  As Lott explains, the answer is not that the women themselves commit crimes, but that they happen to be a particularly vulnerable set of victims--often easy prey for young male criminals.

Interestingly, Lott's research shows that a lawful concealed weapon possessed by a woman has a much larger crime-reductive effect than the same weapon possessed by a man. Since women tend to be smaller than men, the effect of women carrying an "equalizer" tends be larger.

The most sophisticated of Lott's critics is Professor Daniel Nagin.  Thanks to Lott's gift of the computer data, Nagin has been able to engage in a form of research called "data torturing."  Turning the data every which way but loose, Nagin demonstrated, and Lott conceded, that the full benefits and of concealed handgun laws do not happen all once, but take several years to have their full effect.

Nagin's other criticisms, such as the often-repeated factoid that all the benefits of concealed carrying vanish if one removes Florida from the equation, turn out to be meaningless. The Florida factoid is partially true only in if one throws out the data from all U.S. counties with a population of less than 100,000; under such conditions, concealed carry laws do not appear to affect murder or rape.  Yet even if one looks only at non-Florida counties with a population of over 100,000, the data still show a large decrease in aggravated assault and robbery rates.

In contrast to the analysis-based academic critics of Lott's research, the anti-gun lobbies unleashed a furious and thoroughly dishonest public relations campaign against Lott himself. The most scurrilous of all came from the Violence Policy Center (VPC), an organization which chides Handgun Control, Inc., for its timidity.

The VPC claimed that Lott's study was "in essence, funded by the firearms industry." In truth, Lott's study wasn't paid for by anybody; he just drew his regular salary as a University of Chicago law professor.  (Lott is now at Yale Law School.) The University of Chicago, like many other high ranking universities, was given an endowment  chair Olin Foundation.  The Olin Foundation plays no role in selecting which professor at a university will hold the chair, or what he will research.  The Olin chair at the University of Chicago, which was held by Lott, was established many years before Lott came to the University to Chicago. Some of the Olin Foundation's money came from the late John M. Olin, who made some of his money in the firearms and ammunition business.

So to claim that everything any Olin professor does is "paid for by the gun industry" is like claiming that everyone who gets a grant from the Ford Foundation is getting a subsidy from the automobile industry, or that everyone who teaches at Stanford University is in the pay of the railroad industry.  (Stanford was founded by railroad magnate Leland Stanford.)

The lies-against-Lott campaign continues to bear fruit in the form of opinion columns written by columnists such as Molly Ivins, who are too lazy to read Lott's book, and who rely instead on bullet points from groups like the VPC. For example, Ivins claimed that Lott "himself admits, he didn't look at any other causative factors -- no other variables, as they say." Of course anyone who bothered to crack open the book's binding would know that Lott accounted for dozens of other causal factors.

The mean-spirited distortions from the anti-gun lobby show just how weak the case against concealed carry really is.

The vicious campaign against Lott reveals the fundamental extremism of the anti-gun movement.  Concealed handgun laws are precisely the type of moderate, "reasonable" laws which the anti-gun groups claim to support. Except in Vermont and rural Idaho, a person must go through a licensing process and background check in order to get a permit, and many states require concealed handgun license applicants to take safety training as well.  (Lott found that the safety training requirement had no statistically discernible effect on crime rates or gun accident rates.) So why the intense opposition to laws which encourage controlled gun use?

To the anti-gun movement, the greatest fear is not that Lott is making up results, but that Lott is right.  In the mind of the anti-gun movement, armed self-defense by ordinary people is immoral.  As Handgun Control, Inc., Chair Mrs. Sarah Brady put it, "To me, the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes." (Tom Jackson, "Keeping the Battle Alive," Tampa Tribune, Oct. 21, 1993.) Her husband Jim Brady explained the circumstances when people should be allowed to possess handguns: "for target shooting, that's okay. Get a license and go to the range. For defense of the home, that's why we have police departments." ("In Step With: James Brady," Parade Magazine, June 26, 1994, p. 18.)

Mrs. Brady's long-term goal, she told the New York Times, is a "needs-based licensing" system. According to the Brady system, all guns would be registered. The local police chief would decide if a person who wanted to buy a gun had a legitimate "need." Mrs. Brady listed hunters and security guards as persons having a legitimate need, but not regular people who wanted guns for self-protection. (Erik Eckhom, "A Little Gun Control, a Lot of Guns," New York Times, Aug. 15, 1993, p. B1).

Much of the anti-gun lobbies' agenda involves trying to restrict self-defense (an extremist objective shared by few Americans) by marketing the gun restrictions as "reasonable" mild regulations.  For example there is currently a push to require gun owners to lock up their guns, in the name of preventing access by juvenile criminals.  But if a gun has to be locked up all the time, then it's much more difficult to use in emergency, such as a home invasion. 

Against the campaign to make defensive gun use impossible comes More Guns, Less Crime, proving that defensive handguns substantially enhance public safety. Indeed, concealed handgun laws (which cost the government nothing, since the licensing system is paid by user fees), are far more cost-effective at reducing crime than prison construction, hiring more police, subsidizing midnight basketball, or anything else that government does.

The longer that the gun prohibition lobby and its political allies delay "shall issue" legislation in the 19 states without such a law, the more people will be murdered, assaulted, robbed, and raped. The more people who read "More Guns, Less Crime," the sooner that streets in every state in the Union will become safe zones for good citizens, rather than for predators.

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