The John Lott Effect

John Lott gained widespread attention for his books, "More Guns, Less Crime" and "The Bias againt Guns." Lott earned his PhD in Economics from UCLA in 1984. He is most famous for his analysis of data from about 3,000 counties in the U.S. from 1977-2002, and claims that through his complex statistical techniques, in can be concluded that 'Right-to-Carry' laws have had the effect of deterring violent crime, particularly rape and murder.

His Employment History as an 'Academic'

Lott's analysis was frought with controversy from the start and his model was highly criticized. Even the accuracy of the statistics themselves have been credibly questioned. As an academic Lott has not been able to hold a position very long. He had brief stints at Rice, UCLA, Wharton, the University of Chicago, and Yale.  None lasted more than four years and he found himself butting heads with many of his colleagues. [Newsweek 5/11/02]

But in a country already saturated with guns, Lott's conclusions fueled the fire of gun proponents and a fearful public. Although Lott portrays himself as a dispassionate scientist sifting through mounds of data, it is clear from his personal history and longstanding work as a political commentator, that he is not at all politically neutral. He has gone out of his way to inject himself into the political dialogue, testifying across the country in favor loosening gun laws, and overreaching the boundaries of his studies. 

The Effect

Lott's ideas exploded in the gun culture of the 1990's and all through the 2000's. Aided by a U.S. Congress working hand in hand with the NRA, Lott's politicking had the result of massive changes in Right-to-Carry laws. Propelled to stardom by gun advocates, his books, media appearances and frequent local congressional testimonies had the effect of significantly changing laws and attitudes across the country.

Concealed Carry Law Changes

Lott claims that the risks of owning a gun have been exaggerated. His ideas have had the effect of reviving an increased interest in gun ownership. Many of the mostly conservative media outlets where Lott makes his appearances also began downplaying the risks. [Media Matters 1/7/13]

Another significant attitude change has been our perception of who is responsible for deterring gun violence and responding to criminal behavior. Lott claims than the mere act of brandishing a gun deters crime in many cases.

Brandishing a gun used to be considered a crime in most circumstances. But in the wake of John Lott, there has been a growing acceptance of open carry laws and an emphasis on the importance of the intervention of strangers in preventing gun crime. This form of vigilantism used to be frowned upon, even considered illegal, but is now the model we look to for keeping our public safe from gun violence, and most tragically and ineffectively our children in school.

Lott has promulgated another infectious notion, and he tends to use this clever distraction anytime he is asked about efforts at gun control. He rolls his eyes and says, 'Criminals don't follow laws.' This tends to disarm many people, but we are not fooled. Yes, criminals do not follow laws; that is what makes them criminal. But it does not logically follow that we should not have laws and safeguards in place to prevent, discourage and prosecute criminal behavior. Lott frequently argues that there is no 'proof' that background checks deter criminal gun ownership. So the 72,000 people turned away in 2010 for criminal activity or other adjudications aren't proof enough? 

After studying John Lott, it is clear that he probably won't be happy until he has dismantled all the hurdles and barriers that limit gun ownership. His most recent focus is on gun free zones. He claims that the majority of shootings in the U.S. happen in gun free zones. (Our analysis disagrees with this.) The solution to this, for Lott, of course involves allowing concealed carrying everywhere. The answer to gun violence for Lott is always more guns, never more gun laws, however sensible. 

Another statistical manipulation Lott and his advocates use is saying that decreases in crime are a result of the above changes in right to carry laws. While it is true that over the last few decades, violent crime has significantly decreased, you can not contribute this to an increase in gun ownership. While sheer numbers of guns in the U.S. have increased, these increases have not been proportional to population increases. Percentages of gun ownership over the same time period have actually decreased. A detailed understanding of statistics reveals that Lott's assumptions and explanations are not as convenient and truthful as they appear. In fact they are legitimately flawed. 

Unfortunately he has been successful with regard to concealed carry laws in schools. We in Utah have seen this change, and an emphasis on arming teachers. In 2011, we even lost the 1000 ft. zone around schools that would prevent open carry. Now you can brandish any weapon outside of a school, even your largest assault weapon of choice! How exactly does this contribute to the safety of our children without creating other very unnecessary risks? John Lott has even insisted child-safety locks are dangerous because they inhibit people from the ability to shoot when necessary. Does it really seem like he has the best interest of our children in mind? 

For more about guns in Utah schools click here.

His Many High Profile Critics

Stanford professor John Donohue and Yale professor Ian Ayres were some of Lott's first critics. They believed his model had serious coding flaws, and wrote a detailed critique of it. They also note a very obvious flaw of Lott's work, "While Lott and Mustard have energetically catalogued the situations in which armed citizens have protected themselves or others, they never acknowledge cases on the other side of the ledger where the presence of guns almost certainly led to killings." -- from Ayres' and Donohue's Shooting Down the 'More Guns Less Crime' Hypothesis.

Wharton economist Mark Duggan's research yielded the exact opposite results of Lott's. Duggan's research was published in The Journal of Political Economy in 2001, in and article called "More Guns, More Crime." Duggan found that "changes in homicide and gun ownership are significantly positively related....These findings contradict the results from recent work [Lott's] suggesting that legislation allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons (CCW) caused a significant decline in violent crime."  

Lott has blatantly distorted information regarding gun violence in the United States and other countries in his media appearances. After the mass shooting in Aurora Colorado, he denied the fact that America has the highest level of gun violence in the developed world. This fact is an undeniable statistic that cannot be muted, denied or complicated by any other data.

A recently released report by Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research [October 2012], details evidence debunking Lott's work. "The research showing crime-reducing effects of RTC (right to carry) laws, incluing Lott's, has been carefully reviewed by a National Council of Research panel of experts, and others, and has been found to have serious flaws. The most consistent finding across studies which correct for these flaws is that RTC laws are associated with an increase in aggravated assaults."

While many academics and criminologists find serious flaws in Lott's theories, competing research has unfortunately not gained as much attention. Lott has been the wonderchild of gun advocacy, and although many refer to him as an academic and a professor, he has actually never taught in the schools where he was employed. His work has mainly been research. (And even his other fields of study have been very controversial.) Lott has politicized his gun research to a very high degree. He has spent a huge amount of his time campaigning for changes in laws across the country based on his weak and controversial theories. Popularity does not always indicate truthfulness.

Our Analysis

We recognize and respect that current law allows law-abiding citizens to obtain concealed carry permits. We do however, think it would be wise to require significantly more training for a carry permit as well as a license to own and use a gun, (just as we are required to have a license to drive a car as well as register the car itself). However, having concealed carry permit owners in the general public is NO substitute for sensible gun laws that help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those with dangerous mental conditions. It is also NO substitute for having trained law enforcement in key locations. And we most certainly denounce anyone who condones or encourages vigilantism as a safe or effective solution to gun violence. 

From our analysis of the data of shootings and mass shootings in America, we do not see that the majority take place in 'gun-free' zones. Some of the zones that Lott refers to, for instance movie theatres and shopping malls, are gun-free zones in some places, and not in others. We absolutely do not think having concealed weapons permit holders in schools is a good idea or a solution to the problem of gun violence in schools, for a few reasons:

1) By the time gun violence has started, whether deliberate or accidental, it is most often too late. Mass shootings are a rarity. Most gun violence in schools has been planned in advance with specific targets. Other acts happen accidentally when students bring guns to school to show friends.

2) Confronting gun violence with more gunfire will likely lead to innocent bystanders being injured or killed in the crossfire. While a small minority of these acts may be stopped by an armed adult, when there are better options for prevention, we are putting our children unnecessarily at risk for these devastating scenarios.

3) Statistically, guns are more often fired accidentally and in criminal acts, than for acts of self defense. For this reason, we believe the risks of surrounding our children with guns outweigh the smaller risk of a potential school shooting, especially when there are more sensible options to reduce risk.

We also believe the underlying theory Lott propagates, is that the answer to the problem of criminals having guns in our society, is more guns. If the 'bad' guy out there has a big gun, then you should too. We are not 'anti-' gun, but we believe he overlooks key facts, whitewashes the risks of gun ownership and is fundamentally missing the big picture. His solution to gun violence is not working.