National Rifle Association Offers Weak Defense Of Discredited Gun Researcher John Lott
Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON
The National Rifle Association made a botched attempt at statistics in order to defend economist and gun researcher John Lott, who famously put forward the debunked "more guns, less crime" thesis that undergirds the NRA's agenda.
In a 1997 paper Lott, along with David Mustard, purported to use econometrics to prove that the expansion of state laws allowing guns to be carried in public reduced crime rates in the United States. Since its publication, Lott's study has been endlessly cited by the NRA and other gun advocates even though the study's conclusions been repeatedly debunked by other academicians.
In an August 3 article for the conservative Daily Caller's "Guns and Gear" page, the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), defended Lott's work from recent criticism in The Washington Post.
Writing that "anti-gun activists ... worked themselves into a rage over Lott's research," and that Lott has been accused by critics of "using bad data," the NRA-ILA claimed that reductions in crime since the early 1990s coupled with increases in the number of states allowing guns to be carried in public proved Lott's case:
Reality check, however. For starters, in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, firearms were used in only 21.8 percent of aggravated assaults, according to the FBI. Furthermore, from the end of 1991, the year when violent crime hit an all-time high in the United States, through 2012, 24 states adopted [right to carry] laws (not counting Illinois, which adopted RTC in 2013). And according to the FBI, between 1991 and 2012, the nation's aggravated assault rate dropped 44 percent. The rates of 39 states and the District of Columbia decreased. And while the rates of 11 states increased, most of these states are ones with relatively low populations and aggravated assault numbers, thus small increases in the numbers of assaults can translate into seemingly large increases when the trend is measured on a percentage basis.
This defense of Lott purports to explain the entire decline in crime since the early 1990s as a result of gun carrying laws without offering any evidence to explain this unfounded claim. In fact, several plausible factors have been put forward to explain the crime drop including the end of the crack epidemic and reductions in the general public's exposure to lead. The General Social Survey indicates that the rate of household gun ownership has declined over time leading to speculation that recent increases in the number of guns sold are largely attributable to pre-existing gun owners buying more guns.
The NRA's second defense of Lott also falls short. Citing what it calls "the final analysis," the NRA-ILA writes that "of 29 peer reviewed studies of Lott's work by economists and criminologists, 18 supported Lott's hypothesis that shall-issue laws reduce crime, 10 found no significant relationship between [right to carry] laws and crime." The citations for that figure, however, are links to two articles, both of which are co-authored by Lott, meaning the NRA's source for defending Lott is Lott himself.
Repeated flaws have been demonstrated in Lott's research. A 2003 review of Lott's work published in Stanford Law Review found Lott's central "more guns, less crime" thesis to be "without credible statistical support" and found that correcting coding errors in Lott's work reversed his conclusions. (Lott was later caught manipulating his own data in an attempt to preserve his erroneous conclusions by Mother Jones magazine.)
David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, offered numerous critiques of Lott's "more guns, less crime" data set in his 2003 book Public Guns Public Health, including descriptions of bizarre scenarios that demonstrated the volatility of Lott's data (emphasis added):
Many of the results for the other control variables do not make sense. For example, the results show both that increasing the rate of unemployment and reducing income will significantly reduce the rate of violent crime. The results indicate that reducing the number of middle-aged and elderly black women (who are rarely either perpetrators or victims of murder) will substantially reduce homicide rates. Indeed, according to the results, a decrease of 1 percentage point in the percentage of the population that is black, female, and aged forty to forty-nine is associated with a 59 percent decrease in homicide (and a 74 percent increase in rape). [Hemenway, Private Guns Public Health, pg. 244]
Beyond numerous criticisms of his thesis, Lott's credibility has also been called into question after he faced allegations he fabricated a phone survey on defensive gun use and when he was caught using a fake online persona to defend and promote his work.
According to a 2012 study (download) -- which Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research director Daniel Webster calls "the best study on the topic" -- Lott's conclusions are erroneous and more permissive carrying of guns in public actually increases the number of aggravated assaults.