The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg Calls For Loosened Gun Laws On The Basis Of Discredited Research


In a November 30 article in The Atlantic, national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that it was "too late" to enact gun violence prevention laws, using discredited research from John Lott's "More Guns, Less Crime" thesis and debunked claims by criminologist Gary Kleck that defensive gun uses outpace gun crimes.

Goldberg's Claim That Americans Agree With The National Rifle Association's "Basic Message" Of Weak Gun Laws Is Contradicted By Polling

Goldberg: "It's Too Late" To Enact Strong Gun Violence Prevention Laws, Americans Agree With "Basic Message" Of NRA. From the December 2012 edition of The Atlantic

[G]un-control efforts, while noble, would only have a modest impact on the rate of gun violence in America. 


Because it's too late. 

There are an estimated 280 million to 300 million guns in private hands in America--many legally owned, many not. Each year, more than 4 million new guns enter the market. This level of gun saturation has occurred not because the anti-gun lobby has been consistently outflanked by its adversaries in the National Rifle Association, though it has been. The NRA is quite obviously a powerful organization, but like many effective pressure groups, it is powerful in good part because so many Americans are predisposed to agree with its basic message. [The Atlantic11/30/12

62 Percent Of Americans Support Legislation Banning The Sale Of Assault Weapons. According to a June 2011 Time magazine poll, a ban on the sale of assault weapons was supported by 73 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of Independents and 49 percent of Republicans. [Time6/23/11]

Nearly Nine In Ten Americans Favor Requiring Background Checks For Every Gun Purchase. According to a January 2011 American ViewPoint/Momentum Analysis poll, 86 percent of all respondents, including 81 percent of individuals who have a gun in their home, support universal background checks. [American ViewPoint/Momentum Analysis, January 2011]

Almost Two-Thirds Of Americans Favor Banning High Capacity Magazines. 63 percent of Americans, including 58 percent of gun-owning households, support banning high capacity magazines that can hold many rounds of ammunition, like those used in the July 20 Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre. [CBS News/New York Times Poll, January 2011]

Two-Thirds Of Americans Support A National Registry For Gun Owners To Report Their Weapons. 66 percent of Americans, including 49 percent of gun-owning households, support a national gun registry. [American ViewPoint/Momentum Analysis, January 2011]

Goldberg Promotes Criminologist Gary Kleck's Debunked Claim That Guns Are Used Defensively Up To 2.45 Million Times A Year 

Goldberg Falsely Asserts "It Is, In Fact, Possible To Assess ... How Many Crimes Have Been Stopped Because The Intended Victim, Or A Witness, Was Armed." From the December edition of The Atlantic

But it is, in fact, possible to assess with some degree of accuracy how many crimes have been stopped because the intended victim, or a witness, was armed. In the 1990s, Gary Kleck and a fellow criminologist, Marc Gertz, began studying the issue and came to the conclusion that guns were used defensively between 830,000 and 2.45 million times each year. [The Atlantic11/30/12]

Injury Prevention Researcher David Hemenway:  Kleck's Claim "Is An Enormous Overestimate." From a 1997 article in CHANCE, a magazine published by the American Statistical Association:

All attempts at external validation of the 2.5 million figure show that it is an enormous overestimate (Hemenway, in press). For example, in 34% of the times a gun was used for self-defense, the offender was allegedly committing a burglary. In other words, guns were reportedly used by defenders for self-defense in approximately 845,000 burglaries. From sophisticated victimization surveys, however, we know that there were fewer than 6 million burglaries in the year of the survey and in only 22% of those cases was someone certainly at home (1.3 million burglaries). Since only 42% of U.S. households own firearms, and since victims in two thirds of the occupied dwellings were asleep, the 2.5 million figure requires us to believe that burglary victims use their guns in self-defense more than 100% of the time. [CHANCEvol. 10, no. 3, 1997, emphasis added] 

Hemenway: Kleck's Research Has "Serious Methodological Deficiencies." From CHANCE magazine:

How could the survey estimate be so far off? The 2.5 million figure comes from a national random-digit-dial telephone survey of 5,000 dwelling units (Kleck and Gertz 1995), in which slightly over 1% of the individuals surveyed reported that they themselves had used a gun in self-defense during the past year. Using that percentage to extrapolate to the entire population of 200 million adults gives approximately 2.5 million uses.

Other telephone surveys (of 600 to 2,000 respondents) also yield high estimates, often of millions of annual self-defense gun uses (Kleck 1991). All of the surveys have very serious methodological deficiencies, but the most important problem, never sufficiently considered, is that the researchers are attempting to estimate a rare event. That fact alone leads to the likelihood of extreme overestimation.  [CHANCEvol. 10, no. 3, 1997

Gun Victimization Survey: "Far More Survey Respondents Report Having Been Threatened Or Intimidated With A Gun Than Having Used A Gun To Protect Themselves." From the December 2000 edition of Injury Prevention, a journal for health professionals:

Even after excluding many reported firearm victimizations, far more survey respondents report having been threatened or intimidated with a gun than having used a gun to protect themselves. A majority of the reported self defense gun uses were rated as probably illegal by a majority of judges. This was so even under the assumption that the respondent had a permit to own and carry the gun, and that the respondent had described the event honestly. [Injury Prevention2000; 6:263-267]

Goldberg Cites Discredited Gun Researcher John Lott As An Authority On Guns And Crime

Goldberg: Lott's Theory That There Is "A Link Between An Increasingly Armed Public And A Decreasing Crime Rate" Is Borne Out By Kleck's Research. From the December edition of The Atlantic:

Many gun-rights advocates see a link between an increasingly armed public and a decreasing crime rate. "I think effective law enforcement has had the biggest impact on crime rates, but I think concealed carry has something to do with it. We've seen an explosion in the number of people licensed to carry," [John] Lott told me. "You can deter criminality through longer sentencing, and you deter criminality by making it riskier for people to commit crimes. And one way to make it riskier is to create the impression among the criminal population that the law-abiding citizen they want to target may have a gun."

Crime statistics in Britain, where guns are much scarcer, bear this out. Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University, wrote in his 1991 book, Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, that only 13 percent of burglaries in America occur when the occupant is home. In Britain, so-called hot burglaries account for about 45 percent of all break-ins. Kleck and others attribute America's low rate of occupied-home burglaries to fear among criminals that homeowners might be armed. [The Atlantic11/30/12]

Coding Errors In Data Undermine Lott's "More Guns, Less Crime" Hypothesis. From "The Latest Misfires in Support of the 'More Guns, Less Crime' Hypothesis" published by Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III in the Stanford Law Review:

PW [Lott's co-authors Florenz Plassmann and John Whitley] seriously miscoded their new county dataset in ways that irretrievably undermine every original regression result that they present in their response. As a result, the new PW regressions must simply be disregarded. Correcting PW's empirical mistakes once again shows that the more guns, less crime hypothesis is without credible statistical support. [Stanford Law Review, accessed 12/3/12 via Deltoid]

Computer Scientist Tim Lambert's Summary Of Ayres And Donohue's Findings: "If Anything, Concealed Carry Laws Lead To More Crime." From an April 2003 blog post on

Ian Ayres and John Donohue wrote a paper that found that, if anything, concealed carry laws lead to more crime. Lott, (along with Florenz Plassmann and John Whitley) wrote a reply where they argued that using data up to 2000 confirmed the "more guns, less crime" hypothesis. In Ayres and Donohue's response to that paper, they found that Lott's data contained numerous coding errors that, when corrected, reversed the results. Furthermore, this was the second time these sorts of errors had been found in Lott's data. Lott had presented to the NAS [National Academy of Science] panel figures showing sharp declines in crime following carry laws. Declines which disappeared when the coding errors were corrected. Finally, when Lott saw Ayres and Donohue's response he had his name removed from the final paper. [Deltoid, 4/25/03

Lott Attempted To Cover Up His Coding Errors By Changing His Statistical Model. From an October 12, 2003 Mother Jones article by Chris Mooney:

In an interview conducted on August 18 (transcript), Lott told me that he had posted "corrected" tables on his website for all to see. But when I downloaded Lott's "corrected" version of the contested table, it showed the same numerical values as that of Donohue and Ayres -- that is, the coding errors were gone -- but bizarrely claimed the properly coded data still indicated statistically significant drops in murder, rape, and robbery. That's because Lott had introduced a new twist: Rather than simply fixing the incorrectly coded data, he omitted a key calculation regarding statistical significance used in the Plassmann-Whitley paper. (For statistics geeks, it's called "clustering at the state level.") Faced with no other way to save his thesis, you could say that Lott changed the rules -- rules his own team had laid down -- in the middle of the game. [Mother Jones10/12/03]

Economist Mark Duggan: Rate Of Gun Ownership Positively Correlated With Incidence Of Homicide. From "More Guns, More Crime" published in the Journal of Political Economy in October 2000: 

My findings reveal that changes in homicide and gun ownership are significantly positively related. This relationship is almost entirely driven by the relationship between lagged changes in gun ownership and current changes in homicide, suggesting that the relationship is not driven simply by individuals' purchase of guns in response to increases in criminal activity.


These findings contradict the results from recent work suggesting that legislation allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons (CCW) caused a significant decline in violent crime (Lott and Mustard 1997). [Journal of Political EconomyOctober 2000

Lott Became Subject Of Ethics Inquiry After Failing To Prove He Conducted A 1997 Survey. From a January 17, 2003 letter written by Northwestern University Professor of Law James Lindgren, concerning claims that Lott fabricated a survey that found 98 percent of defensive gun uses involved only brandishing a weapon: 

In September 2002 I offered to look into a question raised about John Lott's work. I thought that offering such help to Lott and to the profession was the responsible thing to do when serious questions were raised, and I thought it would be exceedingly simple to establish that a survey of 2,424 people had been done. While I recognized that it is extremely easy to lose data in a computer crash, I had not anticipated that Lott would claim to have done a large national survey without discussing the sampling design with anyone, leaving any financial or other records of the study, or remembering anyone who had worked on it.  I had never heard of a professor doing anything of that size with no funding, paid support, paid staff, phone reimbursements, or records (though there are probably precedents for such an unusual method).  As it stands now, unless someone comes forward to verify working on the study--as I still hope occurs--we may never know with any certainty whether the 1997 study was done.  Although I strongly favor emailing 1997-98 University of Chicago college graduates to see if any remember any classmates working on the study, John Lott now raises serious questions about how complete the University's alumni records are, rendering that approach a less reliable route to an answer than I had anticipated.


I find recent developments in this affair personally troubling.  I carefully recorded what John Lott told me and now Lott has changed the story he told me in several specific ways--most of them minor.  They are discussed in my revisions to this report.   I have no research interests in this subfield and no ideas for further efforts to get to the bottom of this inquiry beyond surveying graduates and Lott's looking at picture books of former students. This project detracts from my other scholarly efforts.  Accordingly, my part in this affair is essentially done, at least if John Lott will stop changing his stories about our conversation.  If not, then I suspect that I will have to stay in it a little longer, at least to respond to comments on this report. [James Lindgren, 1/17/03

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Guns
The Atlantic
John Lott, Jeffrey Goldberg
Guns, National Rifle Association
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