The End of Myth: An Interview with Dr. John Lott

Dr. John R. Lott is a scholar of world repute who became very famous for his work concerning gun control. To say that Dr. Lott is an expert in his field of study may well be an understatement. His More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws is the seminal work on the influence of guns upon our society. His new book, The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You've Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong will undoubtedly add to his reputation and also to the discussion of gun legality in general. His subject matter and findings could not be more politically incorrect, and it has made him a target of the liberal media, but we are fortunate that he has persevered.

Dr. Lott is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and had an extensive career in academia before joining AEI. He received his doctorate in economics at UCLA, and in the years thereafter taught at a great many prestigious institutions, such as The Wharton School (Penn), Yale, Cornell, the University of Chicago , Rice, and UCLA. Hopefully, Dr. Lott will continue to have the time to research and write in the future. As he indicates in the interview, the battle over whether guns will continue to be legal in America has not yet been decided.

BC: Dr. Lott, thank you very much for your time. If there's one book on the conservative circuit that I see quoted and showcased ubiquitously, it's your More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws. What made the book such a success? Was your meticulous research a big reason for its staying power? I recall seeing somewhere that for the basis of your conclusions, you studied over 3,000 counties in the United States . DJL: Well, it is hard to tell, but possibly it was because the book by far was the most comprehensive examination of guns and crime. The first edition of the book represented the largest study that had ever been done on gun control, examining crime data for all 3,140 counties in the U.S. by year from 1977 to 1994. The second edition extended that up through 1996. Previously, the largest study examining gun control had examined 170 cities during just one single year, 1980. The next largest studies would look at 32 counties or cities in just one year. The book was also the most comprehensive in terms of the number of different gun laws examined and the number of other factors that were accounted for in explaining changes in crime rates. A partial list of factors include: arrest and conviction rates, prison sentence lengths, hiring rules for police, number of police, unionization of police, policing strategies (community orientated policing, problem orientated policing, and the broken windows strategy), illegal drug prices, many different measures of income, unemployment, poverty, and the most extensive set of demographic factors. Not one previous gun control study had tried to account for any measures of even law enforcement. BC: Is the deterrent effect the biggest reason why a higher population of the citizenry possessing guns decreases the overall rate of crime? DJL: Crime is reduced because some criminals are deterred from attacking. But if an attack does occur, guns also prove to be the safest response for people to make when they are confronted by criminals and can stop an attack before any harm is done to the victim. While the deterrence effect is larger, both are important. BC: What do you say as a response to the person who argues: 'Guns are lethal. If we ban them we save thousands of lives.' I think the bumper sticker 'Where you outlaw guns only outlaws have them' might be a start. What's the best rejoinder to this too familiar argument? DJL: This is a very important question and it is what motivated my newest book, The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You've Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong. I think that the best response is to point out: Guns make it easier for bad things to happen, but guns also make it easier for people to protect themselves and stop bad things from happening. One must then address why people only hear about the bad things that happen with guns. I think people have a pretty good idea of the problems that happen with guns. In 2001, according to government survey evidence, there were about 450,000 crimes that were committed with guns. Of those, there were about 8,000 gun murders. But few probably realize that our best estimates indicate that last year Americans also used guns defensively, a little bit over 2 million times a year. Roughly ninety-five percent or so of the time, simply brandishing a gun was sufficient to stop an attack. Now we're having guns being used to stop crime about four and a half times more frequently, at least, than they were to commit one. However, my guess is even people who pay extremely close attention to the media are unlikely to know anything about the type of ratio that exists there. My guess is it's probably pretty hard for most people, when they think about it, to remember the last time that they heard on the evening television local or national news reports a case where someone actually used a gun to protect themselves or protect someone else. I have to confess, before I looked at this systematically, I kind of expected there to be a fair amount of lopsidedness in terms of the coverage. Even with this mindset, I was still fairly surprised by how unbalanced the news coverage actually is. You can take the major broadcast networks--ABC, NBC, and CBS--we looked at their morning and evening news broadcasts for those three networks, their national television shows, looking at stories that they had about gun crimes as well as stories that they had about civilians using guns to stop crimes, and you'd see Good Morning America had about 77,000 words on--involving stories involving gun crimes; zero with civilians using guns to stop crimes. ABC World News Tonight had about 13,000 words on guns crimes, zero examples of civilians using guns defensively. And you can go on through the other networks. Basically you have about 190,000 words during 2001 on gun crime stories, and zero words being spent on any of those news broadcasts about people using guns to stop a crime or protect themselves or someone else. Someplace like the New York Times, for example, had about almost 51,000 words on contemporaneous gun crime stories--so those aren't even stories about follow-ups in terms of trials or whatever, but just within a few days of a crime occurring. They had just one story, of 163 words in length, of someone--in this case, a retired police officer--using his gun to stop an armed robbery at a gasoline station. This was buried way back at the back of the newspaper. And my guess is they probably wouldn't even have reported that case if it hadn't been for the fact that the person was a retired police officer. Now, a lot of this unbalanced coverage, I think, is understandable, in the sense that suppose you're a director of a news bureau and you have two stories. In one case, there's a dead body on the ground, a sympathetic person like a victim. In another case, let's say a woman's brandished a gun, the would-be attackers run away, no shots are fired, no dead body on the ground, no crime actually committed. I think virtually anybody who would look at that would find the first news story to be considered a lot more newsworthy than the second. I don't think there's any debate about it. But while I think you can explain a lot of this--you know, we may care about both of those stories in terms of policy, in terms of what types of things will save the most lives, but surely, in terms of what's newsworthy, the issue's pretty clear. Yet I don't think that this explanation explains some very important aspects of how the media covers guns. There are many crimes that are already deemed to be extremely newsworthy, that are already getting extensive national and international coverage. Well, when these crimes were stopped by someone with a gun, as opposed to some other method being used to stop the crime, that particular part of the story seems to be systematically left out of the coverage. Another example that I think is fairly difficult to explain without some reference to some type of bias is how the media covers accidental gun deaths involving kids--something that obviously concerns a lot of people. And we probably all have seen the public service ads that were very prominent during the 1990s that the Clinton administration put out that would have the voices or pictures of children between the ages of 4 and 8, never a voice or a picture of a child over age 8. And the impression that we would get from these is that surely we're talking about young kids who died from accidental gunshots in the home and that we're talking about something that was essentially at epidemic-type rates. And it's not just the public service ads, but I think the media itself has contributed a lot to people's impressions about the rate at which these deaths are occurring. When I talk to college students and ask them how many children under 10 die from accidental gun deaths, you frequently get numbers in thousands. And then you'd ask them, well, what do you think is the typical case? And overwhelmingly what would come back is, well, it's a young child who gets a hold of a gun and either accidentally shoots themselves or another young child. And indeed, that's the type of case that you see reported in the media overall. But yet, if you go and do a Nexis search on each of these 31 cases--and we did so; Jill Mitchell, my research assistant, basically spent a long time going through and doing these--that you find that if you break down these 31 cases, there was actually six cases in the United States in that year where a child under 10 either accidentally shot themselves to death or another child. If you go back through the data from '95 through '99, you find that there are between five and nine cases a year in the United States . Whether it's five or nine or six or 31, obviously it would be far better if it was zero. But I think some perspective is needed here. You have to consider the fact that there are 90-some million Americans that own guns, that you're talking about 40 million kids in this age group. And I would argue it's pretty hard to think of virtually any other item that's as commonly owned in American homes that's anywhere near as remotely dangerous that has as low of an accidental death rate that's associated with it. BC: Has anyone learned from England 's experience with handguns? Do you think that the problems that they're having are caused from an unarmed populace? DJL: It is not just the experience in England , but also Australia . I think that the increases in gun crime and crime generally indicate that the restrictions didn't help. In 1996, Britain banned handguns and also made it a felony for people to use guns defensively. Prior to that time, over 54,000 Britons owned handguns. The ban was so tight that even shooters training for the Olympics were forced to travel to Switzerland or other countries to practice. Four years have elapsed since the ban was introduced and gun crimes have risen by 40%. The United Kingdom now leads the United States by an almost two-to-one margin in violent crime. Although murder and rape rates are still higher in the United States , the difference has been shrinking. A recent Associated Press Report notes: Dave Rogers, vice chairman of the [ London ] Metropolitan Police Federation, said the ban made little difference to the number of guns in the hands of criminals . . . . 'The underground supply of guns does not seem to have dried up at all.'

An excellent book on the history of English murder rates is by Professor Joyce Malcolm, where she argues that murder rates started falling when guns were introduced into the country and started rising again after different gun control regulations were adopted. Australia also passed severe gun restrictions in 1996, banning most guns and making it a crime to use a gun defensively. In the next four years, armed robberies there rose by 51 percent, unarmed robberies by 37 percent, assaults by 24 percent, and kidnappings by 43 percent. While murders fell by 3 percent, manslaughter rose by 16 percent. In Sydney , handgun crime rose by an incredible 440 percent from 1995 to 2001. Again, both Britain and Australia are 'ideal' places for gun control as they are surrounded by water, making gun smuggling relatively difficult. The bottom line, though, is that these gun laws clearly did not deliver the promised reductions in crime. BC: Your latest book, The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You've Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong, looks like it picks up where More Guns left off. What do you address in this book that you did not in your first? DJL: This new book tries to add to that discussion on a range of issues from how guns are used to commit terrorist acts to stopping terrorist acts to the benefits and risks of having guns in the home to looking at gun shows and so-called assault weapons bans, among other things. Yet I think the main reason why I wrote this book is to try to explain what I see as an apparent gulf that exists between what the research shows and what people's perceptions are about the costs and benefits of guns. I've also heard over time that guns are one issue that facts don't matter, that emotions are just too strong on this topic for many people. And I think that's wrong. Facts do matter, but the facts have to be thought about much more generally than just simple numbers. Guns are one issue that we're just bombarded with information about. You can't pick up a newspaper in the morning or listen to the local or national television and radio news and not constantly hear about horrific events that happened with guns. And all this information can't do anything but help inform people about guns. If anything, guns are one issue where we might just have too much information. What I tried to explain is why people have the views that they do about guns. BC: You've done something unique with your new work. You provide links for the reader to access your raw data. Does this have anything to do with the Michael Bellesiles scandal involving his data? DJL: I consistently give out my data from my research. Unfortunately, a large number of academics do not give out their data. For More Guns, Less Crime and the research that I have done on concealed handgun laws, I have given out that data to researchers at dozens of universities, and researchers have been able to re-estimate every single regression in that book. Around the time that the new book was going to come out, a friend of mine was able to set up an internet site that was able to handle the types of very large data sets that I have to deal with, so I was able to put it up on my web site (www.johnrlott.com). Data for other research by me are also on the web site. BC: Politically, guns appear to be a non-starter for the Democrats at this time. Do you think that guns eventually will not be a partisan issue in the future? Do you think that the majority of the American people support the right to bear arms? DJL: I am not sure that guns are definitely a non-starter for Democrats. It depends upon what part of the country that you are talking about. Right now Los Angeles is banning .50 caliber guns, Illinois is trying to stop gun shows, the New York state assembly is voting on much more stringent gun storage regulations, and in Congress, Democrats in the House are pushing for greatly expanded bans on so-called semi-automatic assault weapons. If anything, I think that there is a temporary lull. But if the media coverage keeps on going the way it is going, it is just a matter of time until the demand for even more restrictions comes back stronger than ever. I think that this can be changed, but it will take a lot of effort. You will need a change in the types of reports that the government puts out that only looks at the costs of guns and a greater effort by groups such as the NRA to try to let people know about how often defensive gun uses occur. The media should be doing this, but since they are not, you really don't have any other alternative other than the NRA. BC: You personally have an extensive university background, but do you think that the presence of so many conservatives at AEI is due to conservatives not being welcome in our universities? The American Enterprise Institute published research regarding party and ideological affiliation at the universities a few months back. The results seemed to prove that cultural leftists dominate the professorate. DJL: Academia is hardly balanced ideologically, but I am not sure that this is offset by think tanks. There are a lot of liberal think tanks in Washington , from the Brookings Institute to the Urban Institute to many different environmental groups. BC: Mr. Lott, your research also includes voting and legislative behavior. Do you think that voter fraud is a serious issue for us to be concerned about in the future? Dr. Lott: I haven't really done much research on fraud. Most of my work has been on whether African-American votes were discounted in Florida and whether the early election call that the polls were closed in Florida 's western panhandle lost Bush many votes.

Well, thank you for your time and insight, Dr. Lott.

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Bernard Chapin's picture
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Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.