From: Zhang, Yangkun (Yangkun.Zhang@FMR.COM)
Date: Mon Dec 18 2000 - 08:17:58 PST
I don't own a gun. I have never fired a gun. I don't ever plan on acquiring
a guy. Having said that, it would seem to me that banning guns would 1) only
ensure that criminals have them--since they would no doubt not care about
violating gun laws (after all, robbery, rape et al are all illegal to begin
with and typically carry a tougher sentence than the illegal possession of a
firearm), and 2) guns bans would decrease the marginal cost of committing a
crime to the criminal. The economist in me tells me that when you outlaw
something, only the criminal element will possess such an item--for good
examples, refer to the prohibition and the currently failing war on drugs.
That aside, here's a very good article on the issue:
Economist John Lott discusses the benefits of guns--and the hazards of
pointing them out.
Interviewed by Jacob Sullum and Michael W. Lynch
Until recently, when he bought a 9-mm Ruger after his own research impressed
upon him the value of gun ownership, John Lott had no personal experience
with firearms, aside from one day of riflery in summer camp when he was 12.
That fact did not stop a reviewer of Lott's 1998 book, More Guns, Less Crime
(University of Chicago Press), from labeling him a "gun nut." Writing in The
American Prospect, Edward Cohn also identified Lott as "a leading loon of
the Chicago School of economics, known for its ultra-market ideology." But
that was gentle--a backhanded compliment, even--compared to the attacks from
anti-gun activists, who accused Lott of producing his landmark study at the
behest of the gun industry.
Lott, now a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, used to be the John
M. Olin Law and Economics Fellow at the University of Chicago. That
position, like similar ones at other major universities, was endowed by a
foundation based on the personal fortune of the late John M. Olin, former
chairman of the Olin Corporation. Among many other things, the Olin
Corporation makes Winchester ammunition. These facts led Kristen Rand of the
Violence Policy Center to conclude that "Lott's work was, in essence, funded
by the firearms industry"--a charge that was echoed by other gun control
ad-vocates, including Charles Schumer, then a Democratic representative from
New York and now a senator.
Never mind that assuming the Olin Foundation takes orders from "the firearms
industry" is like assuming the Ford Foundation does the bidding of
automakers. Never mind that Olin fellows are chosen by faculty committees,
not by the foundation (with which Lott never had any contact). Proponents of
gun control were desperate to discredit Lott, because his findings
contradicted their dark predictions about what would happen if states
allowed law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns.
Analyzing 18 years of data for more than 3,000 counties, Lott found that
violent crime drops significantly when states switch from discretionary
permit policies, which give local officials the authority to determine who
may carry a gun, to "shall issue" or "right-to-carry" laws, which require
that permits be granted to everyone who meets certain objective criteria.
That conclusion, first set forth in a 1997 paper that Lott co-authored with
David Mustard, now an economist at the University of Georgia, heartened
defenders of gun ownership and dismayed their opponents. Arguing that "shall
issue" laws are beneficial, while other gun laws are ineffective at best,
Lott quickly became one of the most widely cited--and reviled--scholars in
the gun control debate.
Though it was the gun issue that brought Lott notoriety, it hasn't been the
focus of his career. The 41-year-old economist, who earned his Ph.D. at
UCLA, has published papers on a wide variety of topics, including
professional licensing, criminal punishment, campaign finance, and public
education. Last summer he published Are Predatory Commitments Credible?
(University of Chicago Press), a skeptical look at theories of predatory
pricing, and he is working on a book about the reputational penalties faced
by criminals, a longstanding interest. In addition to his positions at Yale
and the University of Chicago, Lott has served as chief economist at the
U.S. Sentencing Commission and taught at UCLA and the University of
Pennsylvania, among other schools. He lives in Swarth-more, Pennsylvania,
with his wife and four children. Senior Editor Jacob Sullum and Washington
Editor Michael Lynch talked to Lott at his Yale Law School office in
Reason: How did you become interested in guns?
John R. Lott Jr.: About six years ago, I was teaching a class dealing with
crime issues at the University of Pennsylvania, and it dawned on me that my
students would be interested in some papers on gun control. It forced me to
look at the literature systematically to decide what papers to assign to the
class. I was shocked by how poorly done the existing research on guns and
You had very small samples. By far the largest previous study on guns and
crime had looked at just 170 cities within a single year, 1980. Most of the
rest looked at, say, 24 counties or 24 cities within a single year. No one
had tried to account for things like arrest rates or conviction rates or
prison sentence lengths. And the studies were all very limited in the sense
that they were purely cross-sectional, where you look at the crime rates
across jurisdictions in one year, or [purely longitudinal], where you pick
one city or one county and look at it over time.
It was basically because of that class that I saw the benefit to going out
and trying to do it right. So I put together what I think is by far the
largest study that's ever been done on crime. The book has data on all
3,000-plus counties in the U.S. over an 18-year period. And simply having
that large a data set allows you to account for hundreds of factors,
thousands of factors, that you couldn't have accounted for in those smaller
Reason: What has been the most gratifying response to the book? Do you know
of any criminologists whose views have been changed by your research?
Lott: Some well-known people like [University of Pennsylvania criminologist]
John DiIulio and [UCLA political scientist] James Q. Wilson have said very
nice things about the study. I think it's caused DiIulio to look at these
issues differently, and there are other criminologists I know of who have
been amazed by how strong the data are. I've done lots of empirical studies,
and the regularities that you see here, in terms of the drops in violent
crimes right after these laws go into effect, are very dramatic.
The intensity of the issue on both sides is something I wouldn't have
expected before I got into it. I've been involved in a lot of debates, and
people tell me, "You should have anticipated this before you did the study."
But I've written about 80 academic articles, and the interest in this has
been so outside the range of experiences I've had before. With the vast
majority of articles, you're happy if you can get 10 people to read it.
Reason: The thrust of your argument in More Guns, Less Crime is easy enough
to understand. But the details of the evidence you cite are hard to follow
for anyone who is not trained in econometrics. Does it bother you that
people who support the right to keep and bear arms are apt to accept your
conclusions at face value, while those who are inclined to support gun
control will tend to reject your findings, even though few people in either
group are equipped to evaluate the evidence?
Lott: My guess is that [my critics] assume that the vast majority of people
who hear their claims are not going to even look at the book. So they say,
"Lott didn't account for poverty." Or they say, "Lott didn't account for
other types of gun laws." Those are things that are easy to evaluate: Either
I did, or I didn't. But I think they feel that they can get away with making
those claims, because it'll be only a tiny fraction of 1 percent who will go
and buy the book or get it from the library. I've never been involved in a
debate like this, because in your normal academic debate, where there are 10
people involved and they've all read the paper, if somebody says, "Professor
X didn't account for other gun laws," everybody else in the room would
laugh, because they would know it was an absurd claim.
I don't think that most of the comments [the critics] are making are really
that difficult to understand. One of the claims, for instance, is that I'm
assuming that when these laws are passed there will be a one-time drop in
violent crime rates, and it should be the same across all places that adopt
these laws. That's absurd. I don't know how much time I spend in the book
saying that the level of deterrence is related, according to the data, to
the probability that people are going to be able to defend themselves, and
the rate at which people get permits changes over time. When you pass these
laws, not everybody who eventually is going to get a permit does it the
first day. Fifteen years after these laws go into effect, you're still
seeing an increasing percentage of the population getting these permits and
a decreasing rate of violent crime because of the additional deterrence.
I spend lots of time in the book talking about why you don't expect the drop
in crime to be the same in all places....In more urban areas [of states with
discretionary permit laws], public officials were especially reluctant to
issue permits. So when you change to a nondiscretionary rule, the biggest
increases in permits tended to be in these urban areas, and that is where
you observe the biggest drops in violent crime.
Reason: Your analysis shows that liberal carry permit policies are
associated with lower crime rates even after controlling for a variety of
factors that might also have an impact on crime. In the book you concede
that some other variable that you did not consider could be responsible for
this association. Yet at the end of the book, you write, "Will allowing
law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns save lives? The answer is
yes, it will." Do statements like that go too far?
Lott: I don't think so. That's one of the last sentences in the book, and at
that point the evidence is pretty overwhelming. There are different types of
information, and they're all pointing in the same direction.
After these laws are adopted, you see a drop in violent crime, and it
continues over time as the percentage of the population with permits
increases. If I look at neighboring counties on either side of a state
border, when one state passes its right-to-carry law, I see a drop in
violent crime in that county, but the other county, right across the state
border, in a state without a right-to-carry law, sees an increase in its
violent crime rate. You try to control for differences in the legal system,
arrest and conviction rates, different types of laws, demographics, poverty,
drug prices --all sorts of things. You look at something like that, and I
think it's pretty hard to come up with some other explanation. I think
you're seeing some criminals move [across the state line].
You find the types of people who benefit the most from these laws. The
biggest drops in crime are among women and the elderly, who are physically
weaker, and in the high-crime, relatively poor areas where people are most
There are five or six things that one could point to that confirm different
parts of the theory. I haven't heard anybody come up with a story that
explains all these different pieces of evidence....Since you have all these
states changing their laws at different times, it becomes harder and harder
to think of some left-out factor that just happened to be changing in all
these different states at the same time the right-to-carry law got changed.
Reason: A review of your book in The American Prospect claims that "his
results are skewed by the inclusion of data from tiny counties with trivial
rates of violent crime. In fact, when you consider only large counties and
exclude Florida from the sample, his case completely falls apart." How do
Lott: When you drop out counties with fewer than 100,000 people, if anything
it actually increases the size of the effect. What [the reviewer is] saying
is that if you not only drop out counties with fewer than 100,000
people--which is 86 percent of the counties in the sample, so it's not just
a few small counties that we're talking about--but also drop out Florida,
then the changes in two of the violent crime categories, when you're just
looking at the simple before-and-after averages, aren't statistically
significant. But the results still imply a drop, and for robberies and
aggravated assaults you still get a drop that's statistically significant.
Now, I think it's somewhat misleading to look only at the simple
before-and-after averages. Take the case where violent crime rates are
rising right up to the point when the law goes into effect and falling
afterward, and let's say it was a perfectly symmetrical inverted V. If I
were to take the average crime rate before the law goes into effect and the
average afterward, where the point of the V is when the law changed, they're
going to be the same. Does that mean the law had no impact? When you drop
Florida from the sample, [the results] look more like this inverted V than
they do when Florida is in there. So I would argue that it strengthens the
results, if what you care about is the change in direction.
In any case, the bottom line to me is this: I wanted all the data that were
available....I didn't pick and choose, and when somebody drops out 86
percent of the counties along with Florida, you know they must have tried
all sorts of combinations. This wasn't the first obvious combination that
sprang to mind. And it's the only combination they report....If, after doing
all these gymnastics, and recording only one type of specification, dealing
with before-and-after averages that are biased against finding a benefit,
they still find only benefits, and no cost, to me that strengthens the
Reason: University of Florida criminologist Gary Kleck recently told The
Salt Lake Tribune that "Lott has convincingly demonstrated there is no
substantial detriment" from "shall issue" laws. But he questioned whether
these laws could have as substantial a deterrent effect as you suggest.
Kleck provided a blurb for your book, and his work is often cited by
opponents of gun control. Why do you think he has trouble buying your
Lott: Gary has had a strong opinion for a long time that, on net, guns
neither reduce or increase crime. He thinks it's essentially a wash. And I'm
not sure I understand how he comes to that conclusion, particularly given
the survey data that indicate that many more violent crimes are stopped with
guns than are perpetrated with guns. But it is something that he has written
and felt strongly about for a long time. Now Gary may think that there's
something else that's being left out that maybe could explain these changes
in crime rates. If he can tell me what that factor is, I'd be happy to try
to test it.
Reason: Do you still hear the argument that you're in the pay of the gun
industry, or has that been discredited?
Lott: I think the gun control people are going to continue to bring it up.
I've been in debates this year with people from Handgun Control Inc. and
other gun control groups in which they asserted flat-out that I've been paid
by gun makers to do this study.
Reason: When they raise this charge, how successful are you in making the
point that people should be able to assess evidence and arguments on their
merits and that your motives don't matter?
Lott: Well, most people aren't going to look at the data. They're not going
to have the data in front of them. The credibility of the data and the
message depends on whether or not they believe that the person who's telling
them about the data is credible. And I think the gun control groups feel
that it's a win to the extent that they even divert three minutes of a show
to talking about this issue. Even if it doesn't stick in people's minds,
it's still three minutes that I couldn't talk about something else.
Reason: In a working paper you wrote with University of Chicago law
professor William Landes [available at
papers.ssrn.com/paper.taf?abstract_id=161637], you conclude that "shall
issue" laws are especially effective at preventing mass public shootings.
Given that the people who commit these crimes seem to be pretty unbalanced,
if not suicidal, how does the deterrent work?
Lott: Most of these attacks do end in the death of the attackers themselves,
frequently from suicide, but also because they're killed by others. But part
of what's motivating them is the desire to harm other people, and to the
extent that you can take that away from them, I think you reduce their
incentive to engage in these attacks. Whether they do it just because they
intrinsically value killing people or whether they do it because of the
publicity, the fact that there might be a citizen there who can stop them
well before the police are able to arrive takes away, in their warped minds,
some of the gain from the crime, and stops a lot of them from doing it.
Reason: You often say, based on surveys, that Americans use guns to fend off
criminals more than 2 million times a year. But in the book, you note that
people who report incidents of armed self-defense could be mistaken or
lying. How big a problem is that, and how confident can we be that the true
number is more than 2 million?
Lott: Well, 2 million is the average of the various surveys. Different
problems may plague different surveys, and the problems can go in both
directions. You may have questions that weed out people who shouldn't be
Reason: Like "Do you own a gun?"
Lott: Or it could be you ask them "Has a crime been committed against you?"
before you ask them whether they've used a gun defensively.
Reason: And they might not consider it a crime if it wasn't completed?
Lott: Right. And so, we have errors that can exist on both sides....But
that's the only type of evidence that we have on this....The most striking
thing to me is the comparison between the results from these surveys and
[survey data on] the number of violent crimes that are committed with guns
each year. You see many more crimes that are averted by people who defend
themselves with guns. I think that difference--even though both sets of
numbers can be tainted for all the same reasons--is what's striking.
Reason: You say that resistance with a gun is the safest option when
confronted by a criminal. What's the basis for that conclusion?
Lott: You hear claims from time to time that people should behave passively
when they're confronted by a criminal. And if you push people on that,
they'll refer to something called the National Crime Victimization Survey, a
government project that surveys about 50,000 households each year. If you
compare passive behavior to all forms of active resistance lumped together,
passive behavior is indeed slightly safer than active resistance. But that's
very misleading, because under the heading of active resistance you're
lumping together things like using your fist, yelling and screaming, running
away, using Mace, a baseball bat, a knife, or a gun. Some of those actions
are indeed much more dangerous than passive behavior. But some are much
For a woman, for example, by far the most dangerous course of action to take
when she's confronted by a criminal is to use her fists. The reason is
pretty simple: You're almost always talking about a male criminal doing the
attacking, so in the case of a female victim there's a large strength
differential. And for a woman to use her fists is very likely to result in a
physical response from the attacker and a high probability of serious injury
or death to the woman. For women, by far the safest course of action is to
have a gun. A woman who behaves passively is 2.5 times as likely to end up
being seriously injured as a woman who has a gun.
Reason: Why does the mainstream press seem to downplay the value of armed
Lott: One question is, Why don't they report people using guns defensively?
If I have two stories, one where there's a dead body on the ground vs.
another where, say, a woman has brandished a gun and a would-be rapist or
murderer has run away, with no shots fired and no dead body on the ground,
it's pretty obvious to me which one of those is going to be considered more
newsworthy. It doesn't require any conspiracy. Now if we care about policy,
if we care about what types of actions are going to save the most lives, or
prevent the most crimes, we want to look at both of those cases: not only
the newsworthy bad events but the bad events that never become newsworthy
because they don't occur.
But I don't think that explains everything. One example is gun deaths
involving children. My guess is that if you go out and ask people, how many
gun deaths involve children under age 5, or under age 10, in the United
States, they're going to say thousands. When you tell them that in 1996
there were 17 gun deaths for children under age 5 in the United States and
44 for children under age 10, they're just astounded. There's a reason why
they believe these deaths occur much more frequently: If you have a gun
death in the home involving a child under age 5, you're going to get
national news coverage. Five times more children drown in bathtubs; more
than twice as many drown in five-gallon water buckets around the home. But
those deaths do not get national news coverage.
This type of news coverage has consequences, because it affects people's
perceptions of the benefits and costs of having guns around. Concentrating
on gun deaths in the home, exaggerating the risks of that, creates a false
impression. People are going to die because of that false impression.
They're not going to have guns in the home, even though that's by far the
safest course of action for them to take when they're confronted by a
criminal. You may prevent some of the accidental deaths, but you're going to
create other types of deaths because people won't be able to defend
I think the debate would be so different now if, even once in a while, some
of the life-saving uses of guns got some attention in the news. A couple of
the public school shootings were stopped by citizens armed with guns well
before the police were able to arrive. Or take the case of the day trader
shooting in Atlanta, which got huge attention. Within 10 days after that,
there were three separate attacks in the Atlanta area that were stopped by
citizens with guns, in two cases permitted concealed handguns. They got no
attention outside of the local media market.
Reason: You've said that if Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who filed one of
the first city-sponsored gun lawsuits, really believes guns are so bad, he
ought to take them away from his bodyguards. Explain that comment.
Lott: Daley has been arguing that there's no benefit from owning guns. Yet
he has a whole set of full-time bodyguards following him every place he
goes. He won't even think about visiting some of the more dangerous areas in
Chicago without his bodyguards. But there are poor people who have to live
in those areas, who live there at great risk, and he's not willing to let
them own guns in order to protect themselves....I view it as very
hypocritical, that Daley can understand the defensive benefits of guns when
it comes to himself, but he's not willing to afford that same level of
protection to the poorest, most vulnerable people in his city.
Reason: You've pointed out that somebody who gets turned down for a gun
purchase after a background check may simply get the gun by other means.
That's a legitimate point, but don't you also have to consider the
possibility that people are deterred from even trying to get a gun because
they know there's going to be a background check and they know they won't
Lott: They may just try to get it the illegal way to begin with. Personally,
I don't believe the claims that the Clinton administration makes about the
number of people who are stopped from buying a gun. My guess is that to the
extent that people are stopped, the vast majority of them are people who may
have something on their record from 30 years ago, and they don't realize
that it prevents them from buying a gun. These are people who may pose no
risk to anybody. In fact, that's one of the reasons why I think there's such
a low prosecution rate of those people.
Reason: The feds say they don't have the resources to prosecute.
Lott: I don't think that's it at all. I think you have prosecutorial
discretion. I think that you have a case where somebody who's 50 years old
may have done something as an 18-year-old that was wrong. The prosecutor
looks at it and says, "This guy has been an upstanding member of the
community for 30 years, and he had this one run-in as a teenager. We don't
really think that he intended to violate the law. We're not going to send
the guy to jail for doing this."
Reason: The National Rifle Association criticizes the Justice Department for
not prosecuting enough of these cases.
Lott: I think that's a mistake. They're also talking about prosecuting cases
where guns were brought onto school property. My guess is that a prosecutor
would bend over backwards to bring a case against a juvenile who had brought
a gun onto school property. He doesn't want to not bring the case and then
have something bad happen later on. That would be disastrous for his career.
But let's say a kid's gone hunting in the morning before school. He has the
gun in the trunk of his car, parks it in the school parking lot, and goes
into school. Somebody finds out that he has a gun there. The prosecutor
looks at the case and says, "This is a good kid, never done anything wrong.
He probably just didn't realize he shouldn't have done this. Do I really
want to send this kid to jail for three years for this type of violation?"
It's wrong to think that these prosecutors are making the types of mistakes
that are being assumed.
Reason: You've criticized the NRA for doing a poor job of making its case.
What should it be doing differently?
Lott: My biggest complaint with the NRA is that they're too defensive. It
seems to me that some of the [mass shootings] that have occurred are a
result of gun laws that are already on the books. Rather than talking about
what new law should be put in place, we should ask to what extent have
well-intentioned laws in the past caused us to get to point where we are
It's only been since the end of 1995 that we've banned guns within 1,000
feet of schools by federal law. Right after the Columbine attack, a friend
of mine dropped off his kids at a public school in Seattle, and he e-mailed
me afterward, because there was a big sign in front of the school that said,
"This is a gun-free zone." The question I had was, if I put a sign like that
in front of my home, would I think that people who are intent on attacking
my home would be less likely, or more likely, to harm my children and my
wife? You may be trying to create a safe area for your family, but what
you've ended up accidentally doing is creating a safe zone for [criminals],
because they have less to worry about.
The thing that I'd like to see the NRA try to do is to say, when attacks
occur, since we can't have the police every place all the time, why not let
these people defend themselves? The people who get permits for concealed
handguns tend to be extremely law-abiding. They've never done one of these
attacks in the 70 years that we've had these types of permits. When these
people lose their permits, and it's only a tiny fraction of 1 percent who
do, it's usually for reasons that have nothing to do with posing a threat to
other people. Laws [like the Gun-Free School Zones Act] are obeyed by
honest, law-abiding citizens, not by people who are intent on carrying out
attacks. And to the extent that you disarm the law-abiding citizens in
certain areas, you increase the probability of these attacks, which
perversely leads to calls for more regulations.
Another example is gun locks. If I were with the NRA, I would emphasize the
cost of constantly talking about this issue. You're actually endangering
people's lives, for two reasons. One, you're exaggerating in their minds the
risks of having guns in the home. And two, I would say it's not in
everybody's interest to have a lock on their gun. If you live in a safe area
and maybe have young kids, that might be fine. But if you live in a city,
even if you have kids, I don't think it's really the wisest thing to have
the gun locked up, because you're not going to be able to quickly access it
to defend your family. And when you compare probabilities, accidental gun
deaths in the home are trivial compared to the rate at which other types of
deaths occur from crimes where innocent victims are attacked and a gun would
Reason: Some advocates of gun rights base their claims mainly on the Second
Amendment, while others offer a more utilitarian argument. Which approach is
Lott: I understand the constitutional arguments, but I think for the vast
majority of people the bottom line is whether the presence of guns, on net,
saves lives or costs lives. They may be able to understand in the abstract
that having guns owned by civilians is some type of restraint on government,
but I don't think most of them view that as a problem that they're facing
any time soon. For them the bottom line is, What will save lives? And so I
think that's where you have to argue.
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