By F. Paul Valone
The following column was published in The Charlotte Observer in December, 2000.
“Galileo has ventured to meddle with things he ought not and with the most grave and dangerous subjects that can be stirred up these days!”--Pope Urban VIII
When Galileo dared insist the earth was not the center of our universe, he was denounced for heresy and locked away. Lest you assume 367 intervening years have enlightened us, consider the experiences of Professor John Lott.
A former chief economist for the United States Sentencing Commission and a fellow at the University of Chicago, Lott conducted the first comprehensive study of concealed handgun laws.
Far from relying on mere correlation, he used a sophisticated multiple regression analysis to control for variables such as demographics, arrest and conviction rates, and changes in gun laws. While previous researchers relied on data from cherry-picked areas and time periods, Lott studied 18 years of data from all 3,054 counties in the United States.
Being politically naïve, however, he failed to anticipate the firestorm he ignited when he announced that not only do concealed handgun laws deter murder, rape, and aggravated assault, but that allowing licensed concealed handguns in all states could prevent 1,570 murders, 4,177 rapes and more than 60,000 aggravated assaults each year.
He should have seen it coming. Prior to publishing his paper in the Journal of Legal Studies, he solicited critiques from no less than twenty-two gun control researchers. One replied.
Although Susan Glick of the Violence Policy Center refused (saying she didn’t want to “give any publicity to the paper”), never actually having read it didn’t stop her from pronouncing it “flawed” when USA Today broke the news of Lott’s findings.
Kicking off a monumental slander campaign, Congressman Charles Schumer claimed Lott was “funded by the firearms industry.” Never mind that the John M. Olin Foundation, which provided Lott’s fellowship, is not subsidized by arms manufacturer Olin Corporation; or that the Olin Foundation selected neither its grant recipients nor their topics; or even that Lott told no one what he planned to study. As a Chicago Tribune columnist sympathized, “Conspiracy theories are easy to spin and hard to refute.”
Mobilizing its “Center to Prevent Handgun Violence,” Handgun Control, Inc. arranged a debate on CSPAN to discredit the paper. Unfortunately (and quite innocently), Lott made buffoons of HCI’s minions.
You see, the good professor stumbled into a debate where gun control supporters camouflage themselves as scholars to leverage public policy; a debate in which anti-gun advocates like Stephen Teret (or LaMotte Akin, in these pages) decry “serious fundamental flaws” in uncongenial research without bothering to specify the flaws; a debate in which researchers like Daniel Black and Daniel Nagin set out to repudiate Lott’s results by selectively eliminating 85 percent of U.S. counties from the data.
Lott’s detractors are best exemplified by Arthur Kellerman, a researcher so notorious for, in the words of one review, “validating pre-ordained political conclusions” that Congress voted to yank his funding. Kellerman apparently learned little from congressional sanction; although his conclusions fueled gun control for ten years, he refused to release his raw data until first “cleaning it up.” While his name is obscure, his conclusions are not; you’ve probably heard his 1993 claim that “a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder.”
The “43 times” fallacy is based on a biased sample of subjects with extraordinary rates of arrest, drug abuse, and other dysfunction. One researcher noted Kellerman and his associates “acknowledged that a true risk-benefit consideration of guns in the home should (but did not in their ‘calculations’) include cases in which…intruders are wounded or frightened away by the use or display of a firearm…”
Although even Kellerman eventually disavowed his original results, groups like North Carolinians Against Gun Violence continue to pummel his propaganda into the public consciousness.
Guessing that disingenuous critics rely on the fact that most people will never read his book (“More Guns, Less Crime”), Lott laments: “…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 suppose society has made progress. Like Galileo, Lott’s ideas—heretical as they are to the dogma of political correctness—have been branded “dangerous.” Unlike Galileo, Lott has thus far eluded prison. Indeed, while concealed handgun opponents are loath to mention it, John Lott is now at prestigious Yale Law School…gun industry slander, “flawed” methodology, and all.