The most important book ever published about firearms policy is John Lott’s superb More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws. No other firearms book has reshaped the political debate so profoundly or its author been subjected to such a determined campaign of lies and libels. The intensity of the campaign against Lott is a powerful confirmation of his book’s importance and one reason why it should be read by everyone who cares about firearms policy, which is literally a matter of life or death: Lobbyists who are trying to prevent the public from discovering John Lott’s research are indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people every year.
Throughout the 19th century, “the right to keep and bear arms” meant exactly what it said: The right to carry a gun was protected just as firmly as the right to own a gun. Some states, particularly in the South, enforced laws against carrying handguns concealed, but the right to open carry was almost universally respected. By the 1970’s, however, the right to carry had been restricted in most jurisdictions. America was well on the way to treating guns like cigarettes: permissible in private but completely banned from public spaces.
In 1988, however, Florida—thanks to the energetic support of the Florida Chiefs of Police Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida—initiated a national trend by enacting a “shall issue” handgun permit law, allowing any adult who has a clean record and has taken safety training to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun for protection. Now, 29 states have a law similar to Florida’s, while Vermont and Idaho (outside of Boise) require no permit.
Before John Lott came along, a few researchers (myself included) had studied the effects of these laws. Clayton Cramer and I (in the Tennessee Law Review) had analyzed changes in murder rates in “shall issue” states compared to national trends and found tentative evidence that murder rates fell after enactment of “shall issue” laws. David McDowall (in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology) had analyzed murder rates in five counties and reported that they rose. These efforts, nevertheless, proved far inferior to Lott’s.
John Lott has blown all the previous research away: His work amounts to the most thorough criminological study ever performed. Lott collected data from every one of the 3,054 counties in the United States over an 18-year period and, in contrast to the Kopel and McDowall homicide-only studies, examined changes in the rates of nine different types of crime. He also accounted for the effects of dozens of other variables, including variations in arrest rates, in the age and racial composition of a county’s population, in national crime rates, and in changes made to gun-control laws, including the adoption of waifing periods, Lott’s findings show that concealed carry laws significantly reduce violent crime. On average, the murder rate falls by ten percent, that of rape by three percent, and aggravated assault by six percent.
While crime begins to fall off immediately, the benefits of concealed handgun laws take about three years to make themselves fully felt. This is not surprising: In most states, a flood of applications occurs in the first few weeks the law is on the books, followed by a gradual rise in the percentage of the population which has acquired permits. The larger the percentage of the population with permits, the greater the drop in crime. (That percentage typically ranges from one to five percent.) Interestingly, Lott also found a small but statistically significant increase in non-confrontational property crimes such as larceny. Apparently, while concealed handgun laws do not reduce the appetite criminals have for other people’s property, they do encourage the more rational subset to acquire it in ways that do not put their own lives at risk. And everyone, not just gun carriers, benefits from the reduced crime rate, since aggressors cannot know which potential victims might have a concealed weapon. (The only remaining safe zones for criminals are schools, thanks to laws in many states which forbid gun-carrying on school property, even by licensed adults.)
Despite the book’s high level of statistical sophistication. More Guns, Less Crime makes for enjoyable reading. Lott lays out the data in an accessible manner, building from simpler statistical models to more complex ones. Indeed, the book is a good antidote to the “innumeracy” which infects even the best-educated Americans. Statistics are comprehensible if you pay attention, and More Guns, Less Crime is an excellent way to overcome numerophobia.
The most interesting part of the book is the chapter in which Lott addresses his critics. In marked contrast to the antigun number crunchers funded by the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lott has made his data readily available to any and all researchers, even supplying them with a computer disk so they needn’t key it in again. Even so, certain critics have chosen to offer superficial talking points rather than reanalyze the data.
Lott’s most sophisticated critic is Prof Daniel Nagin, who engages in a form of research called “data torturing.” Turning data every which way but loose, Nagin demonstrated (and Lott conceded) that concealed handgun laws require several years to have their full effect. Nagin’s other criticisms, however, such as the often- repeated assertion that all the benefits of concealed carrying vanish if one removes Florida from the equation, turn out to be meaningless. The Florida factoid has partial validity—but only if one throws out the data from all U.S. counties with a population of less than 100,000. Under such conditions, concealed-carry laws do not appear to affect the incidence of murder or rape. Yet even if one looks only at counties outside of Florida with a population of over 100,000, the data still show a large decrease in aggravated assault and robbery rates.
While academic critics of Lott’s research have stuck to statistical analysis, the anti-gun lobbies have unleashed a furious and thoroughly dishonest public relations campaign against Lott himself, with the most scurrilous attacks coming from the Violence Policy Center (an organization which chides Handgun Control, Inc., for its timidity). The VPC claims that Lott’s study was “in essence, funded by the firearms industry.” In truth. Loft’s study wasn’t paid for by anybody: While at work on the book, he drew his regular salary as a University of Chicago law professor. (Lott is presently a member of the Yale Law School faculty.) The University of Chicago, like many other high-ranking universities, was given an endowed chair by the Olin Foundation. The Olin Foundation plays no role in selecting the holder of a chair or in determining his field of research. Some of the Olin Foundation’s money came from the late John M. Olin, who acquired part of his fortune in the firearms and ammunition business. To claim that everything any Olin professor docs is “paid for by the gun industry” is like claiming that everyone who gets a grant from the Ford Foundation is subsidized by the automobile industry. The anti-Lott campaign continues to bear fruit in the form of opinion columns written by propagandists who are too lazy to read Lott’s book and rely instead on bullet-points from groups like the VPC. For example, Molly Ivins claimed that Lott “himself admits, he didn’t look at any other causative factors—no other variables, as they say.” Of course, anyone who bothered to crack the book would see that Lott accounted for dozens of other causal factors. These distortions show just how weak the case against concealed carry really is.
The vicious campaign against Lott reveals the fundamental extremism of the anti-gun movement. Concealed handgun laws are precisely the t)q3e of moderate, “reasonable” laws which the anti-gun groups claim to support. Except in Vermont and rural Idaho, a person must go through a licensing process and background check in order to get a permit, and many states require applicants to take safety training as well (though Lott found that the safety training requirement had no statistically discernible effect on crime rates or gun accident rates). So why the intense opposition to laws which encourage controlled gun use? The answer is that the anti-gun movement’s greatest concern is not that Lott might be making up his data, but that the data might be correct. In their minds, armed self-defense by private citizens is immoral. As Sarah Brady of Handgun Control, Inc., put it, “To me, the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes.” Her husband, Jim Brady, identified the circumstances in which he believes people should be allowed to possess handguns: “[F]or target shooting, that’s okay. Get a license and go to the range. For defense of the home, that’s why we have police departments.” Mrs. Brady’s long-term goal, she told the New York Times, is a “needs-based licensing” system. Under the Brady system, all guns would be registered. The local police chief would decide if a person who wanted to buy a gun had a legitimate “need.” Mrs. Brady listed hunters and security guards as persons having a legitimate need, but not regular people who wanted guns for self-protection.
Much of the anti-gun lobby’s agenda involves trying to restrict self-defense by marketing gun restrictions as “reasonable.” For example, there is currently a push to require gun owners to lock up their guns, in the name of preventing access by juvenile criminals. But if a gun has to be locked up all the time, then it is much less readily available in an emergency, such as a home invasion. And concealed handgun laws (which cost the government nothing, the licensing system being paid for by user fees) are a far more cost-effective way to reduce crime than prison construction, hiring more police, subsidizing midnight basketball, or anything else that government does.
The longer the gun-prohibition lobby and its political allies delay “shall issue” legislation in the 19 states which do not have such a law, the more people will be murdered, assaulted, robbed, and raped. And the more people who read More Guns, Less Crime, the sooner streets in every state will become safe zones for good citizens, rather than for predators.
[More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws, by John R. Lott, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 225 pp., $23.00]