In the debate over gun control sparked by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, most gun-rights advocates have been conspicuously silent. Not John Lott. Quite the opposite, he has been the loudest conservative voice publicly defending firearms. Mere hours after the massacre, he tweeted, “The most consistent feature of these attacks are that they occur in gun-free zones.” The next day he appeared on Piers Morgan's show to say, “Look at what has happened, all these attacks this year have occurred where guns are banned. Look at the Aurora movie theater shooting.” And then Monday, to Soledad O'Brien: “I don't argue Second Amendment. I argue crime. That's what I do.”
As an erstwhile academic and longtime proselytizer for the crime-stopping value of guns, Lott has a freedom of movement in the post-Newtown debate that his less data-driven, Second Amendment–worshipping counterparts do not. A former American Enterprise Institute fellow, he isn't just one of the foremost researchers on the side of the gun lobby; he’s the godfather of pro-gun scholarship. It was Lott’s 1998 opus, More Guns, Less Crime, that, in the words of Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “tipped the terms of the debate, handing the gun lobby, which had previously relied on brute politicking to win over lawmakers, a devastatingly effective academic study supporting their side.” Countless state legislators have relied on Lott's work to make the case, with increasing success, that concealed-carry laws are in the interest of law-abiding citizens. Two decades later, new thinkers are still coming around to his way of seeing things: Jeffrey Goldberg quotes Lott admiringly in his recent treatise in The Atlantic on the need for more guns.
Lott’s research, as the title of his book suggests, is dedicated to proving that more guns in more hands reduces violent crime. In the wake of Newtown, that means guns in teachers’ hands, and an end to the gun-free zones that he says make schools “a magnet for these attacks.” But Lott’s research has always been problematic. For starters, he's a lousy data analyst. Lott allowed Professors Dan Black and Daniel Nagin to reevaluate his data for their 1998 inquiry into the effects of concealed-carry laws on violent crime rates. Their findings, published in the Journal of Legal Studies in 1998, blew a hole in his: “Our reanalysis of Lott and [co-author David] Mustard’s data provides no basis for drawing confident conclusions about the impact of right-to-carry laws on violent crime,” they wrote. “As a result, inference based on the Lott and Mustard model is inappropriate, and their results cannot be used responsibly to formulate public policy.” Four years later, Ian Ayres of Yale and John J. Donohue III of Stanford Law gave his scholarship an even more vicious debunking. (Media Matters summarizes the many challenges to his research here.)
When challenged, Lott has also resorted to fishy means of defending himself. About ten years ago, when critics began to question whether he had really conducted a crucial survey—on how often civilians have used guns to defend themselves against criminals, which had served as the crux of the book that made him famous—Lott failed to produce both the survey itself (citing a hard drive crash) and the names of anyone who had conducted or taken the survey. In the end, only one person, a former national board member of the NRA, ever recalled having taken the survey. Around the same time, Lott admitted that he invented a sock puppet and, under the name “Mary Rosh,” commented on liberal blogs and news articles that were critical of him. (These were all lovingly detailed by my colleague Tim Noah, then at Slate.)
But in the past few days, Lott’s favored method of argument has been one of careful, deceptive word choice.
“With just one single exception, the attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011, every public shooting since at least 1950 in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry guns,” he told the National Review's John Fund for a piece titled, “The Facts about Mass Shootings.” This is the claim that Lott has been pushing since last week, but it's a painstakingly tailored statement. It’s not wrong, for instance, to say that Fort Hood, where Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded almost two dozen more, is a site where citizens are not allowed to carry guns—it’s just specious to imply that broadening concealed-carry laws would have changed protocol at a military base where, as with all bases, only military police are allowed to carry weapons. A 2009 shooting in a Lakewood, Washington, coffee shop that left four dead may also fit Lott’s criteria; accounts conflict over whether the shop itself allowed concealed carry, which is legal in Washington state. Either way, Lott elides the fact that those four victims were armed off-duty police officers, one of whom even managed to fire at the shooter before being fatally shot. And by speaking only to mass shootings, which are defined by the FBI as incidents in which a shooter kills four or more people, Lott skirts the need to address incidents like the 2002 shooting at the University of Arizona, where Robert S. Flores, Jr. shot and killed three teachers who had given him poor grades. Thanks to Arizona’s permissive concealed-carry law, he was allowed to bring handguns onto school property, and had even bragged about it to a fellow student the year prior.
In the case of Lott's lone exception—the Giffords shooting, which took place in a space where concealed carry was legal—it was an unarmed bystander who wrestled gunman Jared Lee Loughner for his firearm; an armed bystander, Joe Zamudio, intervened only after Lougher had been disarmed. When I spoke briefly with Lott on Tuesday, he said “that doesn’t really matter. The point is, [Zamudio] ran towards the shooting where otherwise he wouldn’t have because he had a gun.” It's true that Zamudio ran towards the commotion, ready to fire on the shooter. That’s when he encountered the unarmed bystander who had disarmed Loughner—and, mistaking him for the shooter, came within a heartbeat of shooting him. “I was very lucky,” Zamudio recalled in an interview. “Honestly, it was a matter of seconds.”
In his heated exchange on Monday with Soledad O’Brien, Lott asked, “You know what country had two of the three worst public [school] shootings prior to Friday? It was Germany.” Again, Lott’s words are technically true. But we are no longer living in a world “prior to Friday.” The two deadliest school shootings in the world—Virginia Tech and Newtown—have now taken place in America. In any event, one can widen and narrow parameters all day long. The essential fact of mass shootings, articulated so well by Adam Gopnik, remains this: “In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity.” Mother Jones calculates that there have been 62 mass shootings in the U.S. in the past three decades alone. Of the 25 worst mass shootings worldwide in the last half-century, 15 occurred in the U.S.—no other country had more than two—and this year was our deadliest.
Shouldn’t school faculty, then, be armed against would-be mass shooters? Griffin Dix, writing for the Brady Campaign’s blog, points out that the “gun attack scenario” is a powerful one—if you were in a mall targeted by a mass shooter, one would prefer to be armed. It’s a scenario Lott is fond of proposing. In our conversation, he brought up Joel Myrick, the assistant principle who in 1997 stopped a school shooter with a pistol he had retrieved from his truck. However, Myrick had been forced to park a considerable distance away due to a law prohibiting firearms near schools, and while he ran to his truck and back, the shooter killed two students. “Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t had to run that mile to get his gun?” Lott asked. But heroic intervention by armed civilians can also have devastating consequences: In 2005, an armed man confronted a shooter terrorizing a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington, and was shot five times and partially paralyzed.
Of course, there will always be examples and counterexamples. The larger problem is that encouraging citizens to arm themselves in anticipation of a shooting rampage sets the stage for more “normal” gun violence. “Everything turns out to be a trade-off on this issue,” Donohue, the Stanford professor, told me in an email. “Having armed citizens around could be helpful in some cases. ... Of course, it also increases the number of guns around so that the criminals and insane will have easier access.” The price of this trade-off, in the United States, is stark: Worldwide, our nation ranks fifteenth in firearm homicides per 100,000 people. That rate is nearly 20 times that of other affluent nations.
Lott's unsurprising solution, which he's pushing on news shows and to like-minded conservatives, is to expand concealed-carry in the U.S.—and, of course, he insists scholarship is on his side. “There’s essentially a debate between scholars who believe there are great benefits to concealed carry, and those who claim that there is only a small benefit or that there is no affect on crime," he told me. "And if that’s the worst you can say, what’s the worst that can happen if you let people carry?” In fact, when researchers at Johns Hopkins reviewed studies that corrected for methodological flaws in studies produced by Lott specifically, they concluded that “are associated with an increase in aggravated assaults.” And Donohue and Ayres, in their evisceration of his research, conclude that “shall-issue laws increased crime in substantially more jurisdictions than they decreased crime.”
When I spoke with Lott on Tuesday, I wanted to press him further on these counterarguments to his research, not to mention his elisions and outright fictions. We had been speaking for a total of only eight minutes or so, and he'd already cut the interview short once for a radio interview. Now, after several polite warnings about how many minutes (and then seconds) I had left to interview him, he ended the call yet again for a radio interview. If only he were as rigorous with his research as he is with his media blitz.
Follow me on Twitter @mtredden