Cold Comfort: An Interview with John R. Lott

Economist John Lott discusses the benefits of guns--and the hazards of pointing them out.

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 mid-October.

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 crime was. 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 data sets.

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?

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