Is it a "Lie" That More People Carrying Guns Can Lead to Less Crime?

The Nation relies on ad hominem attacks on one gun researcher, not facts.


Anti-gun crusaders want you to believe no particular benefits, either to individuals or to society as a whole, arise from more people having access to guns, or being able to carry them legally.

Thus The Nation claims in a new article's subhed that "The NRA doesn't need just cash to bully legislators—it needs bad information too." via / CC BY-NC-ND

The actual article, by Ari Rabin-Havt,** provides no real backing for that claim, but places most of its illusory argumentative weight on certain past behaviors of a leading gun researcher, John Lott.

But those particular issues have no bearing on the supposed facts, analysis, or argument they claim to be making about "bad information."

Herewith, an analysis of The Nation's failed attempt to score points again those who prefer to let people carry guns in public with no set legal restrictions or specific permit requirements, a concept known as "constitutional carry" for those who like it.

The Nation calls it "permitless carry" and begins noting that West Virginia is about to get it. (Nine states essentially have such a legal regime when it comes to carrying weapons in public.)

Rabin-Havt posits such loose carry laws are instituted because people believe more law abiding people carrying guns makes their communities safer. Rabin-Havt notes language to that effect from various legislators pushing looser carry requirements.

Rabin-Havt thinks that isn't true. In a rather outrageously unsupported sentence, one he seems to think requires no support, or realizes there is none he could honestly give: "This is plainly not true—social-science research has consistently shown that more guns leads to more gun violence."

Readers of my recent Reason feature "You Know Less Than You Think About Guns" would know that isn't even close to true. On a very basic level, America has seen its number of guns in circulation go from likely around 194 million to likely over 300 million over the past couple of decades while our gun violence problem has fallen nearly in half over the same period.

Nor on any more granular level is there a rigorously proven connection between number of guns or number of people having them and gun violence. (Part of the reason for this is it is difficult to know on a granular level how many guns or people with guns are in smaller communities, but the overall national numbers give little reason to believe in Rabin-Havt's boldly unsupported or unlinked assertion.)

While his counterthesis is untrue and he doesn't even really try to convince you it is except a wan reference to "social science research" that he can't name or link to even one example of, he distracts you by claiming the only reason anyone thinks more guns might lead to less crime is because of the work of John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, currently in its third revised edition from University of Chicago Press.

Rabin-Havt wants you to mistrust Lott. Without naming any specific lies of any relevance to the guns and crime connection, Rabin-Havt writes off Lott as "part of an industry I call 'Lies, Incorporated.'"

Showing no particular sign of any grasp of Lott's actual data and analysis in More Guns, Less Crime, which is, let me tell you, a difficult and complicated work for the layman, and one Lott's fellow social scientists take seriously even as they take issue with it, Rabin-Havt goes on to pretend that Lott's thesis is a "lie" because Lott has been caught in a couple of public and intellectual embarrassments, neither relevant to the data and analysis in the book under question. (His actual intellectual adversaries in his field tend to actually analyze his data and and thinking, not pretend past embarrassments meant they can or should ignore his work.)

The embarrassments in question are Lott claiming to have lost a survey data set under suspicious circumstances, a survey he allegedly conducted about how often weapons used in self-defense are merely brandished and not fired, which is not an issue of core relevance to More Guns, Less Crime or the policy point of this article, which is to claim that permitless carry is hazardous.

The other Lott embarrassment is his use of a fake name, Mary Rosh, to defend himself in online comment threads. Again, not relevant to his data and analysis on the point at issue.

Rabin-Havt does link to an article about one 16-year-old controversy over Lott's methods as if it settles the matter ("as a rigorous study published in the Stanford Law Review noted, 'the more guns, less crime hypothesis is without credible statistical support'") although the complications of that debate shouldn't lead to such a facile conclusion.

A rule of thumb about any discussion of the incredibly complicated and picayune questions methods used to analyze data about changes in carry laws and changes in crime (in an overall situation, it is worth remembering, when over the past few decades carry laws over much of the country have gotten consistently looser and crime rates of all sorts have mostly plummeted), of state v. county data sets and how curves are drawn through the data on either side of the year of a law change, of how to statistically account for counties with no murders and how many years it makes sense to examine for effects of law changes, of how many potential confounding factors are accounted for and what regression methods were used, is: be suspicious of any op-ed length declaration that any of these matters have been authoritatively settled.

Whatever the effects of carry laws on crime are, they require very subtle techniques to tease out in a world of more and more guns and less and less crime, and we'll see later that even Lott's biggest and most tenacious critics understand that, even if Rabin-Havt wants his readers to come away with an unsupported certainty that more guns cause more gun violence.

(Another supposed bit of evidence against Lott in this article is a link to a Newsweek article about a researcher who finds that a certain category of mass shooting happens more in countries with more gun owners, not relevant to overall question of "more guns less crime." )

Another seemingly important source Rabin-Havt cites:

Furthermore, a panel of 16 researchers assembled by the National Academy of Science's National Research Council studied Lott's theory. Fifteen found there was "no credible evidence" for his theory.

Since the point of this article is that it is an uncontroversially known point not just that there wasn't sufficient evidence for Lott's thesis, but that the opposite thesis is true (that more guns lead to more crime), it's worth some context Rabin-Havt doesn't give you on this NRC report, quoting from my own Feburary Reason feature:

The council concluded Lott had not fully proved that RTC laws lowered crime significantly; it also denied that the laws had provably increased crime. "Answers to some of the most pressing questions cannot be addressed with existing data and research methods," study authors Charles F. Wellford, John V. Pepper, and Carol V. Petrie wrote, "because of the limitations of existing data and methods, [existing findings] do not credibly demonstrate a causal relationship between the ownership of firearms and the causes or prevention of criminal violence." That statement is perhaps the most important for people trying to use social science to make gun policy to remember, and there is no strong reason to believe the past decade of research has made it obsolete.

It's almost as if Rabin-Havt didn't read any of the National Reseach Council's conclusion except a quote he could pull to bash Lott with.

Given that the Stanford Law Review article he places so much weight on is based on critiques of Lott from author John Donohue (with a co-author) from the last century, it might help to check in on the latest on what Donohue (still a Lott critic) thinks he knows about carry laws and crime.

Again, quoting myself:

[I]n 2011, Abhay Aneja, John Donohue, and Alexandria Zhang came out with "The Impact of Right-to-Carry Laws and the NRC Report: Lessons for the Empirical Evaluation of Law and Policy," a paper in the American Law and Economics Review. Working at a very high level of statistical sophistication and running their data through a huge variety of different specifications and assumptions, the authors concluded that "aggravated assault rises when RTC laws are adopted. For every other crime category, there is little or no indication of any consistent RTC impact on crime." (While this kind of social science is always working with subtle attempts to figure out how much more certain quantities might have changed had things been different, it's worth noting that while the number of states with "shall issue" or unrestricted carry permit laws has more than doubled since 1991, aggravated assault rates overall have fallen by 44 percent since 1995.)

The study is suffused with an advanced sense of caution. As the authors write in a 2014 update of that study, "we show how fragile panel data evidence can be, and how a number of issues must be carefully considered when relying on these methods to study politically and socially explosive topics with direct policy implications." They stress "the difficulties in ascertaining the causal effects of legal interventions, and the dangers that exist when policy-makers can simply pick their preferred study from among a wide array of conflicting estimates." And "a wide array of conflicting estimates" is definitely what confronts anyone wading into the social science related to guns and gun laws.

In summation, even to Lott's critics, the best conclusion is not that he's a clownish fraud and liar, but that the matter of gun carrying and crime is incredibly complicated and the best evidence regarding the effect of more people carrying guns on crime is still ambiguous, not that Lott's conclusion is the opposite of the truth.

The overarching fact remains: many more guns in the country and more states with the legal right to carry them with fewer regulation coinciding with an enormous decrease in gun crime. This should have given Rabin-Havt pause, but it's a fact he doesn't mention at all.

**Correction: This article originally misspelled Rabin-Havt's last name.