Do More Guns Equal Less Crime?

In 1998 John Lott published More Guns, Less Crime, which has become both an intellectual totem for the pro-gun gang and a harbinger of doom for folks who believe we need to do more to control guns. Lott argued that as more Americans owned and carried guns that violent crime, homicide in particular, went down because criminals realized they might be going up against someone with a gun and therefore shifted to non-violent criminality (larceny, burglary,) in response to more people being legally armed.

lott             Before going further into the hullabaloo surrounding Lott’s work, let me say that he and I share something of an academic kinship insofar as we both have published books with The University of Chicago Press. So although we disagree strongly on many issues involving guns, our arguments are couched within accepted academic norms and never flow over into personal attacks; I wish I could say the same about some of the other voices raised in disagreement with his work.

The problem I have with Lott’s thesis is that it rests on an untested assumption about the nature of crime, namely, that people who use guns to injure others will pause, think and consider the situation rationally before pulling out the old banger and firing away. Despite what Lott says about the shortcomings of FBI data which shows that most gun homicides occur between people who know each other to some personal degree, I find myself still more convinced by the Lester Adelson’s statement that: “With its peculiar lethality, a gun converts a spat into a slaying and a quarrel into a killing.” After plowing through Adelson’s classic, thousand-page textbook on forensic homicide, I think he knew what he was talking about.

On the other hand, Lott’s work has been severely criticized by academic researchers whose published rebuttals could probably run several feet in my personal library except that most of them can be found in various liberal blogs, so simply bookmarking them in my browser saves me a lot of shelf space. What these critics tend in the main to argue is that either Lott’s data is unrepresentative or that his statistical models aren’t sufficient, or that he misreads his own data, or a combination of all three.

There’s only one little problem with the entire corpus of anti-Lott work, namely, none of his critics have done any primary research at all whose results might allow them to advance a different thesis as to why Americans seem increasingly positive about using a gun for self-defense. What we hear again and again is that a majority of gun owners now claim that the primary reason they own a gun is to protect themselves and others, but I have yet to see a single survey which asks these same respondents to explain why they decided that the best way to defend themselves from crime was by owning a gun.

Even the other academic researcher who helped create the public discussion about using guns for self-defense, Gary Kleck, has published research which shows that in many circumstances using a gun for self-defense in a criminal assault is basically no more effective than making a phone call or just opening your mouth. And what we do know is that the number of people who actually use a legally-owned gun to defend themselves from criminals runs from scant to none.

Lott’s academic critics have not shown the slightest interest in trying to figure out what Nassim Taleb brilliantly calls the ‘Black Swan’ effect among gun owners, namely, the existence of an idea which may or may not have any reality behind it at all. And until people who honestly want to see an end to gun violence tackle this issue on its own terms, it will simply be impossible to craft a message about gun violence that gun owners will understand. With all due respect to Lott’s many critics, running batches of numbers through different statistical models is child’s play compared to figuring out why we humans believe and act the way they do.

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