What? The New York Times is carrying an op-ed by John Lott? The John Lott? The John Lott who is the bete noir of the entire gun violence prevention community because he has singlehandedly convinced a majority of Americans that keeping a gun around the house will make them safe? No, not The New York Times. Not the newspaper whose recent op-ed by Gail Collins begged the GVP community to ‘energize’ and not give up.
John has been making arguments about the positive social utility of guns since 1998 when the first edition of More Guns, Less Crime, was published by the University of Chicago Press. I also happen to be a Chicago Press author, so I’m not about to say anything nasty about his book. But I don’t have to worry, because nasty and unkind comments about this book abound.
When John first published More Guns, roughly 35% of all Americans said that guns made their home a safer environment, while 50% said a gun at home made it a more dangerous place. The GVP will tell you that this shift in opinion is due to the power and financial clout of the NRA. And while the boys from Fairfax have certainly done their best to tilt the legislative field their way, the fact is that what the poll numbers indicate is that a lot of Americans have changed their minds about gun risk who don’t happen to own guns. Our friends at Harvard estimate that somewhere under 25% of American adults (most of them men) own guns, and that’s a much smaller percentage than the percentage of people who now say that a gun makes them safe.
There are two reasons why I am pleased to see Lott’s work show up in The New York Times. First, the shift towards guns for self-defense is not just a function of the decline in hunting, nor it can’t just be blamed on the NRA. Something else is going on in the United States which has caused a growth in what scholars like Alan Fiske, Tage Rai and Steven Pinker call ‘virtuous violence;’ i.e., the use of violence to achieve positive ends. Lott’s research is an attempt to explain why this shift has occurred and needs to be acknowledged from that point of view.
Second, I am not terribly comfortable with using regression analysis to explain human affairs. Finding an ‘association’ between two trend lines is more a kind of statistical alchemy rather than a scientific method to establish causal facts. I agree with Richard Berk who refers to most regression analysis as a good way to describe patterns of data, but description and causal explanations are two, very different things. In that regard, Lott’s reliance on regression analysis doesn’t necessarily persuade me that his argument is true. But none of his critics seem willing to do anything beyond running his data through different statistical models which will always yield different results.
The problem with relying on public health research to explain gun violence is that most of this research usually follows the traditional, epidemiological approach to figuring out risk by defining the victims, figuring out how the risk enters and move through a particular population, and then coming up with protective strategies to protect everyone else. The result is that we know an awful lot about the victims of gun violence, but we know very little about why less than 5% of Americans who commit a serious injury each year, against themselves or someone else, do it by using a gun.
Until and unless the GVP figures out why people commit gun violence, condemning John Lott for offering an answer to that question which they don’t like is a strategy leading nowhere fast. If my GVP friends would examine their own arguments with the same degree of critical vigor that they use with Lott’s work, his appearance in The New York Times will be a positive event for helping to end the violence caused by guns.