John Lott Has A New Gun Survey Which Doesn’t Say What He Would Like It To Say.

Not to ever be considered anything less than a full-fledged member of the academic community, John Lott has just published the results of two surveys he conducted on the views of academic scholars about guns, in particular whether gun ownership makes us more or less safe.  Lott has been hammering away at this issue for more than twenty years, and although his research has been debunked again and again for either being wrong or possibly non-existent, to his credit John slogs on and on.

John’s latest attempt to burnish his academic bone-fides are these surveys, which can either be downloaded in full from SSRN or read in a summary written by John himself.  The bottom line is that his surveys of 74 academics who “published peer-reviewed empirical research on gun issues in criminology and economics journals” shows, not surprisingly, that a slim majority of respondents tended to support Lott’s long-held view that armed citizens decrease the murder rate, and roughly half the respondents did not believe that suicide rates were at all affected by having a gun in the home.

Although Lott doesn’t mention his competition by name, the gold standard for surveys on what academic researchers think about guns belongs to David Hemenway and his Injury Control Research Center at Harvard’s School of Public Health, a group that has conducted 13 separate surveys of published academics, including surveys on both the questions which Lott covered in the study he just released.

Survey question by the Harvard group: “In the United States, having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide.” Answers: 150.  Result: 84% agreed or strongly agreed.

Survey question by the Harvard group: “Carrying a gun on your person outside the home generally reduces the risk of being killed.”  Answers: 113.  Result: 76% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

How is it that two groups of academic scholars could give such different responses to the same questions about guns?  And it should be added that both Lott and Hemenway basically created their survey groups by following the same criteria: published, peer-reviewed studies which excluded book reviews and other, non-academic work.

But if there was any basic difference between the academic backgrounds of the two survey groups, it lies in the fact that Lott and Hemenway chose very different academic disciplines from whom to build their survey lists.  Lott sent surveys to criminologists and economists, who happen to represent the academic fields in which he has published his own work; Hemenway’s surveys went out to individuals who had published relevant articles in peer-reviewed journals devoted to public health, public policy, sociology or criminology.

Given the overlap in disciplines, I think it is not an invalid approach to combine these surveys and see what we get.  On the question of whether guns in the home lead to an increase in suicide, a total of both surveys resulted in 67% saying ‘yes.’  On the question of armed citizens bringing down the murder rate, the two surveys only registered about half saying ‘yes.’

I don’t think these two surveys are any kind of ringing endorsement for the idea that academics, according to John Lott, are all that comfortable with his views on guns.  And even among the two groups of scholars queried by Lott – criminologists and economists – the latter group was much more in line with his thinking than what he got in responses from academics whose major field involves the study of crime. The fact is that Lott could only find a majority of his survey respondents who buy his Koolaid brand by including economists who publish little, if any research directly relevant to guns or crime.

In an interview with The Blaze, John Lott stated that “when The New York Times interviews an academic for a gun-related story, they can’t seem to find one who says that guns make people safer.”  But after carefully reviewing his surveys, I have to admit that I might find it difficult to find such scholars myself.  And unlike John, I haven’t been throwing around this armed citizen nonsense for the last twenty years.

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A New Article Explains How Crime Guns Get Into The ‘Wrong Hands’

When a serious scholar like Philip Cook publishes research on gun violence, the pro-gun community usually ignores what he has to say.  This is because Professor Cook has been publishing important work on the risks of guns for nearly forty years, and the folks who don’t believe that guns are a risk would rather pretend he doesn’t exist.  Which is why I found it interesting that his latest work on how criminals get their guns has made the headlines in the pro-gun media, from the NRA to the National Review.

          Philip Cook

Philip Cook

The pro-gun headlines, however, tell a much different story than the one we get from Phil Cook.  Because what Cook and his research colleagues were trying to find out was information about the operation of the ‘informal’ gun network; i.e., gun transfers which occur outside of the regulatory environment that defines initial gun transfers between customers and FFLs.  And since only 10% of the guns acquired by the survey respondents came directly from legal sources, the whole point of this research was to illuminate the shadowy and unmapped world of illegal guns.  Or to be more precise, how guns were acquired by people who were then arrested for using or carrying them in illegal ways.  Incidentally, this article appears in the special Preventive Medicine issue on gun violence edited by Daniel Webster and David Hemenway whose lead editorial I discussed last week.

The pro-gun noisemakers are falling over each other telling their followers that this article justifies their opposition to every gun regulation of any kind, because the criminals themselves admit that only 10% of the guns they use come through legal channels to them.  So what’s the point, for example, of expanding background checks to secondary transfers if gun-toting criminals get all the guns they want without undergoing a background check at all?  To quote the geniuses at the NRA: “Since these criminals do not use gun stores, gun shows, or even legal private gun sellers, there is no point in the criminal supply chain where a background check would make any difference whatsoever.”

The NRA’s been peddling this crap since they lost the battle to prevent NICS background checks in 1994. Here’s the organization’s official statement on the issue: “NRA opposes expanding background check systems at the federal or state level. Studies by the federal government show that people sent to state prison because of gun crimes typically get guns through theft, on the black market, or from family members or friends, and nearly half of illegally trafficked firearms originate with straw purchasers—people who can pass background checks, who buy guns for criminals on the sly. No amount of background checks can stop these criminals.” And guess what?  Now they have the esteemed gun researcher Phil Cook validating the NRA point of view!

Except that’s not the point of Phil’s research at all. To the contrary, the article contains a very interesting graphic (Page 30) along with excerpts from respondent interviews which illustrate the degree to which nearly all the guns acquired by inmates passed through multiple hands following the initial, legal transaction that took place in an FFL’s store.  And even though the lack of NICS checks over secondary (or tertiary or quaternary or quinary) transactions was the rule for guns by themselves of their friends, few of the jailed inmates interviewed in this study had any idea of exactly how or when their guns first disappeared from lawful commerce and ended up in the mean streets.

What makes this article so powerful and compelling is that it’s not based on data so much as on the words of gun-carrying criminals themselves.  The fact that again and again inmates mentioned their fears of getting caught with a gun validates the notion that gun regulations work.  The respondents in this study clearly understood that giving them a gun was putting it in the ‘wrong hands.’ In that respect, the felons in Cook County Jail are way out in front of the NRA.

A New Collection Of Public Health Gun Research Is A Must Read

The Journal of Preventive Medicine has just published A Special Issue on the Epidemiology and Prevention of Gun Violence, bringing together the foremost group of scholars ever assembled in one publication devoted to understanding gun violence.  If anyone wants to quibble with me over the superlatives of the previous sentence, that’s fine.  The bottom line is that if you want to know what some of the best and brightest in this field have been doing lately, this journal number is a good place to start.

It’s altogether fitting that the collection should be introduced in a guest editorial written by David Hemenway and Daniel Webster, who direct the two most important academic centers devoted to gun violence research from a public health perspective.  Hemenway and Webster can thus take a global view of gun violence research which, unfortunately, doesn’t yield very positive results.  The authors note that public health research is underfunded in medicine, injury prevention is underfunded in public health and gun research is underfunded in injury prevention – a triple whammy, if you will. Between 1991 and 2010, gun injuries were the second leading cause of injury deaths among youths ages 1-17, yet public health/medicine research accounted for less than 1% of all injury research.

conference program pic                This is a rather dismal state of affairs, and while much of the blame can be placed at the doorstep of the NRA, which pressured Congress into ending CDC-sponsored gun research after 1996, we shouldn’t discount other factors contributing to this research void as well.  Chief among the reasons that inhibit public health gun research is the fact that injuries caused by guns are almost always considered major crimes. And while someone who punches someone else has committed an assault, the impact of such an event simply cannot be compared to what happens when someone shoots someone else with a gun.  More often than not, gun violence is viewed as something more fittingly lodged within criminology rather than anything having to do with health.

Which is why I find the linkage of epidemiology to prevention in the title of this collection so exciting and perhaps signaling an important and fruitful change in the direction of gun violence research.  Because epidemiology is the study of the incidence, distribution and control of disease, and if the editors of this collection believe that gun violence is a disease which can be controlled through the application of medical knowledge and techniques, then perhaps we will see an attempt by members of the medical community to reclaim the formative position they held in this field prior to the elimination of CFC-funded gun research.

I am going to leave a discussion about each article in this collection to specific columns to be published over the next few days.  But I do want to briefly mention the editorial which introduces the volume because it’s the work primarily of three scholars from outside the United States.  And while we tend to think of gun violence in America as a particularly American problem studied only by Americans themselves, it’s good to have an international perspective on the issue, in this case submitted by three medical researchers from over our northern border at McGill.  The editorial, An elusive low-hanging fruit for public health: Gun violence prevention, notes that gun violence in America can’t be entirely separated from events throughout the world, in particular the cycle of violence unleashed by the attacks on 9-11.

This is hardly the first time that America’s obsession with guns and its toleration of excessive levels of gun violence have been tied to the continuing warfare and militarization provoked by terrorism both here and abroad.  There’s only one small problem: not true.  There was a spike in gun sales after the Twin Towers came down, but by the time it was noticed it was over.  Gun sales continued at modest levels throughout the eight years of George W. Bush, and zoomed upwards only after a certain Kenyan moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009.  Want to understand the epidemiology of guns?  The U.S. Army, I’m afraid, won’t get you there.

Oops – Jon Lott Does It Again. He Just Can’t Stop Using Real Or Imagined Women To Advance His Views On Guns.

Everyone on both sides of the gun debate knows John Lott.  He’s been a leading promoter of the armed citizen nonsense since he published a book which claimed to find a connection between an increase in CCW and a decrease in crime.  The fact that a review committee of the National Academy of Sciences was unable to replicate his findings using his own data was a minor stumble in what has become a full-blown career promoting the idea that carrying guns around protects us all from crime.

In 1997 Lott appeared before a committee of the Nebraska legislature and stated that he had conducted a national survey which showed that nearly all DGUs (defensive gun uses) involved brandishing but not actually firing a gun.  When his survey results were challenged, Lott was unable to produce any data, claiming that it was lost when his hard drive crashed.

John Lott

John Lott

I’m not all that upset about the degree to which Lott has or hasn’t faked information about CCW, DGUs or anything else.  The truth is that once the gun nuts found a willing sycophant who would cloak his pro-gun advocacy in some kind of  ‘scientific’ or ‘academic’ approach, it didn’t really matter whether scholars on the other side of the debate agreed with him or not.  In fact, the more that scholars like Harvard’s David Hemenway and Stanford’s John Donohue call Lott to account, the more the red-meat noise machine comes to his defense.   And what the hell, a guy has to earn a living, doesn’t he?

But I’m beginning to think that Lott may have now gotten involved in a situation that even his most ardent friends and supporters may find it difficult to come to his defense. I’m referring to a story that appeared in Media Matters, regarding what appears to have been an effort by Lott to publish an article supporting  guns on campus that was actually written not by him but by a Brown University student named Taylor Woolrich.  In what can only be described as an act of journalistic identity theft,  Lott got this op-ed piece published on Fox News.com, complete with a headline that read: “Dear Dartmouth, I am one of your students, I am being stalked, please let me carry a gun.”  The piece was originally sent to Fox under both their names but was rejected, then Fox changed its mind and was willing to run the op-ed under Taylor’s name but she declined but gave Lott permission to send in the piece using her name.  Except she didn’t give him permission to rewrite the entire piece, in particular the conclusion that starts with the following sentence: “Having a gun is by far the most effective way for victims to stop crime.”  What Woolrich thought was going to be a story about the trauma of stalking turned into a Lott-inspired paean to the value of citizens carrying concealed guns.

This episode wouldn’t be so interesting were it not for the fact that John Lott seems to have an interesting history when it comes to using or inventing female identities to advance and defend his own career. In various web postings, particularly websites that were critical of Lott’s work, a former PhD candidate at Wharton named Mary Rosh defended Lott, calling him the “best professor I ever had.” There was only one little problem – Mary Rosh was actually John Lott and he has never adequately explained how or why this case of false identity came about.

There’s been a lot of chatter over the years, much of it harmless or aimless, about the alleged link between sexual inadequacy and gun ownership, the idea being that guys who feel impotent in the bedroom can compensate to their heart’s content when they pull out their AR and head to the range.  In the case of John Lott, we have a major pro-gun personality who keeps using women, real or imagined, in ways that must leave him feeling embarrassed if not ashamed.  And the saddest thing about it is that he always seems to get caught.

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Does A Gun Protect You From Crime? A New Study Says You Should Just Run Away.

If there is one issue more than any other which divides the two sides in the great gun argument, it’s whether guns are an effective deterrent against crime.  The controversy has been raging since advocacy for and against gun ownership escalated during the debate over the 1994 Brady bill and again when Clinton pushed through his omnibus bill on crime.  Basically the argument came down to what I call the social utility of gun ownership; i.e., do the risks of guns outweigh the benefits or is it the other way around?

The latest entry in this field is a study that analyzes more than 14,000 ‘personal contact’ crimes between 2007 and 2011, meaning that the victim and the perpetrator had some degree of contact during the crime incident itself.  The good news about this study is that it covers a very large number of criminal incidents; the bad news is that like all studies based on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, it is based solely on the testimonies of the victims themselves. Which means that the information cannot be corroborated by another source, but at least the respondent is asked to provide a great deal of specific information about what actually took place.

gun crimes                The researchers, David Hemenway and Sara Solnick, have utilized the NCVS data to create what they call an ‘epidemiology’ of gun use, with the intention of trying to figure out the degree to which people used guns to protect themselves from crimes.  This issue of frequency has been the hot-button question in the gun argument over the past twenty years, spurred largely by Gary Kleck’s 1994 defensive gun use (DGU) study which claimed that Americans used guns to thwart crimes upwards of several million times each year. Kleck’s study was based on complete interviews with less than 125 respondents, none of whom were asked to define or describe the alleged criminal event which a gun helped them to forestall.  There was also no attempt to compare the outcome of using a gun to prevent a crime as opposed to other methods that individuals might use to make themselves safe from criminal attack.

This new study, on the other hand, seeks to address the gaps in Kleck’s work and the work of others, and the results, not surprisingly, cast the value of defensive gun use in a very different light. To begin, the number of times that people use guns as opposed to other ways of defending themselves is very slight; less than 1% of the 14,000 respondents used a gun against their attacker, whereas more than 40% defended themselves or their property in some other way. Men were three times more likely to use a gun to defend themselves, they were also more likely than women to get involved in DGUs away from the home, and men used guns more for defense against assaults while women favored using guns to protect their property from being damaged or taken away.

The important finding from the study, it seems to me, is not the relatively low frequency of DGUs as opposed to other self-defense methods, but the degree to which using a gun as a defense against crime reduces the chance of injury to the victim.  Slightly more than 4% of the victims were injured during the criminal incident, the percentage of injuries suffered by victims who used other ways to defend themselves was the same.  The bottom line is that a gun will protect you from crime, but it won’t protect you better than yelling for help, threatening to call police, or just running away.

On the other hand, what public health and other gun-safety advocates need to understand is that even if the data doesn’t support the idea, statistically speaking, that guns can protect us against crime, the fact is that many people believe that a gun is the most effective antidote to their fear of crime, and it’s often what we believe rather than what we know that determines the choices we make.

Public Health And Public Opinion Don’t Seem To Mesh When It Comes To Guns.

The Injury Control Research Center has been engaged in fruitful and necessary gun research from a public health perspective since it was founded by David Hemenway whose book, Private Guns, Public Health, is a fundamental contribution to the field.  Since May, 2014 the Center has been engaged in an interesting survey effort to measure attitudes of gun researchers towards different aspects of the gun debate.  Each month they send a questionnaire to slightly less than 300 researchers who have published at least one a relevant, peer-reviewed article since 2011.  The questionnaires cover virtually every major argument about guns, from background checks to concealed carry to safe storage and beyond.

     David Hemenway

David Hemenway

The results to date were just summarized in a Mother Jones article which compared the responses of the survey respondents to the arguments against gun control that are made by the NRA.  Not surprisingly, the difference between the public health consensus and the NRA positions on the same gun issues are, to put it mildly, about as wide as what God did to the two sides of the Red Sea.  Here are some salient examples of those differences:

  • The NRA says a gun with a home is safer than a home without a gun, two-thirds of the public health researchers disagreed.
  • The NRA says that guns are used much more frequently in self-defense than in crime, three-quarters of the researchers said it was the other way around.
  • The spread of concealed-carry laws, according to the NRA, has reduced crime, six out of ten researchers disagreed.

What the Mother Jones article did not point out, however, is that the Harvard survey also asked respondents to evaluate the quality of the research, from ‘very weak’ to ‘very strong’  on which their responses were based.  On only one question were the researchers overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality of the research that formed their response, namely, whether a gun in the home made it a safer place.  Only 25% of the respondents felt the research on this issue was medium or weak, whereas more than half believed the research to be ‘strong’ or ‘very strong.’  In other words, of the nine survey questions that have been answered to date, this question not only showed a strong response indicating that a gun did not make a home safer, but it also showed the highest rate of validation in terms of the quality of the relevant research.

How is it that of all the major issues on guns that David Hemenway and his Harvard colleagues surveyed, this issue – the risk versus benefit of owning a gun – not only shows the widest disparity between public health researchers and the NRA, but an equally-wide disparity between public health researchers and the public at large?  I am referring to the recent Gallup poll where  63% said ‘yes’ when asked, ‘Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?’ This is the fourth time the poll has been taken since 2000, and it was the first time that the affirmative response reached above 60%, never mind ever previously climbing above 50%.

Public concern about global warming was basically non-existent in the U.S. until the 1980s, and as late as 2006 a slight majority of Americans still didn’t think it was a major issue.  But the tide seems to have turned in the last few years, and now only petroleum-funded public figures like Jim Imhofe dare to suggest that global warming isn’t a fact of life.  We can also dismiss the mutterings of the GOP’s most recently-announced Presidential candidate because he mutters about everything.

What can’t be dismissed is the fact that research on the risks versus benefits of gun ownership have failed to persuade a majority of Americans that they would be safer without their guns.  And nothing persuades me that the public perception will change just because the public health community conducts more research. There’s a disconnect here that has yet to be explained.

 

Want To Take A Public Health Approach To Gun Violence? Ask The NRA For Help.

Here we go again.  Another state, Texas, is going to try and keep physicians from talking to patients about gun ownership thanks to a bill newly-filed by a state representative named Stuart Spitzer, who happens to be a general surgeon with a medical degree from UT-Southwestern Medical School.  The proposed bill goes further than the celebrated Docs vs. Glocks Florida statute which prohibits inquiry into gun ownership but makes an exception in cases where the physician believes that a serious medical problem might arise if the patient has access to a gun.  The Texas law contains no such provision, and simply says that any physician, other than a psychiatrist, cannot ask a patient to disclose firearm ownership, period. The end.

The bill’s sponsor peddles the standard nonsense about how this law will protect gun ownership because, according to him, the moment that such information is entered into a patient’s file, the Federal Government will be able to find out who has guns and who doesn’t.  This outright lie has been floating around the paranoid internet since Obama took office, even though the NRA has refuted it on their website.   But if Glenn Beck can find customers to stock up on freeze-dried food for the coming apocalypse, how hard is it for a Texas legislator to make others believe that Big Brother is waiting to grab their guns after a visit to their local doctor?

docs versus glocks                Even though studies show that most patients really don’t care if their doctor asks them about guns, people are sometimes susceptible to this blatant attempt at fear-mongering because they simply don’t understand the methods used by the public health community to define and treat medical risk.  It’s easy to get all worked up about Ebola because the danger is obvious; you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that with mortality rates above 50%, doing whatever is necessary to avoid this disease is a priority for government and citizens alike.  But is there a consensus on the medical risks posed by guns?  In a funny way there is such a consensus, but it’s based on the idea that guns don’t pose any medical risk at ball.

At the same time that public health researchers argue that the risks of guns outweighs the benefits, the NRA pushes the opposite point of view.  And while research clearly supports the public health position on gun risk, the NRA continues to use a bogus telephone survey by Gary Kleck and some thoroughly-discredited statistical nonsense from John Lott to sell the idea that guns are essential tools  in protecting us from crime. Using the fear of crime as a justification for guns is a master stroke of marketing because a majority of Americans now agree with the pro-gun point of view.

Know why the NRA and its allies have been so successful selling the positive utility of guns?  Because they have adopted a public health strategy for convincing the public and the lawmakers that what they are saying is true. First, identify the disease, which in this case is harm caused by crime.  Then identify how the disease is spread, in this case contact with a criminal.  Now develop a vaccine, i.e., the gun, and immunize as many as people as possible with concealed carry, now legal in all 50 states.

The problem in trying to sell the public health solution to any medical problem, as David Hemenway reminds us, is that unlike medicine, “the focus of public health is not on cure, but on prevention.” This usually requires a long, comprehensive strategy combining research, education and laws. Recognizing that most people aren’t usually responsive to solutions which don’t immediately work, the NRA has fast-tracked the process. The real problem in the gun debate is that the side which is totally resistant to an honest, public health approach to guns has shown itself remarkably adept at turning that same approach on its head and getting exactly what it wants.