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.