The new, expanded edition of John Lott’s famous book promises to revive a heated, unresolved debate.
In 1998, John R. Lott Jr. dropped a bombshell on the academic and legal worlds with More Guns, Less Crime. Lott had conducted perhaps the most detailed study of crime in history, using data from every county in America, and concluded that right-to-carry (RTC) laws — which allow citizens to carry concealed guns, but typically require them to receive training and pass a background check first — reduce crime.
The University of Chicago Press has just released a third edition of the book, with updated numbers and more than 100 pages of new material. In addition to expanding Lott’s argument with data from the last decade, it provides an excellent chance to look at the current state of the gun-policy debate.
Three things are clear. One, despite years in the academic spotlight, this book’s central argument about right-to-carry laws has failed to create any kind of consensus. Two, the dire predictions of right-to-carry opponents have not come true. Three, the next great gun-control debate will concern handgun bans — and, Lott’s attempt to demonstrate that they increase murder notwithstanding, their effect on crime rates is no clearer than right-to-carry laws’.
To understand the lasting uproar over More Guns, Less Crime, it helps to start with the fact that to arrive at his conclusion, Lott uses what’s called “regression analysis” — a statistical technique that allows researchers to account for, or “control,” confounding variables that might throw off their findings.
His basic results, for example, are presented in graphs that show various crime rates rising before concealed-carry laws are enacted and falling thereafter, suggesting that the laws reduce crime. But these aren’t graphs of actual crime rates. Rather, each graph combines many states’ crime data into a single line, with year zero representing the year the RTC laws went into effect. (They usually look like this, only less dramatic.)
States enacted these laws at different times, and varying trends (rising or falling crime, changing demographics) were taking place when they did so. Lott has to adjust the numbers to control for these variables — and there are a lot of them, even though it’s impossible to factor in everything. Here’s a list he provides before explaining one of his new analyses:
Just as was done in the previous chapters, the estimates are going to account for not only all the law enforcement variables (arrest, execution, and imprisonment rates), income and poverty measures (poverty and unemployment rates, per capita real income, as well as income maintenance, retirement, and unemployment payments), the thirty-six measures of demographic changes, and the national average changes in crime rates from year to year and average differences across states (the fixed year and state effects). In addition, the estimates account for the differences in various concealed-handgun laws and other types of gun-control laws.
This level of detail is standard practice in “econometrics,” the sub-field of economics into which these analyses fall. And initially, it’s impressive and convincing. But whenever these techniques are applied to a controversial subject, different researchers — controlling for different variables and using different techniques to do so — come to different conclusions. And so it has been with the more-guns-less-crime hypothesis.
Since Lott released his first batch of findings in 1997, many experts have weighed in. Plenty have been supportive; he provides a list on his website here. But others don’t buy it, and they’re not all anti-gun hacks. In 1997, the University of Chicago’s Jens Ludwig published an essay called “Do Carry-Concealed Weapons Laws Deter Crime? No.” Yale’s Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III wrote a 2003 article claiming that RTC may increase crime. The same year, the Centers for Disease control released a report on gun control; its task force had “found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes.” In 2004, a National Academy of Sciences panel — which included econometrics superstar Steven Levitt — similarly failed to find convincing evidence that right-to-carry laws or other forms of gun control either reduce or increase crime. (Panelist James Q. Wilson dissented.)
How to solve this dispute? Lott and his critics, being academics, turned the debate into a soap opera. There’s too much drama to recount it in full here, but follow the links if you’re not up to date: Lott’s suspicious survey; his alter ego Mary Rosh; statements by Donohue that Lott has “blood on [his] hands” for encouraging RTC laws; Levitt’s e-mail to another economist claiming that Lott had bribed an academic journal to run a special, non-peer-refereed issue containing studies that were friendly to his theory; Lott’s lawsuit against Levitt regarding not only that accusation but also a statement in Levitt’s book Freakonomics; the startling admission by Levitt (after losing one of the counts of that lawsuit) that Levitt himself had been a peer referee of the journal issue in question.
And where does the debate about the more-guns-less-crime theory stand today? Right where it was five, maybe even ten or more years ago. Half the time, not even the names have changed. Ayres and Donohue released a paper just last year called “More Guns Less Crime Fails Again” (pdf). Ludwig, frequently with co-author Philip Cook, still writes about how guns don’t make crime go down. And of course, the new material in Lott’s third edition includes another round of responses to his critics. He says that no peer-reviewed study has found an increase from RTC, but even he concedes the following: “Not too surprisingly, depending on the precise methods used and the exact data set, the results have varied. Some claim no effect from these laws.”
With the econometricians still going back and forth after more than a decade, there’s really no way for everyday citizens to choose sides — as much as we may want to, and as much as activist organizations might urge us to. And as the National Academies panel suggested, it may be that econometric techniques are not precise enough to settle this debate, no matter how long we let the professionals fight it out.
AN EASIER WAY
That doesn’t mean we know nothing about the effects of right-to-carry laws, and it certainly doesn’t mean that More Guns, Less Crime is obsolete. If we take the emphasis off crime rates, and turn instead to counting individual crimes, we see quite clearly that right-to-carry laws, at the very least, don’t increase crime.
The most important question is this: When people get concealed-carry permits, do they go on to misuse their guns? People often express concern, for example, that in the adrenaline rush of a car accident, an angry armed motorist might shoot the guy who ran into him.
Lott has been reporting on the behavior of permit holders for years, but the third edition of More Guns, Less Crime includes his most comprehensive list to date. Very few concealed-carry permits are revoked: In the 14 states that keep detailed records, revocation totals range from .01 to .25 percent, and overwhelmingly, revocations occur not because the permit holder misused a gun, but because he violated some other law. (In Kentucky, for example, the most common reason for revocation is a lack of vehicle insurance. In Utah, it’s “alcohol violations.”) Lott was able to find only 23 examples of permit holders committing murder with guns from 1990 to July 2008 — assuming his list is comprehensive, that’s a murder rate of 1/182nd that of the general population.