THE TRUTH ABOUT
GUNS AND CRIME--UPDATED
by Blaine Smith
“More guns equal less crime.”
It’s a phrase that’s become ubiquitous among gun-rights proponents and a foundational argument for the seeming renaissance of pro-Second Amendment scholarship and judicial protection occurring today--crowned with the establishment of individual-rights precedent in both the Heller and McDonald cases.
Today, it’s well understood that the more law-abiding citizens who possess guns for protection, the less likely these individuals are to fall prey to violent criminals. Again: more guns, less crime.
But there was a time not long ago when one would have been hard-pressed to find legitimate scholarship supporting this now-established fact.
It was at the Wharton Business School in 1993 when several students of economist and author John Lott asked him to spend some time discussing gun control and crime. As Lott’s interests then lay in white collar and corporate crime, he spent some time preparing by looking over existing research on the subject.
Lott was “stunned” when he found how poorly the existing research was done. But one thing was certain: None of the studies purported to find that an increase in gun ownership led to a decrease in crime--something we now take as a given.
“I don’t think there was anybody arguing [more guns equal less crime],” Lott said. “I suppose the closest to that side would be [Florida State University criminologist] Gary Kleck, but Kleck argued that guns didn’t have any net effect on crime rates. So you had a lot of people claiming that guns were a net bad, and then Kleck’s claim that they didn’t make any difference one way or the other. But those were the extremes--there was nobody arguing that, on net, the presence of guns helped to deter crime.
“The research that had existed prior to that had been pretty poorly done,” Lott said. “They were all very small studies--your typical study would have a fraction of the total U.S. counties from one year; no explanation how one year was picked or how the researchers could pick, say, 34 counties from the entire country when you have more than 3,140 counties to choose from. It’s not like 34 is some magic number.”
So with his interest piqued, Lott would go on to produce the seminal study into the correlation between gun control and crime. The results first appeared in an article co-authored by David Mustard in the Journal of Legal Studies and then, in 1998, as the first edition of “More Guns, Less Crime.”
“What I’ve tried to do in my work, and I think was revolutionary for the work on gun control, was to say ‘Look, we have 51 different laboratories occurring in the United States for lots of these different types of gun control laws,’” Lott said. “And with something like Right-to-Carry, you have different states that have adopted these laws in different years; some may have increased criminal penalties at the same time that they allowed citizens to defend themselves with a concealed handgun permit; some may have given more money to the police; some may have given more money to prosecutors; but if you have enough different experiments that are happening in enough different years, you can hopefully begin to disentangle all those different things that can affect crime rates.”
Lott notes that in “More Guns, Less Crime” he accounts for several hundred different factors that can affect crime rates--not just arrest rates and victim rates and prison sentence lengths, but the number of police, whether they’re unionized or not, different types of policing strategies, demographic differences, income and poverty measures--a host of things that theoretically could affect crime rates, as well as many different types of gun control laws.
GUNS AND CHICAGO MAYOR RICHARD DALEY
EVEN AFTER THE Supreme Court invalidated Chicago’s ban on handguns in the McDonald case, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has continued his legendary tirades against guns, and continued to push his city to adopt restrictive gun regulations.
Even so, as Lott points out, Daley himself benefits from the protections that a firearm can provide.
“Poor people, particularly blacks who live in these high-crime urban areas, are the ones who benefit the most from self-defense,” Lott said. “My research, if it shows me anything else, is that police are the single-most important factor for reducing crime, but I think the police themselves understand that they virtually always arrive on the crime scene after the crime has occurred. And simply telling someone who is having to face a criminal by themselves to act passively turns out to be very bad and dangerous advice.
“And so Mayor Daley is somebody who has to understand these things at some level. Because he has 24-hour, around-the-clock, armed bodyguards,” Lott said. “He must understand that there’s some deterrent effect from allowing people to defend themselves with guns. The problem is, while he may recognize that for himself, he’s not willing to let people defend themselves who are actually at much greater risk of having crime committed against them than he is.”
Can you say “hypocrite”?
“It’s only by taking advantage of all those different experiments that we can get a good picture,” he said, “and that’s something that was missing prior to my research.”
The impact of the book when it was first released in 1998 was something that surprised even Lott--not only would the book become the bedrock for today’s pro-gun arguments, it stirred emotions in the anti-gun side that led to attacks not only on Lott’s research, but on him personally.
“It was quite a ride there to begin with in terms of reaction. I think the perception among seemingly everybody was that guns, on net, increase the amount of crime,” Lott said. “That made it so shocking to people that allowing individuals to defend themselves would actually reduce crime.”
Lott said there were many individuals who got very angry. “I’ve had academics yell at me. I had death threats and other things. And surely things that have affected me in multiple ways,” he said. “But I also had people who were very nice. So, reactions were all over the place.”
But when the personal attacks on Lott subsided, what was left was the scholarship itself--and today it still stands as the preeminent study into the affects of gun control on crime.
“If you look at the research that’s been done after the study got attention, it’s really been phenomenal,” Lott said. “I’ve had over 200 academics from around the world ask about the data, and there have been several dozen papers published in academic journals that have used the data. And the vast majority of that research has been very supportive of the conclusions.
“But the interesting thing to me is that we have gone from a situation where the debate was over how bad guns were,” he said, “to now, if you look at the research that has studied this national data, two-thirds find that allowing citizens the chance to defend themselves reduces violent crime, and about one-third claim that the benefits are small, or in some cases claim that it’s not particularly significant.
“But we’ve gone to a situation now where the debate is over how large the benefits are, and that’s an important change,” Lott said. “If it doesn’t make any harm, then why not let people have the chance to go and defend themselves? And I strongly believe that there is a benefit there. But even if you get what’s a very strong left-wing academia, the ones that are kind of motivated to try and find something wrong with guns, the worst they can say is, ‘Well, we can’t find a large benefit.’ I think that’s a pretty major change.”
Now in its third edition, with 184 pages of new material, “More Guns, Less Crime” continues to be a touchstone for Second Amendment advocates. And 12 years after its initial publication, the book has expanded to include all sorts of new laws and their effect on crime. And a look into these new laws still bears the same conclusion: Allowing law-abiding citizens to protect themselves with a firearm reduces crime.
In the 10 years since the second edition of “More Guns, Less Crime” was released, the federal “assault weapons” ban has sunsetted, the debate over city gun bans in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill., and Washington, D.C., has raged all the way to the Supreme Court, Castle Doctrine laws have spread throughout the nation, and local and state issues like trigger-lock laws and gun show regulations have continued to provide more data for Lott and his fellow researchers to study.
And in all cases, the data reveal that armed citizens are one of the greatest deterrents to crime.
PAYING TO PRACTICE A RIGHT
ONE INTERESTING ARGUMENT Lott makes in “More Guns, Less Crime” is that rules that increase the costs in time and money to acquire a Right-to-Carry permit act as a deterrent to many people acquiring a gun for self-protection. This, in turn, increases crime against unarmed individuals.
“These rules change the type of people who go and get a permit,” Lott said. “If you have a $140 fee versus a $20 fee, you’re more likely to get white, suburban, middle-class people going to get permits.
“But my research finds that it’s basically poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas who are the people most likely to be victims of crime, who benefit the most from being able to have a gun,” he said. “So when you have the high fees and training requirements, not only do you see a smaller drop in violent crime because of the fact that you have fewer people who get permits, but you are also making it so the very people who benefit the most, who would be able to most likely stop crime because they would be the most likely victims, are also stopped from getting permits.
“And so you see a smaller drop in violent crime than you would have seen otherwise if you didn’t have these huge fees that you have in some places,” he said--such as the high costs in time and money that Chicago and D.C. residents must expend to be able to practice their Second Amendment right.
In “More Guns, Less Crime,” not only does Lott lay out the case as to why allowing citizens the right to protect themselves with firearms reduces crime--which it overwhelmingly does--he has also produced a document that’s vital in our battle to protect Second Amendment freedoms.
“I think freedom is an extremely important issue, and for many people that is the most important issue. But in order to win this debate, I think we have to acknowledge there’s people in the middle ground who, for them, the big issue is safety, and they’re willing to trade a little freedom for getting more safety,” Lott said. “I think this gun issue is really tailor-made to win easily, because I think guns are one area where freedom and safety go together. When you give people more freedom to have the option to go and defend themselves, you get more safety.
“We shouldn’t let people frame it as a trade-off between freedom and safety,” he said, “and that’s what the gun control groups are constantly trying to do with their rhetoric. By showing that these laws--no matter how well intended--disarm law-abiding citizens, that they make it more costly for law-abiding citizens to be able to get guns to protect themselves and their families, actually have the opposite effect. It actually makes it more dangerous for themselves and their families.
“That, I think, is what will change the debate over the long term.”
“More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws” Third Edition by John R. Lott Jr.
University of Chicago Press, paperback, 472 pp., 87 line drawings, 77 tables