A Lott to question

Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris recently objected to economist, John Lott, being invited to testify before the Judiciary Committee, citing Lott’s questionable record of research.  Harris claims that Lott would not be accepted as an expert in court testimony and that his methodology wouldn’t meet academic standards.

Spend much time on gun debates, and you’ll see Lott’s name referred to either in glowing terms or sneered at as an anathema.  His book, More Guns, Less Crime, published originally in 1998, made a variety of claims, generally arguing that good people owning and carrying guns leads to a reduction in criminal violence.

This is something that could hardly be better designed to draw controversy, and some of the criticism of Lott’s work raises good points that call his techniques into question.  The problem for general readers here is that the field of econometrics involves mathematical analysis of volumes of data, and the claims and counterclaims get treated on the basis of what we want the conclusions to be, rather than the validity or lack thereof.  A gun rights supporter will cite Lott; an advocate of gun control will raise David Hemenway, and round and round the argument goes, generating a lot of greenhouse gases but little wisdom.

More cautious researchers have looked at the data—specifically claims over shall-issue policies regarding carry licenses—and have come to the conclusion that any association between right-to-carry laws and rates of violence is unsupported.  A 2004 review by the National Research Council found that there is “no link between right-to-carry laws and changes in crime is apparent in the raw data,” while a latter evaluation saw only a weak correlation and acknowledge that the usual fluctuations and anomalies in data require more study to tease out a result.

This is hardly the clear demonstration that gun control saves lives that advocates like the people at the Brady Campaign desire.  The Brady scorecard comes with the claim that “strong gun laws are clearly associated with lower gun death rates.”  This involves blending homicides and suicides.  There is some evidence to suggest that gun laws affect suicide rates, when we consider state data, though international numbers don’t show any benefit to strict gun laws when it comes to people killing themselves. Homicides are an embarrassment to the argument.  When, for example, Texas has a rate like California, Indiana’s rate is lower than Illinois, and Virginia’s is lower than Maryland, we’re left to wonder how anyone can say that gun control reduces the number of murders.

Living in an age when we can detect gravitational waves from black holes falling into each other over a billion years ago, we may be used to the idea that analysis of data yields definitive results, but the social sciences aren’t physics.  The causes of human behaviors are varied and complex, and before we accept declarations that could have sweeping effects on public policy and rights, we have to look at the details and the methods.  That applies as much to researchers who support gun rights as it does to those who oppose them.  The cause of rights doesn’t need hand waving and bad methodology to succeed, and we only do ourselves a disservice when we believe the bottom line and don’t check the work used to get there.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.