We need honest debate and rigorous research on gun control

(from thehill.com ©GettyImages)
(from thehill.com ©GettyImages)

[Ed: The manufactured “controversy” over John Lott’s recent move to the federal Department of Justice as a research advisor is easily understood as anti-gun academics fearing that his advice will reduce federal funding of their typically poorly designed and interpreted studies. They needn’t worry–Michael Bloomberg has their backs, viz. Northwell Health’s 2nd annual “Gun Violence Prevention Forum” on December 10. Pollack just became president of the Crime Prevention Research Center upon Lott’s (temporary?) departure, and puts the matter fairly, though too gently. Republished here unedited recognizing The Hill‘s copyright.]

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The Hill recently published an opinion by Griffin Dix allegedly exposing a “time bomb under President-elect Biden’s doormat.” The time-bomb wasn’t a bogus dossier, FBI agents lying in order to spy on Biden’s campaign, or a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden. It was, rather, the appointment of renowned but controversial researcher John R. Lott Jr. as a senior advisor for research and statistics at the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice.

Lott has had a long career as a researcher at some of America’s most respected universities: from Yale to UCLA to Wharton to the University of Chicago and until recently, he was the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, which I now lead. But he is best known for his controversial thesis on a hot button issue, encapsulated well in his University of Chicago Press book: “More Guns, Less Crime.

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Dix wrote that the news of Lott’s appointment made his “blood run cold” because Lott’s thesis had been “found to be false” by Stanford Law Professor John Donohue and his colleagues. But whether or not he realized it, Dix’s citation actually showcases the need for much more credible and robust research into the effect of gun control policies.

Dix noted that Donahue and his colleagues concluded that Lott’s thesis was “without credible statistical support,” and that — contrary to Lott — right-to-carry gun laws were actually associated with higher rates of murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, etc.

If that were the final word, we could leave it at that. But it’s not.

You see, academics disagree with each other all the time. Many of their disagreements hinge on methodological choices that will inevitably sound arcane to the lay reader but are of crucial importance. Sorting through arguments to arrive at the most reliable methods is the key to genuine intellectual progress.

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In this case, it’s true enough that Donahue et al found in a 2003 study that guns were associated with increases in crime. But a review of their work, also published in the Stanford Law Review, argued that Donahue and his partner “simply misread their own results … Their own most general specification that breaks down the impact of the law on a year-by-year basis shows large crime-reducing benefits.” (Emphasis added.)

Donahue later, using a different methodology, found that right to carry laws “are associated with 13-15 percent higher aggregate violent crime rates ten years after adoption.” Two other academics reviewed this paper and published a piece in Econ Journal Watch concluding that Donahue’s results were “fragile,” as his study “fail[ed] to control for any of the major factors that cause crime rates to vary,” and concluded from the same data and similar methodology that “we find states where crime increased after the implementation of [right-to-carry] law and we find more states in which crime decreased.” (Emphasis added.)

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For my part, I could point to many dozens of peer-reviewed academic studies conducted by a wide range of authors suggesting that widespread gun ownership deters crime. Academics have found evidence right-to-carry laws deter violent crime, including rapes and murders, lower burglary rates, and that restrictive concealed carry laws may increase the murder rate.

Others might argue that those studies have their own shortcomings. And such disagreement ought to be encouraged.

Rather than attack researchers engaged in the debate — or try to police who should be allowed to engage in it — we should welcome a diversity of voices and perspectives into the issue of gun control. Many people have strongly held beliefs on the issue. Mr. Dix has his, having lost a son to an unsecured gun stored at his friend’s house.

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I have mine, having lost my daughter Meadow in a school shooting. Rather than jump to blame the gun itself, I looked for all the facts and found that there were so many layers of human failure that had absolutely nothing to do with gun control that enabled it. But all of these failures were effectively covered up by a single-minded media narrative that only wanted to blame the gun. I documented the full story in a book “Why Meadow Died.” For now, consider this: Two unarmed security guards gave their lives charging at the shooter with their bare hands. If they had been armed, my daughter might have been saved.

Thanks to my advocacy, school staff in Florida are now armed. I firmly believe this will save lives. Others are certainly welcome to argue for gun control policies that I believe would be misguided and dangerous.

But no one should try to police the research community’s efforts to better inform this debate. The stakes are too high to pretend like the science is settled or to forget that diverse voices are needed to arrive at the most trustworthy facts.

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Andrew Pollack is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, which until November 2020 was led by John Lott. He wrote Why Meadow Died about the tragedy at the Parkland, Florida high school in which he lost his daughter.