Liberal Academics Continue Assault on Pro-Gun Research

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - On May 28, Minnesota will become the 35th state in the nation to allow its citizens to carry concealed handguns. Legislation to make Missouri the 36th such state is on the governor's desk, with enough votes to override a threatened veto.

As these laws are being passed, a new book published by a liberal think tank in Washington attempts to discredit research showing that such "concealed carry laws" reduce violent crime.

A study by economist and University of Chicago professor John Lott and co-researcher David Mustard in 1997 examined crime data from all 3,054 counties in the U.S. for the period between 1977 and 1992 and compared those data to the enactment of concealed carry laws. Based on that research, the pair concluded that "allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes, without increasing accidental deaths."

Anti-gun researchers challenge pro-gun findings

But anti-gun researcher John Donohue of the Stanford University Law School has challenged the findings of Lott and Mustard in a chapter of the new book Evaluating Gun Policy published by the Brookings Institution.

"There seems to be almost no benefit from concealed handguns," Donohue told Monday - but he immediately retracted the claim.

"Actually, I can't say that. There may be some benefit, and there may be some costs, and they may offset each other," he said. "But the last argument I would give any credibility to is the idea that you would save lives by passing a law allowing people to carry concealed handguns. It just won't happen."

But Lott and Mustard concluded that, if states without concealed carry laws had adopted them in 1992, "approximately 1,500 murders would have been avoided yearly." They also predicted that 4,000 rapes, 11,000 robberies and 60,000 aggravated assaults would have been thwarted by armed civilians or criminals' fear of encountering armed civilians.

Their work evolved into Lott's book More Guns, Less Crime , which is frequently cited by supporters of concealed carry laws, along with studies by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck showing that guns are used to stop criminal assaults up to 2.5 million times a year.

Drawing on research conducted with Yale Law School's Ian Ayres, Donohue called Lott's findings "deeply flawed" and "misguided." But Lott told in a recent interview that he believes Donohue and Ayres made several errors in their research.

The pair examined monthly, rather than annual, crime data and operated under the assumption that - if passage of concealed carry laws truly reduced crime - there would be a "straight line drop" in crime rates from the date of enactment forward. When the crime rate dropped slower than this assumption predicted it should, Donohue and Ayres referred to the difference as an "increase" in crime.

"It's only when they use this kind of 'artificial specification' that simplifies this do they get a bad result," Lott explained. "A better way of doing it is by looking at the crime rates year by year, for one year after the law, two years, three years - and when you do that, even their own results get an immediate drop that continues to fall after that."

Donohue and Ayres also use varying definitions of "crime" in their analysis of Lott's research.

"Lott claimed that the 10 states that enacted shall-issue laws between 1985 and 1991 experienced declines in murder and other violent crimes relative to the crime trends observed in other states that did not pass shall-issue laws," Donohue wrote in a press release promoting the book. "In contrast, Donohue contends that the 13 states that enacted shall-issue laws after 1992 experienced relative increases in crime." [Emphases added.]

But Lott never argued that all crime was reduced by passage of concealed carry laws, only violent crime.

"That's the finding that people have seen all along," Lott told "You have some people who were engaging in robbery in order to get money previously and, when people are able to carry concealed handguns to protect themselves, you have some criminals [who] stop committing crimes, but some switch into other crimes."

Most often, Lott said, that switch is from robbery, where criminals come into direct contact with their victims and face a newfound risk of getting shot, to burglary and property theft "because it's relatively less risky."

Those crimes are possibly committed with greater frequency because they are also less lucrative than robbery, explaining the increase in overall crime committed while experiencing a decrease in violent crime.

"I think the thing to do is just put it in context of all the other people who have looked at [my work]," Lott said. "Nobody has found a bad effect except for this one section of [Donohue and Ayres'] paper, and even then, it's just a temporary one.

"Everybody, including this paper, finds that the crime rate falls the longer the laws are in effect," he continued. "I think that's pretty strong evidence."

Suicide with firearms as a measure of gun ownership

Ludwig and Cook admit that, "because the United States does not maintain a registry of guns in private hands and surveys do not provide data for each of the 50 states," it is difficult to compare gun ownership rates to the number of home invasion burglaries.

But the authors claim that "the percentage of suicides with guns has been shown to be a reliable proxy, outperforming such measures as the percentage of homicides committed with a gun, the prevalence of membership in the National Rifle Association or subscription rates to gun-oriented magazines."

Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, doubts that societal violence in general - and suicide in particular - can be reliably used as quantifiable evidence of gun ownership.

"Somehow, they're going to have to explain why - with virtually no civilian gun ownership in Japan - their suicide rate is not only higher than our murder rate," he said, "but it's [also] higher than our suicide rate and our murder rate combined.

"They've 'explained' nothing," he concluded.

Authors say burglars don't avoid armed homeowners

Anti-gun researchers Jens Ludwig, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University, and Philip Cook, professor of public policy at Duke University, co-edited Evaluating Gun Policy and wrote the chapter entitled "Do Guns Deter Burglars?" In it, they argue that burglars do not avoid armed homeowners.

"Increasing the prevalence of guns in a community may, if anything, slightly increase the chance of burglary victimization," they write, "and has no effect on hot burglaries."

A "hot burglary" is one in which the burglar or burglars enter the dwelling knowing in advance that it is occupied, also typically referred to as a "home invasion" burglary or robbery.

Ludwig and Cook dismiss comparisons between Great Britain and the U.S., even though hot burglaries are almost unheard of in the U.S. - except in jurisdictions with strict gun control laws - but make up nearly half of all burglaries in Great Britain.

"American and British households differ in a number of other ways beyond gun ownership that are likely to affect the cost-benefit calculus facing burglars," they write. "Home invasion burglars in Britain face a much more lenient prison sentence if caught, and households in Britain are less likely to have a dog or a man living in them."

Pratt called the claim "sexist" and questioned the logic of the argument.

"A burglar in this country is equally afraid of a woman until he's absolutely certain that she doesn't have a gun and, in this country, she might," Pratt argued. "It won't help him one bit if he breaks into a 'man-less' home if there's a woman with a [gun]."

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