(courtesy The Truth About Guns)

TTAG reader Bryan Peters [not shown] writes:

Back in the 90s, when everyone else was out participating in the greatest job market in history, I figured it would be a good idea to go to grad school to learn economics. While I was there, the department invited John Lott to present a working paper he and David Mustard authored, entitled, “Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns.” This was the paper that changed the academic discussion about the effect on crime of firearms held and used by the general public. Lott and Mustard found that . . .

concealed carry decreased violent crime and did not increase accidental deaths, a result that proved to be extremely controversial for, well, ever since. In general, some papers have found results that confirm the hypothesis, while others don’t find evidence of either harm or benefit from the laws.

In one amusing side note (if you’re in to extremely snarky and personal academic disputes), one of the people who attacked Lott’s hypothesis was Steven Levitt, who famously advanced his own crime reduction hypothesis: legalized abortion was pre-emptively killing future criminals.

That Levitt’s study suffered from serious issues of data and methodology made those fights all the more interesting. Levitt defended his results, of course, and counter-attacked, only to be counter-counter-attacked by Lott, etc. And so it goes: academic work is not at all less political and polarized than the rest of our country.

But this is a little story of the origins of this debate and how that debate was settled…partly settled, anyway.

When the Economics Department invited Lott to discuss his paper, they also hosted a roundtable discussion with the Sociology Department. Now, that was fun. The discussion with just the economists was all, “Did you control for the simultaneous heteroskedastic moments of the….zzzzzz,” and detailed discussions of the modeling process. Boring science stuff.

As readers may know, the core of Lott and Mustard’s argument was that concealed carry, by raising the average cost of predation (getting shot being a very high cost of doing business) might reduce the overall level of risk for the public, whether any particular person was carrying or not. And the numbers that Lott and Mustard got supported the idea: higher likelihood of potential victims carrying a gun reduces the number of crimes against all potential victims.

Pretty straightforward economic analysis, really: when the cost something goes up (in this case, crime), you get less of it.

But the discussion with the sociologists wasn’t like that boring science stuff at all. In response to Lott and Mustard’s empirical paper, the sociologist responded with – I am not making this up – a hypothetical story about a mugging that might go wrong because the mugger would decide to shoot you when you reach to give him your wallet, thinking you were instead reaching for your concealed weapon.

And that was the state of the debate in the late 90s. In fact, much of the academic work preceding Lott and Mustard on gun control, and concealed carry in particular, was simply comparisons of average crime rates across different locales.

Those papers wouldn’t even attempt to control for any of the many other factors that might be expected to be related to varying crime rates. Factors like he probability of arrest and conviction, incomes, the length of sentences, or anything else. In short, most of the prior work was really awful science, and when Lott and Mustard began looking at the question with the tools available to economists, it was a genuinely new analysis.

And against this, the sociology department at a major university offered up a scary story about how a hypothetical somebody might hypothetically act. Awesome.

In the nearly 20 years since that happened, the academic work has advanced…not much at all. To be fair, there were a few pieces of analysis more along the lines of the techniques Lott and Mustard used and mostly published in economics journals. As you might expect, a furious responses and counter-responses lasted for a few years.

Since then, it appears that the science is divided into those studies that find increases in gun availability – especially concealed weapons – lead to lower (particularly violent) crime, and those studies finding no effect either way. It’s these latter studies that should clinch the political case for relaxed gun laws.

Here is why: to take a fairly typical “no-result” paper, when a study refutes the Lott hypothesis (which, simplified, is: more guns means less crime) it will tend to find that there is no effect on crime. It is very unusual to find any papers which find a result opposite of that hypothesis. That is, few studies find more guns mean more crime.

Think about what that means. Either:

More guns do not cause more crime, or else
More guns would cause more crime, except that potential victims have armed themselves, thus effectively deterring the crime.

Now, whichever of these is more likely (hint: it’s B), it should serve as the end of the so-called “reality-based” arguments against guns. There simply isn’t any reason to believe removing guns will reduce crime.

In the first case, guns are entirely neutral on crime (a point the anti-gun left will never admit, true or not) which means reducing guns is pointless.  On the other hand, if there is an equilibrium between criminals and non-criminals, then there is just as much justification in the data for increasing guns as there is for decreasing them.

In some ways, then, we are right back to the late 90s, despite all the academic work. The great majority of the analysis supports the idea that guns (at a minimum) don’t increase crime, and the anti-gun types are back to arguing with anecdotes and hypothetical stories. Only now, instead of stories about how a guy will shoot you because of concealed carry, we have stories about how some sort of magic law would prevent lunatics from killing their moms and stealing her guns.

Which brings us back to a discussion group the sociology guys ran after Lott’s talk back in the late 90s. One of the professors gathered some of the students afterward to interview them in a group setting about their views of guns after the presentation. For whatever reason, he asked me to attend, too.

In the group, I brought out the point that Lott’s argument was entirely empirical and that, therefore, the only valid responses would also have to be empirical; yet we spent time refuting them with made-up stories. It wasn’t what students at a university should be doing, I said.

“Why do you suppose the students were arguing against Lott’s paper, then?” the sociologist asked me.

“Because it means you’re pure.”

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61 Responses to The End of ‘Reality-Based’ Arguments Against Guns

  1. Why were the sociology students arguing against the paper?

    “Pure” = “Possibly because their advisors were anti gun and the students wanted to graduate”?

    I’m curious what the response was to the author’s “pure” comment.

    • The larger issue is that the general public doesn’t recognize junk science, and doesn’t immediately treat it as such. Sad that we apparently no longer teach statistical analysis in high school, or if we do, no one pays any attention.

      • Statistical analysis? Hell, they don’t even teach the scientific method anymore. It’s all feelz and intentions now a days.

        • The prevailing argument right now seems to be “how will the cops or the concealed carrier be able to recognize the good guy(s) from the bad guy(s). In a shooting event, if more people than just the shooter have a gun, it’ll obviously be bedlam with good guys shooting good guys and there will be more confusion and death.” This sentiment has been parroted like crazy in the last, what, 6 months or so. It’s entirely pervasive. People have glommed onto it like it’s gospel fact. Yet, like the author mentioned about the reaching-for-the-wallet thing, it’s just a made-up hypothetical that simply isn’t something that actually occurs.

        • It’s a damned if you do/don’t argument and the anti’s know it.

          For example, there were at least 3 concealed carriers at the Safeway in Tucson where Giffords was shot. All 3 kept their firearms holstered because:

          1) too many people in the way/no shot
          2) shooter tackled before he was in sight

          Most of us that argue in good faith would probably agree that they took the correct course of action given the circumstances. It squashes the anti’s argument that we don’t know nuthin’ about engaging an active shooter. So what is their response? “See! People with guns can’t stop a mass shooting!”

          So like I said, damned if you do/don’t.

        • Can’t remember when, but in the (much) earlier days of TTAG, there was a hypothetical that was essentially this – You’re in a restaurant, BG comes in, robs the register, is not a real threat and (maybe?) you had a bad shot anyway.

          Whatchagonnado?

          The majority were smart enough to summon the waiter to bring more water, as the cops were going to ask for a description. And kept their guns holstered the entire time.

        • Somebody made a comment about how law enforcement will be able to tell the difference between a good guy and a bad guy. Let’s not forget most self defense situations are over in a matter of seconds, hopefully in the favor of the good guys. The smart thing to do would be to put the gun down or reholster and call the police as quick as you can and completely compli when they arrive. I believe most of our law enforcement would be willing to die to protect citizens if the need should arrive, unfortunately when seconds count they are generally minutes away!

      • The doubly larger issue that general public doesn’t recognize science, instead, thinking that loudly spoken opinion from a public venue, is science.

    • I think it is supposed to illustrate that those students are untainted by the pro-gun argument and still keeping to the ideological demands of their side of the debate.

    • I believe it means the sociology prof was adherent to his or her article of faith regarding guns. Like a devout religious belief, there is only 1 answer. That one answer is “guns are bad and cause more crime”. Why? Because the feelings and belief says so. No amount of evidence, empirical or anecdotal can change that feeling or belief.

      • If that is the case, I believe the proper response would be Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

      • Even if they don’t cause more crime, they’re still bad and ought to be got rid of, and that’s all there is to it.

        • So do we continue to fight blind faith (and feelings and emotions, and social brownie points) with tools that have been debunked, discarded, disregarded and ignored?

        • How can they be bad when they have no ill effect on society overall?

          Since there is strong evidence that they are beneficial to society and that people do prevent their own demise with them, why do you want more people to die?

          Why do your want it to be easier for criminals to overpower good people?

    • Typically I find people only have opinions on topics that they do not understand. It’s easy to ignore facts and make up and opinion. Learning to understand something is hard. And takes more time then the 2 seconds allotted to a CNN headline, most people can’t be bothered to dig any deeper than that.

      • So a) you do not have an opinion on guns or b) you do not understand guns? I think your premise is flawed. I think people DO have opinions on things they understand, sometimes. But, all to often, people do not bother with the understanding part before picking the opinion part, and, worse, they do not update the opinion part if they ever do attain the understanding part.

  2. The correct answer would have been: “because most students are not capable of rational thought and live on emotions”. This is also why so many students are leftists and support all manner of idiotic causes. Mainly, they do so because they are young, have limited experience, and are responsible for no one, not even themselves.

    • “are responsible for no one, not even themselves.”

      I think that’s the most important part of it. Before I was a father I thought guns were cool but I wasn’t aggressively pro-2A. Now that I view firearms as one of many tools to be used to protect my family, but also myself (so I can provide for them) my perspective has changed.

  3. Lott’s work was condemned because he falsified data, ignored contradictory information, jumped to conclusions, and ignored other possible variables. It initially received one of the highest honors for historical research, so it is fairly hard to claim that the “establishment historians” simply attacked him because they were anti-gun.

    • Lott didn’t falsify data, he falsified an identity on a blog to defend his work because the blog wouldn’t allow him to refute the hit pieces being published against him. A stupid move to be sure, but his research and data still stand up and his data had repeatability by subsequent papers published by other academics.

    • In my experience all but a few historians are mathematical illiterates and would be incapable of refuting Lott’s work.

      If you don’t know what seemingly unrelated regression is and how it is used then you aren’t really part of the discussion.

      I have a Ph.D, in economics from one top rated Big 10 University and have taught at another. I have reviewed some of Lott’s work and it is solid.

    • “Lott’s work was condemned because he falsified data…”

      This is really getting freaking old. Every time Lott is mentioned, people get on TTAG with these claims, but they never provide evidence…not even a credible link we can follow. We ask them to provide their proof…nothing…absolutely nothing. Are these trolls, misinformed people, or do they have access to some secret information that no one else has? Who knows.

      • It works like this:

        Result of study is not what you want ideologically. No errors exist in the process, the math, or the resulting conclusions based on the data. Therefore, the data was obviously falsified.

    • “Lott’s work was condemned because he falsified data, ignored contradictory information, jumped to conclusions, and ignored other possible variables.”
      The specific accusations against John Lott run as follows:
      — In 1999-2001, John Lott used a false Internet identity (“Mary Rosh”) to favorably review some of his writings and argue against the claims of researchers who disputed his views. At the time, he believed that “sock puppet” identities were commonplace and no big deal. He has since acknowledged that this showed very poor judgment on his part.
      Interestingly, one of the people “Mary Rosh” criticized was later caught out operating a blog which falsely claimed to be Lott’s. The scammer was forced to take down his misleading blog.
      — In an interview conducted in 2003, Lott claimed that the major television networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) failed to report any instances of successful self-defense with a gun in 2001. This was later proven to be hyperbole: They had mentioned self-defense numbers at least four times over the course of the year. He later documented his claim in much more detail in his book, The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You’ve Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong.
      — In 1997, Lott reported conducting a survey, but could not produce his data. He claimed that his computer had crashed, causing him to lose the information. Lott’s critics claimed that he never actually conducted the initial survey. Subsequent surveys produced results similar to the first one.
      — Lott’s critics also argue that he manipulated data to support the research presented in More Guns, Less Crime. Lott released his raw data for others to analyze, something he would have been unlikely to do if he sought to pull a fast one. When reviewed by researchers without a political axe to grind, the errors in the data did not change the study’s conclusions.

      • “Lott’s critics also argue that he manipulated data to support the research presented in More Guns, Less Crime. Lott released his raw data for others to analyze, something he would have been unlikely to do if he sought to pull a fast one.”

        It should be noted that *not* releasing the data sets is a tactic used by the ‘Climate Change’ crowd, you know, the guys that claim man is causing Earth’s climate change.

        Their reason they give for not releasing the data is that only *they* are qualified to interpret the data that they say proves their case.

        Funny thing about that, in my education, ‘showing your work’ was required when presenting science data and expecting to be believed as *fact*…

    • How is this for some potential empirical evidence? Break into my home in the middle of the night and find out what happens.

  4. I try to follow papers published by Lott, Gleck, Kates, and Volokh. Anybody else have some names of academic researchers that produce journal-worthy papers?

    • Don’t forget Dr. David Hemenway. He and his associates can be counted on to crank out a couple of poorly-conceived anti-gun studies each year.

    • What are they going to do, pat down and wand everybody?
      Update: They are allowing CCW. Please stand down from alert level.

      • As part of the original story the Sherriff claimed they would wand everyone. Hopefully this is resolved now.

  5. “Steven Levitt, who famously advanced his own crime reduction hypothesis: legalized abortion was pre-emptively killing future criminals.”

    When I was in grad school for applied economics, one of my classmates did a paper on crime rates – abortion has a statistically significant effect on crime rates. So while Levitt’s reason isn’t the ONLY reason why crime has gone down, it is one of the reasons.

    • It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure that out.

      Here is the simple relationship:
      (1) The vast majority of violent crime happens in urban centers.
      (2) The vast majority of violent criminals live in urban centers.
      (3) The vast majority of violent criminals were born in urban centers.
      (4) The vast majority of violent criminals were born to unwed mothers.
      (5) Most abortions occur in urban centers.
      (6) Unwed mothers in urban centers frequently seek abortions.
      Thus, abortions would obviously reduce the number of violent criminals in urban centers and, since most crime is tied to urban centers, reduce the overall violent crime rate.

      • Obviously, but stating that without actual statistical models proving it will just results in screams of “RAYYYYYYYYYYYCIST!”.

    • Dr. Lott’s book _Freedomnomics_ is an interesting counterpoint to Levitt’s book _Freakonomics_. Where Levitt concluded that liberalized abortion laws had reduced crime, Dr. Lott raised the argument that easily-available abortion reduced the social costs of unprotected intercourse and sexual relations outside marriage. The social changes associated with this actually resulted in an overall increase in unplanned births, despite the increase in abortions. (Obviously other factors are also relevant, such as laws that financially penalize poor couples that marry and the increased availability of convenient birth control measures.)

      Dr. Lott discussed this on Fox News: http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/06/10/john-lott-big-picture-behind-abortion.html

  6. All the hypotheticals reminded me of this article I read about self defense. There were all kinds of options proposed, except a weapon yielding one.

    One poor soul mentioned this fact and was immediately attacked in the comments. The BG will take it. The BG will hurt you with it. You’ll hurt yourself. You’ll hurt someone else. And so on.

    Several people talked about MMA training and boxing, and such. But the idea of weapon seemed absurd to them.

    So, here’s the deal with that in my eyes. I took various forms for martial arts for years, and I would only consider myself an OK fighters. So, the idea that a few MMA classes here and there and you’re ready to drop anyone you meet seems absurd to me.

    I learned how be an OK shooter a hell of a lot faster than an OK fighter. And all this MMA stuff assumes a fair fight, which street fights are anything but fair.

    I say learn both, more power to you. But, all the hypotheticals with a weapon are just excuses to backup ideological beliefs. You can “what if” yourself out of anything, if you have a mind to it.

    • “Several people talked about MMA training and boxing, and such. But the idea of weapon seemed absurd to them.

      So, here’s the deal with that in my eyes. I took various forms for martial arts for years, and I would only consider myself an OK fighters. So, the idea that a few MMA classes here and there and you’re ready to drop anyone you meet seems absurd to me.

      I learned how be an OK shooter a hell of a lot faster than an OK fighter. And all this MMA stuff assumes a fair fight, which street fights are anything but fair.”

      Heh heh. Your story is like the one my father talked about. He was an officer during the Korean War. One of his duties was to supervise a Judo course; a sergeant did the actual instruction. At the end of the course the sergeant spoke to the graduates of the Judo class and said, “Well, you’ve now completed the class and know Judo. Here’s what you should do when you encounter the enemy; shoot ’em!

      If that doesn’t work, then use your bayonet!

      If that doesn’t work: run!

      If that doesn’t work: surrender!

      If that doesn’t work,” the sergeant paused and shrugged his shoulders, “well, you can TRY your Judo”.

  7. The “soft” sciences (Hard science and soft science are colloquial terms used to compare scientific fields on the basis of perceived methodological rigor, exactitude, and objectivity. Roughly speaking, the natural sciences are considered “hard”, whereas the social sciences are usually described as “soft”) are generally populated by those with soft heads, the not quite bright and the insane. Just my observation. As such, sociologists like psychologists and psychiatrists never get it right. They cannot think I a straight line, from point A the data to point be the conclusion. The insanity gets in the way.

    It has always been my experience that you cannot have a real discussion with the insane.

  8. Much of the public also doesn’t know what fields to look to for gun statistics. The media gives the impression that only the public health people are the ones to look to, hence the hand-wringing over the CDC having been banned from doing gun research, and they don’t mention at all how the reason for that was that the CDC had been caught red-handed engaging in politically-biased “research” that involved lying about the statistics in order to promote a political agenda. Also the claims and citing about the public health literature on the issue.

    There are no mentions about work done by economists or criminologists or how the public health profession showed itself to be ignorant during the 1990s about much of the work done on the subject by criminologists.

  9. “And so it goes: academic work is not at all less political and polarized than the rest of our country.”

    Most academic scientists are leftists. Therefore, when the chips are down, they are rationalists on any subject that touches on leftist ideology. On neutral issues, they are no more likely to ignore data or commit a logical falicy than the next person. In fact, they are often high-functioning empiricists. But that goes right out the window when politics is on the line (e.g., warmists).

    Social and behavioral scientists may be worse on average. In experimental psychology, for instance, there are certain things one simply cannot say if one wants to remain employed. Even with mountains of data to back it up. 2 + 2 = 5, and don’t you dare question it. People in the “hard” sciences are not at all immune to good old fashioned Orwellean doublethink in service to the Party, either.

    • I saw your 2 + 2 = 5 example a whole lot in history classes too. The saying about graduating from college dumber you were going in may be true, but the hidden solution to that is to read materials outside of class, especially works published before the Marxist takeover of higher education. I ripped through a hundred or so military history books for fun all through college, and they taught me more about world history than the propagandized lies pushed on us in class. Sources for just about any history curriculum are selected for the author’s progressive agenda across the board, regardless of the region studied. It’s an outright conspiracy.

      • It’s that way in public elementary and secondary schools, too. My solution has been to keep tabs on what my kids are being taught, and make sure they get the other side, too, at least at key points. I also taught them how to recognize flaws in logic. The first full realization of “my teacher is wrong!” is delightful to see and has a lasting effect.

        I wish I had read outside of class as you did. Took me a while to deprogram myself after college.

  10. I am in no way saying that i am against conceal carry. I am also in no way saying that the sociological scenario of shooting someone going for their wallet is a good one or not. But I do pose this:

    The deterrent effect of conceal carry may not be very effective on the criminal mind.

    I say this having family members who professionally dealt with criminals. One very illogical view point shared by criminals is “But I won’t get caught.” or ” ” Won’t happen to me.” In their mind, their bank heist, robbery or whatever will go flawless.

    Now, given that the criminals behave irrationally, I say all the better to be armed to defend yourself. But it may be plausible that you won’t deter their attack.

  11. The real question to ask concerning Lott’s work is how to stop the free rider problem of more guns =less crime. A few suggestions: tax antis, police pensions for ccw holders, free ammo for ccw holders, or national reciprocity as a thank you.

  12. Uh, there aren’t any “reality-based” arguments against guns.

    They never even existed to begin with. Ever.

  13. People are generally unscientific. Same with gun owners in many cases. Take “barrel break in” for example. Or following specific brands almost religiously. Society as a whole is kind of silly as well. Still paying lip service to superstition like religion.
    Opinions are not formed rationally but people adhere to whatever there group believes in. Then they yell like children when those deeply held beliefs are confirmed silly. Actually I read a report that stated that if someones pet idea was refuted they double down on it and believe it even more.
    I try to be rational about my beliefs but it is hard sometimes. Especially when so much hyperbole is mixed in with genuine facts.

  14. Pretty simple. Guns are inanimate objects. Objects can’t mind control you to do bad things (unless the object in question is a mind control device). They’re also not talismans created by the devil that instantly corrupt anyone who touches them.

    Therefore guns do not change the crime rate except for possibly reducing it through their use.

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