In recent years, gun companies have aggressively marketed semi-automatic AR-style rifles to civilians. Manufacturers now produce as many as two and a half million such firearms per year, and they routinely show up in the country’s deadliest and most horrifying acts of mass violence, such as the rampages that occurred, less than two weeks apart, in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, in May.
Last year, a federal court addressed the question of whether California could ban such guns. The state was one of eight, along with the District of Columbia, that had a prohibition in place. Multiple plaintiffs, including a handful of gun-rights groups, argued that the California statute was useless, relying on the statistical expertise of an economist named John R. Lott, Jr. Lott, who is sixty-four, with wispy gray hair, authoritatively delivers blizzards of empirical conclusions in an unthreatening Midwestern monotone. In a sworn statement to the court, Lott summarized his research on assault-weapon bans, writing that there is “no credible evidence” that such laws “have any meaningful effect of reducing gun homicides and no discernable crime-reduction impact.”
After a brief bench trial, the judge reached his decision in June, 2021. He overturned California’s ban, and quoted Lott’s assessment verbatim. Afterward, Lott published an op-ed in The Hill. The ruling “primarily concentrated on public safety,” he wrote, and “the judge relied on my research.”
For almost thirty years, Lott, who has a doctorate in economics from U.C.L.A., has provided the empirical backbone for the gun-rights movement. Virtually every statistical argument against regulation—made by lobbyists, Republican lawmakers, and National Rifle Association members alike—is based on his research, which reaches two conclusions: guns make Americans safer, and gun restrictions place them in danger. He stands against droves of distinguished academics who have determined that the opposite is true. But, in the scientific debate over firearms, no one has had greater influence.
Lott’s first and most famous book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” was published in 1998 by the University of Chicago Press, one of the country’s most prestigious academic publishers. The book has been republished multiple times, and offers one seemingly irrefutable statistic after another. It specifies that when states relaxed laws restricting the concealed carrying of handguns, counties saw a roughly eight-per-cent drop in murders, a five-per-cent reduction in rapes, and a seven-per-cent decrease in aggravated assaults. The text is the basis for arguments blaming “gun-free zones” for mass shootings, and the notion, popularized by the N.R.A., that only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun. “Overall,” Lott writes, “my conclusion is that criminals as a group tend to behave rationally—when crime becomes more difficult, less crime is committed.”
Eight books have followed “More Guns, Less Crime,” including “The War on Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies,” and “Gun Control Myths: How Politicians, the Media, and Botched ‘Studies’ Have Twisted the Facts on Gun Control.” Lott has also produced a steady stream of scholarly articles published in academic periodicals, along with op-eds that appear in regional newspapers and the Times and the Wall Street Journal. He has had appointments at Ivy League schools, and his work is touted by leading Republican politicians, including Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas. “What makes him so invaluable,” Cruz has written of Lott, “is his ability to go beyond philosophical arguments and to engage opponents of gun ownership on the facts.”
Lott’s findings and methods have generated scathing criticism from prominent academics, who have questioned his veracity and exposed flaws in his work. But the critiques have not diminished his stature. Instead, they have fed the conspiracy-oriented mentality of the gun-rights movement. In the eyes of its adherents, and in the messaging of the gun lobby and trade groups, attempts to discredit Lott are really attempts to suppress the truth. …
Without Lott, there would be no counter-narrative for those who have come to need one. Gun rights represent a way of life, an identity tied to ideas about individualism that, for many Americans, fill a void. Republicans like Cruz recognize the potency of the issue, and use it to mobilize voters, reinforcing the notion that they are protecting society by arming themselves—a noble calling. During the pandemic, Americans have bought more firearms than ever before, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun homicides have surpassed their previous all-time peak, reached in 1993. In Philadelphia, the number of permits issued rose from seventy-four hundred, in 2020, to fifty-two thousand, in 2021. Last year, there were five hundred and sixty-one murders in the city—the highest number ever recorded there. The violence has been normalized. In October, a fifteen-year-old boy shot to death four adults and a teen-ager in a middle-class neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina. The event hardly registered.