Bad News for John Lott:

Back in 1997, John Lott wrote an article in the Journal of Legal Studies putting forward data that seemed to show that right-to-carry (gun) laws reduced violent crimes. That article, and the subsequent book “More Guns Less Crime” influenced me and many others — including state legislatures that passed right-to-carry laws based in significant part on the assertion that this would reduce crime. I don’t have any particular precommitments regarding guns (and I shot many a gun while hunting as a youth), so I am guided by the empirical evidence. If more guns produces net benefits to society, then let’s have more guns; if it doesn’t, then let’s not.

Anyway, Lott’s thesis has come under attack from a number of quarters. His bizarre behavior — like writing emails as “Mary Rosh,” a student who said “he was the best professor I ever had,” etc. — did not help his credibility, but it did not impugn his data. (He ultimately admitted he was Rosh.) His apparent fabrication of a study on which he relied was more serious, since it was part of his factual underpinnings, but the study was not central to his thesis. (By the way, co-blogger Jim Lindgren did excellent work ferreting out the details about the phantom survey.) The key question was, and is, whether his data are correct that right-to-carry laws reduce crime.

His core thesis, though, was called into doubt by a number of researchers, most prominently in a study (and reply, both complete with data sets) written by Ian Ayres and John Donohue, two top empirical economists. They concluded that the data did not support Lott’s assertions regarding right-to-carry laws and crime. Lott helped to write and then withdrew his name from a response to Ayres and Donohue. He responded in other venues to them, but did not respond to some of their key assertions.

Perhaps he was waiting/hoping for vindication from the closest thing to a gold standard in academic review — a report on the issue from the National Research Council. That report has been years in the making, and features some of the top researchers in the country. Well, the report has been issued, it contains bad news for Lott: It concludes that “There is no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime.” They discuss Lott’s research at some length and find it wanting. Note that they do not say that right-to-carry laws increase crime. That may be a silver lining for those opposed to gun control who believe that in the absence of evidence of a benefit states should allow people to carry guns, but it doesn’t help Lott very much: He staked his reputation on his claim that the data showed a decrease. So much for his reputation.

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