September 27, 1999
Volume 52, No. 6
More Guns, Less Crime? Hashem Dezhbakhsh disagrees
The gun debate in the United States has intensified as shooting and killing rampages have become an everyday American spectacle, and both sides of this acrimonious debate have recently scored some points.
Gun-control advocates cheered when the Brady Bill became law. They are now pressuring Congress to legislate new restrictions on firearm sales and mandate background checks at gun shows. Escalating the battle, these activists have also targeted the gun manufacturers through a series of lawsuits, much the same way that the tobacco industry was challenged by smoking foes.
The pro-gun side has enjoyed its own victory, celebrating the adoption of right-to-carry concealed handgun laws by more than 30 states, including Georgia. These laws allow concealed handgun permits for any adult applicant except convicted criminals and the mentally ill. Pro-gun groups argue that concealed handguns have a deterrent effect, as criminals fearing an armed response are less likely to commit crimes.
Gun-control advocates, on the other hand, have long maintained that gun availability facilitates crime by increasing criminals' access to firearms. Accidental shooting and juvenile abuse of guns are among other reasons, they offer, for tightening gun laws. The gun-control campaign has benefited from evidence supporting some of these arguments and the public outrage over violence.
Recent mass shootings seem to have hurt the pro-gun agenda. The gun lobby has a rather defensive role at the federal level, attempting to stop or at least soften new gun-control initiatives. At the state level, however, it is on the offensive: More than a dozen states have adopted concealed handgun laws since 1992, and four states, including Georgia, have banned cities from suing gun manufacturers. This disparity reflects cross-state variations in attitude toward gun ownership and perhaps a higher marginal efficiency of lobbying dollars at the state level. Both encourage the gun lobby to target specific states.
Until recently, pro-gun groups have used the Second Amendment and anecdotal evidence on the ineffectiveness of gun control laws to advance their cause. The costs of a gun control legislation, they contend, are the individual liberties it sacrifices, but the benefits are doubtful and perhaps none. Recent work by economist and legal scholar John Lott has offered these groups an offensive tool, offsetting the setbacks caused by the public outrage over crime.
Lott's empirical results suggest that states which allow citizens to carry concealed firearms experience a reduction in crime. His highly publicized finding is the first non-anecdotal evidence that uses comprehensive data-covering 3,000 counties over 10 years-to link a permissive gun measure to the reduction in crime. His 1998 book, More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws, and his 1997 article in the Journal of Legal Studies extrapolate the concealed handgun finding to prescribe a civilian arms race to battle crime. Lott's work has offered ammunition against gun control laws and evidence to promote right-to-carry-gun state legislation.
Lott's finding has been promoted by program groups as scientific evidence that links gun availability to reduced crime. The finding has also been discussed on a wide range of media outlets, from radio and TV talk shows, to CNN and CSPAN, from Time to George magazines, and in most major newspapers. One reason for the media response is the finding runs counter to conventional wisdom. Scholars, however, have pointed out several technical flaws in Lott's work, but these criticisms, appearing as academic squabble to nonexperts, have not received much publicity. Lott's questionable work, meanwhile, is changing the pro-gun position from "more guns does not lead to more crime" to "more guns leads to less crime."
Evidence against Lott's work, however, continues to grow. My work with Emory economist Paul Rubin-described in "Lives Saved or Lives Lost: The Effect of Concealed Handgun Laws on Crime," published in American Economic Review in 1998-criticizes Lott on simple but fundamental grounds. We show that Lott's work is erroneous not only in theory but also in its arithmetic.
Lott's finding relies on the assumption that the effect of permissive handgun laws on crime is identical across all counties and independent of any county characteristics. This assumption is flatly contradicted by conventional wisdom. Such laws would not have the same effect in crime-ridden urban areas as they would in remote rural counties or affluent suburbs. Some of Lott's results also assume that the number of arrests made by police does not depend on the number of crimes committed! So rural counties with very few crimes may presumably have more police arrests than urban counties with very large crime rates.
Moreover, Lott's central results are invalid because of errors in computing expected arrest rates: he obtains mostly negative numbers for arrests. For example, more than 19,000 of approximately 33,000 county-level auto theft arrests are "negative"; the number of negative arrest rates for aggravated assault and property crimes are, respectively, 9,900 and 13,500. What does a negative arrest rate mean? Obviously, the number of individuals arrested for crimes can only be zero or positive.
Once we correct for these errors, the more-guns-less-crime claim disintegrates. In fact, we show not only that Lott's strong crime-reducing effect does not materialize, but also that concealed handguns lead to a higher robbery rate.
The peer examination process usually exposes flawed research quickly. The ideologically intoxicating finding of Lott-advocating a governmental hands-off policy-seems to have impaired this healthy process. Endorsing Lott's book, the arch-conservative Milton Friedman of the Hoover Institute exults, "Lott has done us a service by his thorough, thoughtful, scholarly approach to a highly controversial issue." Friedman, obviously, is prepared to overlook all the documented inadequacies in Lott's work to embrace his claim.
The academic survival of a flawed study may not be of much consequence. But, unfortunately, the ill-effects of a bad policy, influenced by flawed research, may hurt generations. It would be tragic for lawmakers to base any gun laws on Professor Lott's More Guns, Less Crime claim.
Hashem Dezhbakhsh is interim co-chair and director of undergraduate
studies for the economics department.