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More Guns, Less Crime?
A debate between John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, and Douglas Weil, research director of Handgun Control, Inc.

Transcript from July 1, 1998

Timehost: This week, TIME returned to a cover story topic it first looked at 30 years ago...Guns in America. Tonight we have with us a man who is the subject of one of the stories in the package -- John Lott of the University of Chicago, whose book More Guns, Less Crime argues that allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons actually lowers crime rates. We are also joined by someone who is in direct opposition to Mr. Lott's theory. He is Douglas Weil, director of research for Handgun Control, Inc. and the Center To Prevent Handgun Violence. Mr. Lott, perhaps you could first outline what your book has to say about concealed weapons. We've had a lot of questions about it already.

John Lott: I find that just as criminals can be deterred by higher arrest or conviction rates, they can also be deterred by the fact that would-be victims might be able to defend themselves with a gun. Criminals are less likely to commit a crime as the probability that a victim is going to be able to defend themselves increases.

Timehost: Mr. Weil, your response?

Douglas Weil First, there's no evidence that we have any significant increase in gun carrying, which means criminals are not likely to face an increased risk of an armed victim. Most important, when Lott's research was published, a number of academic researchers looked at this methods and his conclusions and determined his research was fundamentally flawed. The criticism was so convincing that even Gary Kleck, a criminologist whose work is often cited by John Lott and the NRA, has dismissed Lott's conclusions. Kleck wrote in his book, Targeting Guns, that "more likely the declines in crime coinciding with relaxation of carry laws were largely attributable to other factors not controlled for in the Lott Mustard analysis."

John Lott: First, there is a very close relationship between the number of permits issued in a state and the decline in violent crime rates. Those states that issue the most permits have had the largest drops in violent crime, and over time as more permits are issued there is a continued drop in violent crime. As to Mr. Weil's second point, I have provided my data to researchers at 36 different universities. I believe that the vast majority would support the findings that I have provided, but if Mr. Weil has specific criticisms, I would be happy to address them. This is by far the largest study that has been done on crime, and I have tried to control for as many variables as it has been possible to control for.

Alliezach_98 asks: Mr. Lott, If more guns bring less crime, how come virtually every other nation has less guns and less violent crime, and have taken steps to reduce guns?

Lott: In fact, there's no relationship internationally between gun ownership and murder rates. There are many countries with gun ownership rates similar to or higher than what we have in the US, and they have very low murder rates. The reverse is also true. There are many countries like Finland, Switzerland, and New Zealand that have virtually identical gun ownership rates to what we have in the US, and their murder rates are significantly lower than those of surrounding countries. Israel, with one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world, has a murder rate 40% below Canada's. In my book, I find that the states that have had the highest growth in gun ownership have in fact had the biggest drops in violent crime rates.

Douglas Weil: John said he found that states with the highest growth in gun ownership have the biggest drop in violent crime. John reached the conclusion using two voter exit polls in applying a made-up formula which concluded that the percentage of adults who own a firearm increased by 50% from 1988 to 1996. But we know that's wrong. According the General Social Survey, gun ownership has remained essentially unchanged since at least 1990. But the most important information is that the Voters News Service, which conducted the 1996 poll has said the poll cannot be used in the manner Dr. Lott used it. It cannot be used to say anything about gun ownership in any state, and it cannot be used to compare gun ownership to the earlier 1988 voter poll. I'd also like to respond to an earlier point. Earlier John said that he believes that other researchers would support his conclusions. Dan Black Dan Nagin are two researchers are two researchers he gave his data to. They concluded, after re-analyzing the data, that "it would be a mistake to formulate policy based on the findings of Dr. Lott's study." In the Journal of Legal Studies, January 1988, they used a well-known statistical test which proved that John failed to control for other factors that affect crime rates. Again, I repeat, the analysis was so convincing that Gary Kleck has dismissed Lott's findings.

John Lott: Mr. Weil is simply wrong about the polls. There has been a large increase in gun ownership in the last decade. This increase occurred especially around the introduction of the Brady Law in 1994. My empirical work accounts for differences in polling standards over time. And it tries to account for other changes that could affect changing crime rates over time. To get to his second point, the debate among economists using the data I've put together ranges from people who find very large drops in violent crime after concealed handgun laws are adopted, to those who find a small amount of evidence that crime has fallen slightly. The vast majority of studies support my findings. The Black and Nagin study that Mr. Weil refers to eliminated all counties with fewer than 100,000 people, 86% of all counties in the US. Even at that point they were only able to weaken my results when they also threw out the data from Florida from the sample. Mr. Weil says that I haven't accounted for factors that could affect the crime rate. If he could suggest what they are, I would be interested in hearing them.

Douglas Weil: As far as my misreading polls, let's cite the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology: "The facts of gun ownership by women are dramatically different from that described by pro-gun groups and the media. According to the best available data, the ownership of firearms among women is not increasing. The gender gap is not closing, and the level of ownership is much smaller than commonly stated." This is from analysis of the General Social Survey.

Timehost: We have two related questions for Mr. Weil now: We have a lot of questions, so it would be great if you can keep your answers a little shorter. Thanks.

Redcloak_98 asks: How does HCI explain Mexico's high violent crime rate and low gun ownership rate?

FireMedic291 asks: I have seen stupid acts of violence occur more with knives and impact weapons...than just with guns...criminals are criminals -- they will use whatever TOOLS they can find. Why not outlaw knives and baseball bats?

Douglas Weil: First, if I have a choice of being chased by someone with a baseball bat or someone with a gun, I would rather be chased by someone with a baseball bat. Now there is a growing body of scientific studies which show an association between gun ownership rates and murder and suicide, when you compare across countries. Most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the gun death rate for children in the United States was many times higher than the combined rate for 25 other high income countries. The difference: we have guns at much higher rates. What's important to know is that, while our rates of violence are not significantly different than many other countries, our death rate, our fatal violence rate, is much higher, and the reason is that we have far greater access to guns.

John Lott: Bad things obviously happen with guns. And guns make it easier for those things to happen, but guns also prevent bad things from happening, and make it easier for people to defend themselves. The ability to defend oneself with a gun is particularly important for those people who are relatively weak physically, such as women and the elderly. Women who behave passively when they are confronted by a criminal are 2.5 times more likely to be seriously injured than women who defend themselves with a gun. There's no evidence that murder rates are higher in those countries with higher levels of gun ownership. The only way that people have been able to show such relationships is to selectively pick just a few countries to make a comparison between. When one looks at all countries, there is in fact a negative relationship between suicide rates and gun ownership.

Timehost: These next two for Mr. Lott:

Robtboyd asks: Do you think children should be trained in school to use guns?

Dick_Brudzynski asks: ? for JL: Should teachers be equipped with guns so they can protect their students?

John Lott: I think that educating children about gun safety is very important, and would reduce accidental gun deaths. Accidental gun deaths are probably much smaller than most people would believe. In 1996, children ages 5 and under were involved in 30 accidental gun deaths. For ages 6-14, there were 170. If one compares that to other ways that children die accidentally, these numbers are relatively small. For ages 6-14, 950 children drowned in pools, and 15 times more children die in automobile accidents. With regard to teachers, I have four school age children, and I teach. And so I don't take my answer to this question very lightly. I think the 1995 law that banned guns within 1000 feet of a school was well-intentioned, but has had unintended consequences. Rather than making schools safe for children, these laws have made it relatively safer for bad people to threaten our children. I don't think that all or even a significant number of teachers or administrators need to be allowed to carry concealed handguns, but my research has indicated that allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns has a huge deterrent effect on multiple victim public shootings. Looking at multiple victim public shootings from 1977 through 1995 indicates that the passage of right-to-carry concealed handgun laws is associated with an 84% drop in the rate at which these multiple victim public shootings occur. To the extent that shootings still occur in those states with concealed handgun laws, they tend to overwhelmingly occur in those parts of the state where concealed handguns are not allowed. No other factors, like the death penalty, arrest rates for murder, waiting periods, or background checks have any affect on reducing these multiple victim shootings.

Douglas Weil: First, John's research has been dismissed by people on both sides of the gun issue, including Gary Kleck, and, the organization that produced the most recent poll that you used to determine more guns equals less crime, said that you misused the data. So, let's not pretend that your research shows anything about effects of allowing people to carry concealed handguns on mass shootings. Now, while Dr. Lott says that there are few accidental deaths by firearms among young children, what's clear is that they are both predictable and preventable. We know that as designed, virtually every handgun can be fired by children as young as three and four years of age. This is a design flaw in firearms and it is information available to the gun industry. There is no reason that guns should be designed so that children who are only three and four years old can fire them. Furthermore, we know that one third of gun owning parents keep their guns unlocked and half those parents keep their guns loaded. There is no reason for gun owners to keep their guns stored, loaded, unlocked and accessible to children. Lyn Bates, contributing editor to Women and Guns magazine, wrote that guns, kept for self-defense, should be kept in a locked box and that children should not be allowed to see the gun owner open the box. Dr. Lott refers to educating children. So does the NRA which touts its Eddie Eagle program. The problem with both Dr. Lott's and the NRA's position is that it puts the responsibility for gun safety on children and not on gun owners who keep their guns improperly stored and gun makers who continue to design guns that can be fired by any child as well as by any unauthorized user who steals the guns, which are not properly locked away.

Jemonaly asks: Mr. Weil: Why does HCI and other gun control groups seek to ban ownership of firearms (or seriously control it) rather than focusing on holding people accountable for their actions?

Douglas Weil: First, HCI and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence do not support a ban on the ownership of firearms, including handguns. We do seek reasonable gun laws. We know that limiting handgun purchases to one gun per month and requiring background checks on all handgun purchases has a significant impact on stopping illegal gun trafficking. I would like to know if John Lott supports limiting handgun purchases to something like one gun a month and supports mandatory background checks and waiting periods which have been shown to stop gun trafficking. Neither law impinges on an individual's privilege of owning a firearm or using that gun for self protection. Those are the types of laws supported by Handgun Control.

John Lott: Unfortunately, while laws such as the Brady Law are well intentioned, my book provides evidence that their effect is actually counter-productive. The waiting period portion of the Brady Law has no effect on murder rates or robbery rates but is actually associated with a few percent increase in rape and aggravated assault rates. There are a few cases, particularly for women, who have noticed that they may be being stalked, where the delay in obtaining a gun caused by the waiting period has serious consequences for their safety. My book provides the first systematic study that's been done on the Brady Law and state waiting periods. My research on background checks indicates that they have no effect in preventing criminals from obtaining guns. My concern with the many rules that Handgun Controls proposes is that they will significantly raise the price of guns, and hurt the ability of poor, law-abiding citizens to obtain guns to protect themselves. My research indicates that it is the poor who live in high crime, urban areas who benefit the most from increased gun ownership. In response to Mr. Weil's continued references to Gary Kleck, I would like to quote what Mr. Kleck actually says about my book: "John Lott has done the most extensive, thorough and sophisticated study we have on the effects of loosening gun control laws."

Timehost: All right, we're going to run a bit over here. We have one comment that I'd be interested in getting both your reactions to:

LUCKY77_ asks: I think that it is people that kill people and not guns.. if everybody was informed and taught about guns there would be less crime.. people also have less respect for life and it is in the people that lies the problem

Douglas Weil: First, John only partially quoted Gary Kleck from the back flap of John's book. Nowhere does Gary say that John has proved anything. And again, I refer you directly to page 372 of Gary Kleck's book, Targeting Guns. Second, since John's data does not cover the years following implementation of the Brady Act, it's hard to know how he can claim to have studied the impact of the Brady law on crime rates or criminal access to guns. We know from a study of data maintained by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms that implementation of the Brady Act cut gun trafficking from Ohio to Michigan. 66% of guns recovered in Michigan, bought before Brady and traced to other states by the police, were traced to Ohio. After Ohio started conducting background checks, the percentage fell by two-thirds to 22%.

Timehost: OK, let's get back to the comment already presented for a moment....The premise is that it's people that cause violence, not guns, and that the problem of our crime-ridden society lies in people, not the weapons they use. Your reactions?

Douglas Weil: As for the question, people kill people with guns. Some of those deaths are accident and suicides. And they can be prevented by designing guns that cannot be fired by children. Some of those killing occur when criminals use guns. We can reduce the demand for guns by criminals as evidenced in Boston, where law enforcement applied severe pressure to youth gangs. And we can reduce the supply of guns available to criminals with background checks, waiting periods, one gun a month laws, and by requiring that guns be stored in a locked box.

John Lott: Evidently, Mr. Weil has not read my book. The data that I study goes from the end of 1977 through the end of 1994, which thus includes the first year that the Brady Law was in effect. Mr. Weil cites recent federal government evidence of the effectiveness of the Brady Law. Unfortunately, in the last couple of weeks, serious questions have arisen concerning the Clinton Administration's biasing of data to show benefits from the Brady Law. Last week, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Justice Department's study overstated by more than 1300% the number of handgun sales that were blocked in Indiana. The numbers of for Arizona were also off by at least 30 percent. Similar misstatements of numbers have been found for many other states. In every case the numbers were biased to support the Clinton Administration's position on the Brady Law. With regard to the second point, reducing gun ownership by criminals would be great, unfortunately, the rules that groups such as Handgun Control propose have a greater impact on gun ownership by law abiding citizens. Rules that reduce gun ownership more by law abiding citizens increase violent crime rates.

Timehost: And with that, I'm afraid we'll have to end since we're out of time. Thanks to both of our guests for joining us. We've enjoyed having you.

Timehost: Any closing comments? Very brief, please....

John Lott: The question that I have tried to answer in my book is whether guns on net save lives or cost lives, and what impact guns have on the threats that people face every day from crimes like rape, robbery and aggravated assault. I find that police are extremely important in reducing crime rates, but police virtually always arrive on the crime scene after the crime has already been committed. The question is what is the best course of action for would be victims when they are confronted by a criminal. My research indicates that gun ownership is the most effective means for people to defend themselves, particularly for women and poor blacks who live in high crime urban areas.

Timehost: Thank you, Mr. Lott. Now, Mr. Weil:

Douglas Weil: Since August 1996 John's research has been harshly criticized by any number of academic researchers. Earlier this year, I joined Dr. Lott at the annual meeting of the American Economics Association in Chicago, and criticized John for his continued failure to address the many problems identified with his work. Now, without having made any significant changes to his work which would justify bringing his conclusions to a larger audience, Lott is restating his claims, in his book and on the op-ed pages of a number of nationally important newspapers. At some point it becomes irresponsible to continue to promote a study shown to have no credibility with those qualified to evaluate its scientific merit. It is a point that John passed some time ago. Finally, John, in his book and in the National Review, has accused gun control advocates including Handgun Control, of failing to address his study on the merits. He knows this is untrue. In August of 1996, he thanked me for comments on his paper that I made before he presented his findings at the Cato Institute. In December, Dr. Lott participated in a nationally televised symposium, sponsored by Handgun Control. John was allotted half the time available to all researchers to give him ample time to respond to his critics. It isn't often that an advocacy group pays to put its opponent on national TV. We did it. His study fails on the merits. Thank you for your time.

John Lott: Thank you, but let me just say that that is a misrepresentation of my research and of the discussions we have had.

Timehost: Thanks to both of our guests and good night. And a gigantic thank you to the audience for its terrific questions! We're very sorry that we didn't have the time to submit them all to our guests.

NOTE: We had unusual difficulty bringing this online debate to a close, but we hope that the arguments and discussion will continue with John Lott, Douglas Weil, and our online readers on our bulletin boards. To join the debate, go to our America Under the Gun board.

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