Gross recited his story to Chatterbox with a precision that seemed to reflect both his natural temperament and his professional training as a lawyer. It didn't sound as though Gross could be getting this wrong. But, as the bloggers Atrios and Mark Kleiman have noted, Gross is a pro-gun activist—indeed, a former national board member of the National Rifle Association. Gross was also the founding director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, and as an attorney he now represents that group in a legal challenge stemming from its appropriation of the name, Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, which previously belonged to a gun-control group that carelessly let lapse its registration with the Minnesota secretary of state. It's odd (though not impossible) that such a bare-knuckled advocate would turn up in a randomly generated survey.
Even if the survey did take place, why should we believe the stated finding? Lott says he repeated the 1997 survey last year. He can't reveal the results, he says, because the publisher of his next book won't let him. But he has shown the results to Daniel Polsby, a law professor at George Mason. Polsby reports that while he won't endorse the methodology—"I have questions about it"—the results were "approximately the same." (This time the percentage was slightly lower than 98 percent—by how much, Polsby won't say.) "John is a very intense man, he rubs a lot of people the wrong way," Polsby told Chatterbox. But "faking something like this would not be John's style."
One type of faking that apparently is Lott's style is the assumption of a fictional identity on the Internet. (This is the piece of the story that the Washington Post's Richard Morin zeroed in on.) Lott has posted Web comments defending his work using a "sock puppet" named Mary Rosh. He was busted by Julian Sanchez, a blogger who works at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. One posting that Lott has admitted to posting read as follows:
I had [Lott] for a PhD level empirical methods class when he taught at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania back in the early 1990s, well before he gained national attention, and I have to say that he was the best professor that I ever had. You wouldn't know that he was a 'right-wing' ideologue from the class. ... There were a group of us students who would try to take any class that he taught. Lott finally had to tell us that it was best for us to try and take classes from other professors more to be exposed to other ways of teaching graduate material.
Mary Rosh also gave More Guns, Less Crime a rave review on Amazon.com:
Lott writes very well. He explains things in an understandable commonsense way. I have loaned out my copy a dozen times and while it may have taken some effort to get people started on the book, once they read it no one was disappointed. If you want an emotional book, this is not the book for you.
Lott says he didn't post the Amazon review; his 16-year-old son did. The "Mary Rosh" e-mail address belongs to his four sons, Lott told Chatterbox—it's derived from their first names—and Lott has used it now and then so that, if he fails to answer a response, it won't be interpreted as "me conceding things." Lott now says the deception was "wrong."
We know Lott invented an online persona. Did he invent the 98 percent figure? Did he invent the survey it purportedly came from? We don't know. "People who are on the gun-control side of the debate," says Polsby, "are hurting on account of Bellesiles. And they want a scalp. John, for one reason or another, is a beautiful scalp to get. For one thing, he's not a terribly good witness on his own behalf." Is Lott the Bellesiles of the right? Chatterbox is not yet prepared to say.
[Clarification, Feb. 5: In the Minneapolis lecture that Gross attended, Lott recited the "98 percent" statistic, but did not specifically attribute it to a study that he himself had conducted. Gross simply deduced that he, Gross, had participated in whatever study produced the 98 percent figure. Also, although the anti-gun-control group, Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, is part of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, MGOCRA is not technically a party to the lawsuit about whether CSM can keep its name.]