The Bellesiles of the Right?
Another firearms scholar whose dog ate his data.
What is it about statistics and guns? Last year, Michael Bellesiles, a historian at Emory College, came under criticism for his Bancroft Prize-winning book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, which argued that gun ownership was far less common during the 18th and 19th century than is generally supposed. His analysis, which was obviously pleasing to proponents of gun control, was drawn from probate records. But Bellesiles was unable to produce all of his data, owing, he said, to a flood in his office. After a committee of three scholars examined Bellesiles' research, they concluded that "his scholarly integrity is seriously in question." Bellesiles resigned from Emory in disgrace.
Now one of Bellesiles' principal critics, a Northwestern law professor named James Lindgren, has turned his skeptical attention to a scholar who is Bellesiles' ideological opposite: John R. Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime. Once again, the issue is the disappearance of supporting data.
Lott's More Guns, Less Crime is the bible of the national movement to persuade state legislatures to pass so-called "concealed carry" laws, which permit citizens to carry concealed firearms. The book's thesis is that populations with greater access to firearms are better able to deter crime. Some scholars have quarreled with Lott's interpretation, but this controversy is about underlying data. Lindgren and others want to know where Lott got the evidence to support the following sentence, which appears on Page 3 of Lott's book: "98 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack."
Initially, Lott sourced the 98 percent figure to "national surveys." That's how the first edition of More Guns, Less Crime put it. In an August 1998 op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, Lott appeared to cite three specific surveys:
Polls by the Los Angeles Times, Gallup and Peter Hart Research Associates show that there are at least 760,000, and possibly as many as 3.6 million, defensive uses of guns per year. In 98percent of the cases, such polls show, people simply brandish the weapon to stop an attack.
But polls by the Los Angeles Times, Gallup, and Peter Hart show no such thing.
Alternatively, Lott would sometimes attribute the 98 percent figure to Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University. In a February 2000 op-ed for Colorado's Independence Institute, Lott wrote: "Kleck's study of defensive gun uses found that ninety-eight percent of the time simply brandishing the weapon is sufficient to stop an attack." But Kleck's research shows no such thing.
Eventually, Lott settled on yet another source for the 98 percent figure: "a national survey that I conducted," as Lott put it in a second edition of More Guns, Less Crime. When asked about the survey, Lott now says it was done by telephone in 1997 and that the data was lost a few months later in a computer crash.
Lott's conflicting explanations naturally attracted suspicion, first from Otis Dudley Duncan, a retired sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, who wrote an article on the matter for the Criminologist, and eventually from Lindgren, the Bellesiles gumshoe, who has been posting his findings online. (Chatterbox is indebted to Tim Lambert, a computer scientist and gun-control advocate at the University of New South Wales, for compiling various documents relating to the Lott case.) When Chatterbox asked Lott about the serial attributions to "national surveys," to three specific polls, and to Kleck, Lott conceded, "A lot of those discussions could have been written more clearly." He said that in the computer crash, he lost all his data for the book and had to reconstruct it, but that he couldn't reconstruct the survey. Lott has been able to produce witnesses who remember him talking about this obviously traumatic event soon after it occurred. But none of these people specifically remember him talking about losing data for a survey he'd conducted. Nor has Lott been able to produce the names of the college students he says conducted the phone surveys in Chicago, where Lott was teaching at the time. (Lott is now at Washington's American Enterprise Institute.)
The only compelling evidence that the 1997 survey ever took place is the testimony of David M. Gross, a Minnesotan who contacted Lott after the controversy spread to various Weblogs. (To date, the only mainstream news organization that's covered the data dispute is the Washington Times, whose Robert Stacy McCain had a piece about the Lott affair on Jan. 23. The Feb. 1 Washington Post examined a bizarre side issue, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.) Gross told Chatterbox, "I have come to the conclusion that I in fact did" participate in the study, "based on some of the details of my recollection." What Gross recalls is that in January 1999—a year before questions were first raised about Lott's data—he attended a talk Lott gave at the Minneapolis Athletic Club. (Gross can pinpoint the date, he says, because he bought a tape.) After Lott's remarks, Gross walked up to Lott and told him he'd figured out, while listening to Lott discuss the 1997 survey, that he, Gross, had participated in that survey. Both the timing and the content, as described by Lott, match what Gross remembers about the survey, which is the only gun poll he recalls ever participating in.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.