Bellesiles of the right?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Feb. 3 2003 7:19 PM

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.

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.]

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