Gary Kleck and John Lott Offer Closing Thoughts in Dispute over Gun Research

Recently I conducted interviews with two prominent researchers, criminologist Gary Kleck and economist John Lott, each of whose work routinely is cited by people who advocate the right of civilians to own guns for self-defense.

Both scholars discuss a wide range of topics related to gun ownership and crime, and I found both interviews to be enormously insightful.

In part, the interviews evolved into a debate between Kleck and Lott regarding Lott’s work on the concealed carry of handguns. In brief, Lott argues that state laws liberalizing concealed carry increased that practice and decreased violent crime. The logic behind this claim is straightforward: When would-be criminals fear that their potential victims might be armed, they commit fewer crimes. But Kleck is not convinced that the laws resulted in more concealed carry or in less crime. Lott and Kleck also disagree about a number of other issues.

I did not initially envision these interviews as a debate, so I did not plan for how to wind the debate down. I asked Kleck for an interview as a follow-up to an article I wrote in reply to some of Michael Shermer’s claims in which I cite some of Kleck’s work, and my query about Lott’s work was only one question out of eleven. But then, having asked Kleck about Lott’s work, I figured I owed it to Lott to see if he wanted to reply. While I was at it, I asked Lott to comment on a number of other issues as well.

Wanting to bring the conversation to a close, I asked Kleck for his final remarks. Because those remarks are somewhat detailed, I asked Lott to issue his final reply. Both sets of remarks are presented below.

Readers should bear in mind two points: First, the two scholars agree on much more than may be immediately obvious by reading their remarks here, I think; and, second, the claims presented last should not be presumed to be true or beyond rebuttal elsewhere.

The discussion has shed light on a wide variety of issues surrounding guns and crime, it has helped frame the terms of the debate insofar as Kleck and Lott disagree, and it has offered many leads for those who wish to further explore possible effects of gun laws and gun possession on crime. I deeply appreciate the time that Kleck and Lott have given to help make their views and research more accessible to the general reader. —Ari Armstrong

Gary Kleck

John Lott can’t refute the evidence that right-to-carry laws did not increase either gun ownership or frequency of carrying, so he instead invents a distorted straw man version of my arguments.

He presents a fantasy version of the supposed contrast between sociologists or criminologists and economists, claiming that the former do not think criminals respond to increasing the costs of crimes, whereas economists wisely do.

In fact, criminologists subscribe to a more sophisticated version of Lott’s simple idea: They believe that criminals respond to their perceptions of the costs of crime, including the risks of legal punishment and the risks of confronting armed victims.

The idea that I deny the possibility of criminals being deterred from crime due to the fear of victims having guns is especially absurd in light of the fact that I introduced this possibility to the scholarly world in a series of articles in the 1980s, most prominently in Social Problems in 1988 (volume 35, number 1)—long before Lott had published a word on the topic. He has merely followed a well-grooved path laid down by me.

Lott’s version of economic theory is one that has been dead for decades, superceded by behavioral economics. This version of economics states that increases in the cost of a behavior, such as criminal behavior, does not have a simple easily predicted effect on that behavior, and that it is perceived costs that affect behavior, not necessarily actual costs.

One of Lott’s many errors is to blindly assume that higher actual costs of crime invariably result in higher perceived costs of crime—something we know is not true (Kleck et al., Criminology (2005) vol. 43, no. 3). Lott has never presented a single scrap of evidence that criminals’ perceived risks of confronting armed victims increased after right-to-carry laws were enacted—he simply assumed that it had happened.

In his efforts to distort my positions, Lott goes so far as to state a blatant falsehood: “Gary claims that while the number of concealed handgun permits has soared from 4.6 to 13 million over the period from 2007 to 2015, no more people are legally carrying guns than they did previously.”

This is pure invention—I never said or even implied any such thing. The number of people legally carrying obviously did increase, but that is irrelevant to how much risk criminals faced from armed victims. A victim with a gun and a carry permit is no more of a threat to a criminal that a victim with a gun and no permit. The number of prospective victims with permits simply has no bearing on the issue of deterrence; it is the number of prospective victims who carry guns, with or without permits, that could affect criminals.

Again, Lott’s error was in simplistically assuming that if more carry permits were issued, the total number of prospective crime victims who were carrying guns must have likewise increased. Lott has never presented a scrap of empirical evidence that the total frequency of gun carrying (with or without permits) among prospective crime victims increased after right-to-carry laws were enacted. Instead, he merely assumed that total carrying frequency (with or without permits) must have increased. Survey evidence on carry permit holders, however, indicates that they did not, on net, increase their frequency of carrying after getting permits. The carry permits merely legitimated the carrying they were already doing before getting permits. Lott ignores the empirical evidence and substitutes his preferred assumption about carry permit holders: “I have to believe that when they can’t legally carry they don’t carry.” The key word is “believe.” I prefer hard empirical evidence to beliefs and assumptions.

Lott tells another especially bizarre whopper about me: “Gary feels very strongly that gun ownership doesn’t make people safer.” This one is especially weird because I am usually attacked by pro-control people for my research showing the defensive gun use is both frequent and effective; i.e., having a gun does make crime victims safer (see the aforementioned Social Problems article; Kleck and DeLone1993, Journal of Quantitative Criminology vol. 9, no. 1; and Kleck and Tark 2004, Criminology vol. 42 no. 4). In contrast, Lott himself has contributed nothing to the empirical literature on whether defensive gun by crime victims affects their risk of injury. (Research on the impact of right-to-carry laws has no bearing on this topic.)

The rest of Lott’s comments are filled with misinformation that betrays an extraordinary ignorance of the research literature. He claims that “countries with the lowest gun ownership rates do tend to have higher homicide rates.” There is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support this claim, and Lott does not cite any. He tries to head off critics who would cite cross-sectional evidence that indicates he is wrong by assuming it is likely to be “misleading,” but withholds from readers the facts that (1) this is the only kind of evidence we have on the relationship between national gun ownership rates and national homicide rates, and (2) all of the evidence indicates either that national gun ownership rates have no net effect on national homicide rates (the position I endorse) or that they increase homicide rates (only poor quality studies support this position). None of the studies that actually measure gun ownership levels support Lott’s claims. His views are supported only by anecdotes about supposed increases in national gun levels that were assumed rather than empirically documented.

Finally, Lott claims that “the vast majority of” studies of the impact of right-to-carry laws indicate that they reduce crime. Unlike Lott, I do not believe that truth is determined by majority vote. It is not the most popular conclusion that is most likely to be correct; it is the one supported by the methodologically strongest research, no matter how numerous or rare the technically stronger studies may be. Lott’s primary research, and that of others who drew the same conclusions, relied on county crime data that were essentially worthless for tracking crime trends before and after right-to-carry laws were passed, because they did not correct for widespread failures of law enforcement agencies to report their crime data to the Uniform Crime Reporting program. The technically soundest studies that were not afflicted by this problem have found that right-to-carry laws have no net effect one way or the other on crime rates.

John Lott

Material from Gary Kleck is provided in block quotes.

John Lott can’t refute the evidence that right-to-carry laws did not increase either gun ownership or frequency of carrying, so he instead invents a distorted straw man version of my arguments. . . .

This is pure invention—I never said or even implied any such thing. The number of people legally carrying obviously did increase, but that is irrelevant to how much risk criminals faced from armed victims. A victim with a gun and a carry permit is no more of a threat to a criminal that a victim with a gun and no permit. The number of prospective victims with permits simply has no bearing on the issue of deterrence; it is the number of prospective victims who carry guns, with or without permits, that could affect criminals. . . .

Survey evidence on carry permit holders, however, indicates that they did not, on net, increase their frequency of carrying after getting permits. The carry permits merely legitimated the carrying they were already doing before getting permits. . . .

Relying on survey data always has its risks. There are good reasons to believe that surveys on general gun ownership by law-abiding citizens have problems. But the problem is particularly true if one is asking people to reveal information about unlawful activity, in this case carrying a gun without a concealed handgun permit.

Hard data doesn’t just consist of the soaring number of concealed handgun permits and that these permits holders are extremely law-abiding, indicating that they were unlikely to be carrying when they didn’t have a permit.

Take the number of firearms found in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints. At an annual rate, this year the US is on track to have 2,624 firearms found in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints, an 18.6 percent increase over the previous year. This is fairly close to the 15 percent increase in the number of concealed handgun permits, and that this doesn’t count that there are three more states that no longer require permits to carry concealed in their states.

From 2007 to 2015, the number of firearms in carry-on bags increased from 803 to about 2,624—a 227 percent increase. Meanwhile the number of concealed handgun permits increased from 4.6 to 12.8 million over that same time period—a 180% increase. But this increase ignores the fact that the number of states where you can carry a permitted concealed handgun any place in the state rose from three to eight. Again the change in firearms found in carry-on bags is very similar to the increase in concealed handgun permits.

In addition, while Gary doesn’t seem to believe that the changes in the percent of adults who are legally carrying deters criminals, there is considerable evidence that criminal behavior changes, with violent crime rates falling as the percentage of people with permits increases.

Finally, with the huge percentage increase in concealed handgun permits, it is hard to understand why all or even most of those individuals were previously carrying illegally. Concealed carry permit licenses clearly increased when Obama became president and when there are terrorist and mass public shooting attacks. But the question is why does Gary believe that people stop carrying illegally and get a permit just because Obama became president or there has been an attack.

Lott tells another especially bizarre whopper about me: “Gary feels very strongly that gun ownership doesn’t make people safer.” This one is especially weird because I am usually attacked by pro-control people for my research showing the defensive gun use is both frequent and effective. . . .

Take this quote from Gary’s initial interview with Ari: “across areas, there is no effect of gun ownership rates on crime rates, including homicide rates.” And in his last posting he makes the claim: “national gun ownership rates have no net effect on national homicide rates (the position I [Kleck] endorse).” But Gary has been making this claim even more broadly for some time.

Similarly, this past summer, Gary told Mother Jones magazine: “Do I know of anybody who specifically believe with more guns there are less crimes and they’re a credible criminologist? No.” Gary is saying clearly the debate isn’t just about whether guns are increasing. He is claiming that even if gun ownership is increasing, there won’t be reduced crime.

Everyone knows of Gary’s work on guns being used defensively, but there is a contradiction here. While Gary points to guns being used defensively and those defensive uses exceed the number of times guns are used in the commission of crime, he repeatedly says that increased gun ownership doesn’t reduce crime.

I don’t understand why Gary claims that more gun ownership doesn’t mean less crime, and I have asked him about this in multiple conversations, but whenever I have asked him to explain how these different claims could be reconciled he has declined to do so.

One of Lott’s many errors is to blindly assume that higher actual costs of crime invariably result in higher perceived costs of crime—something we know is not true. . . .. Lott has never presented a single scrap of evidence that criminals’ perceived risks of confronting armed victims increased after right-to-carry laws were enacted—he simply assumed that it had happened.

There is a large economics literature showing that higher arrest and conviction rates as well as punishment, such as the death penalty, deter criminals (a survey is provided in Chapter 4 in my book Freedomnomics).

As to evidence that armed victims deter criminals, there is a wide variety of evidence:

  • States that issue the most permits have the biggest drops in violent crime and as the percentage of the adult population with permits increases you see further drops in violent crime.
  • Concealed carry permits have different effects on different types of crime. For example, violent crimes fall relative to property crimes for the simple reason that violent crimes involve direct contact between the victim and the criminal where the presence of a concealed handgun might make a difference. Or mass public shootings fall relative to murder rates because the greater the probability that someone can defend themselves, the greater the drop in crime. When you are talking about a shooting in a public place where there a large number of adults, the probability that at least one adult out of many will be able to defend themselves is much greater than when you are dealing with a criminal attacking a lone victim.
  • If you look at adjacent counties on opposite sides of a state border, the county in the state adopting a right-to-carry law sees a drop in violent crime at the same time that the adjacent county across the state border in a state without a right-to-carry law sees and increase in violent crime. The increase in the neighboring county is about 20 percent of the size of the drop in the country with the law.

If Gary is correct that passage of right-to-carry laws have no impact on the number of people who carry, how can he explain all these different changes in crime rates? Why would crime rates change in these adjacent counties so differently? Why would violent crimes go down relative to property crimes? Or mass public shootings go down relative to other types of murders?

[Lott] claims that “countries with the lowest gun ownership rates do tend to have higher homicide rates.” There is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support this claim, and Lott does not cite any.

Well, if Gary wants some evidence on that score, he can look at some evidence available here.

[Lott] tries to head off critics who would cite cross-sectional evidence that indicates he is wrong by assuming it is likely to be “misleading,” but withholds from readers the facts that (1) this is the only kind of evidence we have on the relationship between national gun ownership rates and national homicide rates, and (2) all of the evidence indicates either that national gun ownership rates have no net effect on national homicide rates (the position I endorse) or that they increase homicide rates (only poor quality studies support this position).

Cross-sectional evidence is not particularly useful in accurately determining relationships, simply because purely cross-sectional doesn’t allow one to account for all the differences in crime rates across places. A detailed discussion is available here.

Take a simple example, many point out that compared to the US the UK has relatively low murder rates and very restrictive gun control. They then attribute the lower homicide rate in the UK due to its gun control regulations. But the problem is that the UK’s homicide rates went up by 50 percent for eight years after the handgun ban was imposed in January 1997, and it only stopped going up and started going down after a large 18 percent increase in police.

That said, despite Gary’s claim, cross-sectional data isn’t the only data that we have “on the relationship between national gun ownership rates and national homicide rates.” One very simple example is that every single place in the world that has banned guns has seen an increase in murder rates. It isn’t just places such as Washington, DC and Chicago that banned handguns and saw increases in murder rates. Gun control advocates claim that bans can’t work in those cities because criminals can still get guns in neighboring areas or states. While this explanation might explain why crime rates don’t fall as much as gun controllers predicted, this can’t explain why the murder rates soared. In addition, even when island nations have adopted gun bans, you see large increases in murder rates.

Thus Gary is incorrect on all these counts.

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