More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws by economics Professor John Lott is so important for responding to pro-gun-control news and statistics, we’re devoting a separate webpage to analyzing and summarizing it. It is a college-level textbook, and difficult even for some with a background in social research design and statistics. Professor Lott gives clear but technical descriptions of his research assumptions, methodologies, and findings. He also responds to critics of his economics-oriented approach. But we’re doing what we can to make it as accessible as possible for the everyday reader.
Since the mid-1990s, Professor Lott has been doing analysis on gun control issues and statistical research into what deters crime. His basic finding is reflected in the book’s title: To reduce crime, increase the number of guns among law-abiding citizens. His approach is based in social science research, not constitutional law and rights. Some gun rights opponents use research and statistics to try to make their case for gun control. So, it has turned out to be important to have research like Dr. Lott’s as a response.
With technical research like what Dr. Lott provides in More Guns, Less Crime, book reviews posted on Amazon can be a great source of insight into potential gaps or weaknesses of research, analysis, and/or interpretation. From a range of Amazon reviews of this book, it’s clear that many people find his research helpful in countering arguments for gun control.
In the book’s favor, Dr. Lott is careful to describe his research design and analysis methodologies. Also important is that, over three editions now, he has expanded his studies to an even larger set of national data, and repeated his studies and gotten very similar results. That helps show that his results have “validity,” meaning that if you repeat a study, you get similar results.
Also in his book’s favor, his findings have been in print for 15 years and apparently no empirical research studies have yet overturned his findings. (Dr. Lott doesn’t ignore or explain away any studies that seem to contradict his findings. Instead, he carefully critiques them and/or shows how their authors have misunderstood his research.)
All of this means it is difficult to critique Professor Lott’s methodology or findings. But that does not mean he is immune to all criticism, especially on approach and assumptions. For instance, his book doesn’t refer much to constitutional law, but that is mostly missing because it isn’t the design of this book. He isn’t using a legal/theoretical/moral-rights approach. His is a practical/empirical/common-sense approach.
Also, if his research seems solid and unassailable, critics can still legitimately object to his assumptions of a rational/economic model of behavior and deterrence. In a nutshell, the economic approach says if the “cost” or “risk” of a particular crime is too high, a criminal will find less costly or less risky ways to get or do what they want. So, we need to raise the risk/cost to criminals of committing crimes. So, the more guns that law-abiding citizens have, the higher the cost is to criminals, and thus the lower the violent crime rate – especially crimes committed with guns.
Dr. Lott’s rational economics make sense. But this may not be the complete explanation of crime and deterrence, as other governing dynamics might be at play. Are all human beings who would commit gun crimes driven to deterrence when the cost is too high because more law-abiding citizens have guns? That seems rational, but what if at least some people don’t function rationally? (We might think here of the movie A Beautiful Mind, where mathematician John Nash suggests that Adam Smith’s basic economic principle of “do what’s best for yourself, and all society benefits” has to be updated to reverse the focus to “do what is good for all, and that also benefits yourself.”) So, Dr. Lott’s approach may have flaws because it is only a partial perspective or system.
And from some Amazon reviews – especially the 1-star to 3-star reviews – it seems what is potentially missing in terms of his research assumptions and approach is a mental health perspective. People who are mentally and/or emotionally unstable may commit certain crimes, regardless of the risk involved. As Amazon reviewer J. Martin Hand states it: “Ultimately, Mr. Lott does not address the core issue which is mental health. Rational people don’t commit violent crimes. And un-rational people, by definition, don’t think rationally.”
We may not like these critiques and how they are used in the politics of gun control. But they are points that need to be answered because they haven’t gone away.
The University of Chicago Press website posted this interview article with Dr. Lott. It was done for the launch of the first edition of his book in 1998, but contains some insights into the background research for the book and how Dr. Lott responds to questions that are commonly asked over 15 years later.
Preface to the Third Edition (2010)
Preface to the Second Edition (2000)
Preface to the First Edition (1998)
One – Introduction
Two – How to Test the Effects of Gun Control
Three – Gun Ownership, Gun Laws, and the Data on Crime
Four – Concealed-Handgun Laws and Crime Rates: The Empirical Evidence
Five – The Victims and the Benefits from Protection
Six – What Determines Arrest Rates and the Passage of Concealed-Handgun Laws?
Seven – The Political and Academic Debate by 1998
Eight – Some Final Thoughts (1998)
Nine – Updating the Results in 2000
Ten – A Decade Later: Nine More Years of Data and Nine More States
As time allows, we will add pages with the following kinds of material from More Guns, Less Crime, using as non-technical of terms as we possibly can and defining technical terms clearly when we must use them.
Other pages in the section on Social and Statistic Research will examine various arguments or perspectives on relationships between guns and crime.