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The Bellesiles of the Right? Another Firearms Scholar (John Lott) Whose Dog Ate His Data
Slate ^ | 2/3/2003 | Timothy Noah

Posted on 02/04/2003 7:27:50 AM PST by choosetheright

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 98 percent 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, matched what Gross remembered 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

"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.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: banglist; bellesiles; firearm; gun; lott; nra
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1 posted on 02/04/2003 7:27:50 AM PST by choosetheright
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To: choosetheright
Even if he's on our side, dishonesty in his work is unacceptable. The deceptive posting was plain dishonest. It's one thing to use an anonymous alias to post here or to post on other discussion boards, but quite another thing to create false reviews or post self-promoting lies. The case for guns is strong enough that we don't need to embrace liars.
2 posted on 02/04/2003 7:40:27 AM PST by CatoRenasci (Ceterum Censeo Mesopotamia Esse Delendam)
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To: choosetheright
Nice try, Timmy.But, YOU LOSE..again. Why not show us just ONE city, town, etc. that has strict gun control where the crime rate is LOWER than those that DO NOT have strict gun control?

Why does Chicago, Washington DC and LA have the highest murder rates in the country, and also the strictest gun control, hmmm?

3 posted on 02/04/2003 7:42:16 AM PST by Puppage (You may disagree with what I have to say, but I will defend to your death my right to say it.)
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To: choosetheright
More horsesh!t trying to discredit Lott.

This was discussed previously, and at worst, one could conclude from Lott's data that in certain States and areas, CCW's had little or no effect upon the crime rate.

To insinuiate that he completely concocted data and is akin topeople such as Bellisiles is dishonest at best.

4 posted on 02/04/2003 7:45:49 AM PST by FreeTally (How did a fool and his money get together in the first place?)
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To: Puppage
Wonder how to find crime stats for Skokie, IL and Kennesaw, GA?

IIRC, when Skokie banned all guns, Kennesaw passed an ordinance that every household would not only have a gun but all members of the household would be required to know how to properly handle, maintain and use it.

5 posted on 02/04/2003 7:48:13 AM PST by N. Theknow
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To: CatoRenasci
Lott should reproduce his survey and letthe chips fall where they may.
6 posted on 02/04/2003 7:49:13 AM PST by ez ("If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning." - GWB)
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To: N. Theknow
Yep, and burglary & assault went WAY down in Kennesaw. However, the crime rate in surrounding towns exploded. Now, why do ya think that is? Could it be that the bad guys KNOW who may be armed & who isn't?
7 posted on 02/04/2003 7:52:46 AM PST by Puppage (You may disagree with what I have to say, but I will defend to your death my right to say it.)
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To: N. Theknow
Do you mean Morton Grove, IL? They banned handguns.
8 posted on 02/04/2003 7:52:52 AM PST by coloradan
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To: CatoRenasci
The most annoying aspect of this expose is that the 98% figure is incidental to Lott's work. The article makes it appear that Lott is lying about data that is fundamental to his conclusions by comparing him to Bellesiles, who invented virtually all of his data. Lott's contribution to the case for guns was to show that guns reduce crime by examining crime statistics for every county in the US over a substantial period of time. The writer never mentions that this is the core of Lott's research and that he has no difficulty supporting his conclusions.

It angers me that Lott would damage his reputation (and therefore his research) with something so trivial as lying about a survey that is not necessary for his core conclusions and posting fake reviews on his work.

9 posted on 02/04/2003 8:00:23 AM PST by Ronnie Radford
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To: CatoRenasci
Funny, I've had the study for YEARS now and the data is ALL in the back. Every stat, every chart, and EVERYTHING is cited from the FBI Uniform Crime Stats which is on the web. There is no missing data here.
10 posted on 02/04/2003 8:02:19 AM PST by LS
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To: choosetheright
By the way, notice that they go after the BOOK, but not the SEMINAL STUDY published by U. of Chicago that is the basis for the study, and which had EVERY SOURCE out there for years.

And having scanned Kleck's book, I could have sworn that in fact he said there, or in his ARTICLES (which these cheap-shot artists don't mention) that he had the 98% figure mentioned.

11 posted on 02/04/2003 8:04:58 AM PST by LS
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To: ez
It is "reproduced." Check his original paper at the U. of Chicago website. The book was mere fluff. They have NEVER discredited his paper.
12 posted on 02/04/2003 8:05:45 AM PST by LS
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To: Ronnie Radford; choosetheright; Washingtonian; *bang_list
For me, the most annoying aspect of this is that this phoney claim was made and debunked during the course of a couple of weeks early January, all on mail lists and the blogosphere.

Slate chose to run with a non-issue, just to smear professor Lott -- why? Well, it turns out that Lott has a new book scheduled for publication in March -- I wonder if there's any attempt among some 'objective' journalists to rain on that particular parade, hmm?

There's more on the genesis of this sorry mess here:

In particular, look at Washintonian's post at no. 22, giving Lott's response.
13 posted on 02/04/2003 8:11:27 AM PST by absalom01
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To: coloradan
Could be, but I thought Skokie banned all tyes of guns. Then again, I could just be having the onset of Somezeimer's Disease.
14 posted on 02/04/2003 8:12:57 AM PST by N. Theknow
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To: CatoRenasci
You are correct. Lott should know that in this day and age, false statements will be caught. However the article does not refute Lott's main contention that more guns results in less crime. I myself am skeptical of the three million plus claim. But even if it is much less, it still deters more crime than if there are no guns. The fact is that well-armed law-abiding Americans create a positive good and not by a small margin.
15 posted on 02/04/2003 8:13:50 AM PST by driftless ( For life-long happiness, learn how to play the accordion.)
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To: absalom01
Thanks for the additional info.
16 posted on 02/04/2003 8:17:35 AM PST by Ronnie Radford
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To: choosetheright
One thing I've leaned about anti-gunners over the years is that they lie --- deliberately and repeatedly. Their "facts" are often wrong or incomplete and they are masters at the splashy propaganda statement. I would characterize this piece as fitting nicely into the mold and won't believe a word of it without independent corroboration.

One thing is clear: the gun grabbers believe the Besiliedes fiasco hurt them badly...and they will do ANYTHING to try to regain the intiative.

17 posted on 02/04/2003 8:22:17 AM PST by sailor4321
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To: choosetheright
Picking at some peeling paint on Lott's "house" is nothing like the discovery that Bellesiles' "house" was built on quicksand without a foundation.
18 posted on 02/04/2003 8:22:50 AM PST by Atlas Sneezed
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To: Puppage
He spent months going after Jeb Bush about children services for not doing what Oreilly thought he should do


19 posted on 02/04/2003 8:27:50 AM PST by Puppage (You may disagree with what I have to say, but I will defend to your death my right to say it.)
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To: driftless
I myself am skeptical of the three million plus claim.

The three million number is getting close to 1% of the population. Look at it this way. I was in a store where the owners are armed. There's a shotgun sitting in the corner. How many times could have it been possible where a would-be robber changed his mind about robbing the place because that shotgun was in the corner. More than once a year?

I'm walking in a parking garage and there's a guy standing in the cold like he's waiting for someone. As I walk to my car, the guy starts eyeing me. I glance at the man and unzip my coat and suddenly the guy has other places to be. Did I branish a weapon? No. Did I just become a statistic of John Lott's? I'll leave that to you to decide.

20 posted on 02/04/2003 8:47:23 AM PST by Shooter 2.5
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