June 6, 2023

The Curious Case of John Lott

The concern over guns is one of the most controversial political issues in the United States. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention almost 100 people are killed and 230 injured by means of a firearm in the U.S. every day. But despite these figures, within the political arena the pro-gun rhetoric continues to take center stage. And every state in the country now allows qualified individuals the right to carry concealed firearms.    

The Curious Case of John Lott

In 1998, economist John Lott published the book More Guns, Less Crime. It was one of the most comprehensive studies on right-to-carry laws and their effect on violent crime in the United States. His statistical analysis was met with both adulation and skepticism. Gun rights advocates latched on to the data giving them significant ammunition in the nation’s contentious gun debate. But many leading scholars, including those of the United States National Research Council, found that, while Lott’s models were “well designed” the evidence was too weak to draw any definitive conclusions. Despite this less than stellar review Lott’s book took on a form of empirical evidence and played a vital role in launching the conservative talking point, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” into the mainstream political discourse.

In 2003, the John Lott story added a brand-new chapter and provided a colorful twist to the narrative. A former student named Mary Rosh began to make waves in online communities as one of Lott’s fiercest advocates. With Lott facing a swell of criticism regarding his work, Rosh took on the role of devoted supporter.  She heaped massive praise upon her former mentor often referring to him as the best professor she ever had. She touted his fairness and willingness to embrace different points of views. According to Rosh, “Lott finally had to tell us that it was best for us to try and take classes from other professors…to be exposed to other ways of teaching graduate material.” However, as it turns out, Mary Rosh was none other than John Lott himself. This only fueled more skepticism into his research. 

One would think that after being exposed for perpetrating this fraud, John Lott would refrain from this type of conduct in the future. However, in 2014, a letter titled Dear Dartmouth, I Am One of Your Students, I Am Being Stalked, Please Let Me Carry a Gun to Protect Myself went viral. The letter, supposedly written by Dartmouth University student Taylor Woolrich, detailed her struggles of living in constant fear of a stalker. “Every day I live with these questions: What if today is the day that my stalker posts bail? What if today is the day that he discovers my parents’ new address? What if I go to a lecture on campus and he shows up there?” Her story described a nightmarish reality and illustrated the vulnerability of not being able to protect oneself.  But with the letter spreading like wildfire across the internet the truth soon came out.  The letter was actually penned by John Lott.   

Since 1998, John Lott and his research have been widely discredited. Despite this, his work is still quoted by politicians and he is a contributor on Fox News, where he is given the tag line “leading expert on guns.”  In addition, new research has emerged that not only repudiates his book but shows a direct correlation between right to carry laws and an increase in violent crime. According to a 2014 study by Stanford Law School Professor John Donohue, “States that adopted right-to-carry laws have experienced a 13 to 15 percent increase in violent crime in the 10 years after enacting those laws.” Other research has dug even deeper and found a correlation between lead and crime. A study by US Department of Housing and Urban Development Consultant Phil Nevin, found that “1941–1975 gasoline lead use explained 90% of the 1964–1998 variation in USA violent crime.” As more and more research is compiled, more and more answers will be found, but the question remains: will the new data reshape ideology or will ideologies reshape the new data?