February 25, 2003

Pro-gun primer questioned on possible falsification of statistics

As accusations of falsified data surfaced last fall and set the stage to discredit advocates of firearm restrictions, a new debacle has emerged with the potential to drag the gun-rights camp into the quagmire.

John Lott, a national champion for gun-rights and former professor in the Law School, faces critics who have reason to believe the data he collected for his seminal gun-rights book was falsified.

Lott claimed that his computer, containing more than 2,000 research interviews, was ruined when a bookcase smashed it, destroying the hard drive, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune.

With the research conducted during his stint at the University between 1995 to 1999, Lott is now actively searching for the former Chicago research assistants--he does not remember the names of those who helped here--to verify that the data was truthfully gathered.

The prospect of a possible falsification mirrors last fall's confrontation when gun-control advocate Michael Bellesiles was unable to document his research for Arming America.

The book argues that, contrary to popular belief, gun ownership during the United States' infancy was not already widespread but that firearm sales skyrocketed after the Civil War.

Bellesiles' inability to support claims made in his book--he said his yellow legal pad notebooks were destroyed in an office flood--along with his admission of factual errors led to his resignation from Emory University last fall.

"Ultimately I can only affirm what I have said repeatedly over the past two years: that I deeply regret the destruction of these notes and that I will do everything I can to recreate that material in hopes of providing something of value for scholars. I cannot imagine what else can reasonably be expected of me," Bellesiles told the Maroon in October.

Lott's book, More Guns Less Crime, is hailed by some as the "Bible" for "concealed carry" gun laws, arguing that states with the largest increases in gun sales witnessed the most dramatic decreases in violence.

"Criminals are deterred by higher penalties," Lott told the University in an interview shortly after the book's publication in 1998. "Just as higher arrest and conviction rates deter crime, so does the risk that someone committing a crime will confront someone able to defend him or herself."

With an advertisement in this month's Chicago alumni magazine, Lott said he came clean years ago--that he lost the data and has since replaced it.

"The controversy involves one number in one sentence on page three," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "Even for that one number, I redid the survey during 2002, and that data has been given out to any academics who have asked for it."

The sentence, which claims that "98 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack," was originally attributed by Lott to a Florida State University criminologist, Gary Kleck.

Lott later said that the statistic was documented in a national survey he conducted by telephone in 1997 and that the data was lost a few months later in a computer crash, according to a report on the Americans for Gun Safety Web site.

Another questionable statement came in a 1998 op-ed to the Chicago Tribune, where Lott referenced a fact from the Los Angeles Times, Gallup, and Peter Hart organizations. In the article, Lott wrote, "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."

According to the Americans for Gun Safety report, no polls from those organizations corroborated his statement.

Responding to the claim that he attributed the 98 percent number to the Los Angeles Times, Gallup, and Peter Hart organizations, Lott said: "Two sentences have been lumped together."

"The Los Angeles Times and Gallup were referenced in noting that a range of national surveys during the 1990s that found an average of 2 million defensive gun uses a year. The next sentence notes that 'such polls' (not 'these polls') have found the high rate of brandishing," he said in an e-mail interview. "It does not say that those were the same surveys. It was an op-ed with clear space limitations and one doesn't list out all the references."