Skip to content

Gun Control Myths: How Politicians, The Media, and Botched “Studies” Have Twisted the Facts on Gun Control


Columbo’s catch phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am,” is strangely appropriate when it comes to understanding the facts around gun rights and gun control.  Gun Control Myths: How Politicians, The Media, and Botched “Studies” Have Twisted the Facts on Gun Control seeks to expose the facts or at least Lott’s perspectives on the facts.  He cites dozens of places where the media has made erroneous statements that the public presumably believes.

The Man

Before I can share Lott’s work, I need to acknowledge the controversy that surrounds him.  He’s a strong gun rights supporter.  That puts him in the crosshairs of people who believe that more gun control is a good thing.  Some of their criticisms are reasonable.  He is frustrated when other researchers refuse to share their data.  Lott has not shared much of the data from his first book, which he says is due to a hard drive crash.  He did, for some time, use a fake persona online – Mary Rosh – which he later admitted he should not have done.

Other than this reasonable criticism and reasonable response, , there’s a lot of attacks on John Lott that aren’t about his work but are instead about him as a person.  This instantly flags me that there are people who are threatened.  They’re resorting to logical fallacies to discredit him.  (See Mastering Logical Fallacies.)  Should we treat his research with skepticism?  Absolutely, the same skepticism as any other researcher.  Too many people have faked their data.  Too many people have hidden or partially hidden agendas.  At least with Lott, we’re relatively clear where he stands.

One point of contention about Lott is that he’s not associated with an academic institution.  My first response is “so what?”  Having contrary views in academia is hard.  Even established professors with tenure find it uncomfortable.  (See The Coddling of the American Mind for an example.)  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to choose that fight.  We know that the prevailing perspective in higher education is contrary to what Lott believes.  So why should he fight it from inside the system?  Again, challenge his work – and don’t get offended when he challenges yours.

In reviewing the research that backs the book – and more – I’ll say that there are times when I believe that Lott’s choices aren’t always fair.  However, on balance, I don’t think it’s intentional deceit.  I think it’s a perspective difference.  Donald Campbell in Guns in America uses some of Lott’s research and identifies when and how it differs from others.  In many cases, the differences seem reasonable.  I don’t think of gangs or home intrusions the same way I think of the mass murders that have befallen us over the years.  Separating the data makes sense.

Assault Rifles

Mass shootings are the thing that’s on everyone’s mind.  They’re concerning and tragic.  We want them to stop – all of us.  Here’s the problem: the ways we’re talking about doing it don’t make sense, and they don’t match the data.  Many politicians have declared war on assault rifles and don’t know enough about guns to realize when what they’re saying doesn’t make sense – and much of the public is taking their information from politicians and the media, so they’re similarly ill informed.

I’ve covered some bullet basics in a separate post to provide some context for the risk of the gun family – AR-15 – that’s been singled as an assault rifle.  I followed that up with a post on What is an Assault Rifle?  The short version is that the AR-15 isn’t responsible for many of the murders in the US – and it has substantially less power than many hunting rifles.  Any murder is too many – but even if we removed all of them from our streets, we wouldn’t make a big impact.

What makes this particularly impressive is that the AR-15 a very popular platform.  It represents many sales – and a tiny percentage of the murders.  As Jessica Rabbit said in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”  The appearance of the AR-15 is what makes it such a target for gun control advocates.

Which Yard Stick?

Whether the US has a larger or smaller problem with gun violence than most other countries depends a lot on what countries you’re comparing the US to.  Compare the rate to every country that reports numbers, and we’re less than the mean (average) and median.  Constrain the list to “developed” countries and the story is less compelling.  Brazil has a rate five times higher than the US – despite dramatically lower gun ownership.  Mexico is reported at six times the US rate of murders.

Of course, these numbers are a few years old now.  However, you can make pretty graphics that show how dramatically worse than other countries the US is – or how much better we are.  It all depends on which message you’re trying to sell.

But Gun Control Saves Lives

Some, absolutely.  Which gun control measures save lives is difficult to figure out.  It starts with the fact that the estimated number of firearms in the US is approaching one per person.  That doesn’t mean that everyone owns a firearm.  It means those who do tend to own more than one.  If we compare our murder rate with Chile or Estonia, we see that it is comparable, even though they have roughly 10% of the gun ownership as the US.

Even the National Institute of Justice estimates that a 1% increase in gun ownership reduces violent crime by 4.1%.  It’s a small sample and could easily be an artifact of sample bias – but the thing is that the effects can’t be large.  So undoubtedly there are things that we can do to reduce murders through laws, registrations, and regulations – but finding what those are isn’t easy.

It’s Got to Be High Capacity

Surely, banning high-capacity magazines has an impact, right?  Not really.  First, a review of the number of rounds fired with large capacity magazines is 71 compared to 65 with standard capacity magazines in mass-murder events.  The change is not zero but it’s around a 10% difference.  More challenging is that the 1994 federal ban on large capacity magazines didn’t seem to have any appreciable impact  on reducing gun violence.  We’ve tried it, and it didn’t work.  However, it’s a relatively constant source of conversation.

Admittedly, I don’t personally have a reason to need a high-capacity magazine, but I don’t see a ban on them as effective either.

Gun Free Zones on Target

Well, gun-free zones work, right?  No.  Have you ever seen the deer crossing signs?  Do you ever wonder how the deer read the signs to know where to cross?  Obviously, they don’t.  Instead, we tell drivers to be more cautious, because deer are known to cross in an area.  The thing is that a gun free zone doesn’t prevent a criminal from having a gun – it just prevents law abiding citizens from carrying one.  That means that the attacker knows the victims are unlikely to shoot back.  According to Lott, many mass murders have taken into consideration security and whether the people could be armed.

He points to the shooter in Aurora, CO as having selected the movie theatre for less security, and the shooter in Lafayette, LA selected not for the size nor proximity to his home but rather to being the closest to his home that prohibited patrons from arming themselves.

Armed Civilians

The natural argument about having armed civilians is that they’ll shoot other people, further increasing the harm – or that police will shoot the civilian attempting to stop the attack.  The problem is that, according to Lott’s research, this just doesn’t happen.  Instead, 94% of mass murders in the US took place where most people aren’t legally allowed to carry guns.

Psychiatric Evaluation

Psychiatry has a dirty little secret.  They’re not good at predicting who will commit murder or suicide.  (See Alternatives to Suicide.)  They simply can’t predict with high degrees of accuracy.  The arguments that people who are mass-murderers must be crazy is the same thinking that demonized people who die by suicide for centuries.  (See Why People Die by Suicide.)  The crazy thing is that Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the death of countless Jews in Nazi concentration camps, was certified as normal by six psychologists.  (See Trauma and Recovery, Moral Disengagement, and The Lucifer Effect for more.)  We intuitively know that this is wrong – but it simply proves the point that we can’t accept that psychiatry has it right all the time.

Sometimes we have to find the truth through the noise, even if that means that we expose Gun Control Myths.