Responding to the Washington Post’s “More guns, less crime? Not exactly”

Sep 21, 2014 | Featured

Emily Badger had a post on concealed carry laws in the July 29th Washington Post claiming that concealed handgun laws have not reduced violent crime rates. Among the claims in the piece where:

“That sort of gets lost on people,” Webster says, “because the way this issue is portrayed is that we have one group of people — legal gun owners — and the assumption is that these are law-abiding, god-fearing, church-going people. They’re not to be feared. Then on the other side are all the career criminal folks, and that’s who we’re defending ourselves against.

“But the world doesn’t really look like that. The world is full of all kinds of gray areas.”

But nowhere in the Washington Post piece is there any reference to direct evidence that supports this claim. Consistently over time there have been many articles written about how incredibly law-abiding permit holders are.

On July 31st, four academics wrote a letter to the Washington Post to correct their claims.

Dear Letters Editor:
Extensive research demonstrates that more guns mean less crime. But Emily Badger’s article cherry picks just two discussions (“More guns, less crime? Not exactly,” 7/29). If she had looked at the literature, she would have discovered that about two-thirds of peer-reviewed research by economists and criminologists find that right-to-carry laws reduce violent crime. And no one finds higher murder, rape or robbery from concealed handgun laws.

One study she cites by John Donohue and his two research assistants claim that permitted concealed handguns increase aggravated assaults. But besides the fact that he has already acknowledged his paper accusing John Lott of circulating bad data made mistakes in estimating the results, there are three problems with his published empirical work.

First, significant data errors biased their results towards what they wanted to find. Among them, data for one county was accidentally repeated 73 times and some state laws changes were misidentified by up to a decade.

Second, the result was simply an artifact of fitting a straight line to data that followed a curved pattern.

Third, if Donohue is going to claim that permit holders are committing aggravated assaults, he needs to identify some cases. But a review of state permit revocation data shows permit holders lose their permits for any type of firearms related violation at hundredths or thousandths of one percentage point and virtually none involve violent crime.

Finally, in Badger’s reference to the 2005 Nation Research Council report, she fails to note that the panel couldn’t agree on any finding whatsoever, not just concealed carry. However, as James Q. Wilson pointed out, the Nation Research Council results consistently showed that right-to-carry laws reduced murder rates.
Professor Lloyd Cohen
School of Law
George Mason University
3301 Fairfax Dr. Arlington, VA 22201
[email protected]

John R. Lott, Jr.
Crime Prevention Research Center
5401 Duxford Pl
Burke, VA 22015

Crime Prevention Research Center

(484) 802-5373
[email protected]

Professor Carl Moody
Department of Economics
College of William & Mary
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
[email protected]

Professor David Mustard
Department of Economics
University of Georgia
310 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
[email protected]

Emily Badger sent an email back on August 7th and Dr. Lott responded (see words in bold italics), though Ms. Badger did not respond further.

Badger, Emily M <[email protected]> wrote (John Lott’s responses are in bold italic):

John — I really don’t think that the 2005 National Research Council report represents the “other side of this issue,” as it stems from neither an advocacy group nor agenda. You also don’t seem to be disputing my description of the findings that 17 of 18 panelists concluded that there was insufficient evidence to state a causal connection between shall-carry laws and violent crime. You have accused me of cherry-picking, and yet you seem to have done precisely that by citing the one expert among 18 who departed from the consensus of the NRC report.

What is meant by the term “the other side of this issue” is that the debate has been between those who claim that there is a benefit from right-to-carry laws and those who say that there is no effect. If you had looked into the literature, that was certainly the case at the time that the NRC report was done.

As to the issue of cherry-picking, in our short letter we surveyed the entire literature by economists and criminologists. We mentioned the NRC report, but noted what we thought was an undebatable fact: James Q. Wilson’s points were that the panel refused to come to any conclusion on any gun control issue and that the panel’s estimates for murder consistently found that right-to-carry laws reduced murder rates. Readers had seen your discussion of the NRC report. The four signers of this letter thought it would be useful for readers to see what Wilson’s response was.

I don’t know if you wrote this piece as an opinion piece or as a reporter. But even good opinion pieces at least acknowledge and respond to points from the other side. It is telling that you don’t let readers know that there are peer-reviewed academic responses since the publications you cite.

I don’t see there being “errors” in my description of the Aneja study, whose findings I simply quote verbatim from their paper. Perhaps you find an “error” in my statement that the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis has grown more powerful in policy circles as the evidence behind it has grown more suspect among researchers. Given that I have just quoted some critiques of it — and that, as you know, it has been the source of much debate for more than a decade now — I think that statement is quite fair.

The term “errors” that I mentioned in my personal email to you involve you failing to give readers a balanced overview of the debate. Unlike you, our letter tries to summarize the literature.

It seems that the errors you want to raise involve critiquing the methodology in other studies, which critiqued the methodology of yours. This is what I have learned from trying to understand crime trends as a journalist: Reported crime statistics are often unreliable. Analyses of them are extremely sensitive to decisions researchers make about time frames, geographies and assumptions. The decline in crime is not entirely understood even by people who have been studying it for years. And this has created a vacuum into which many have provided explanations (it’s broken windows! it’s compstat! it’s the rise of incarceration!) that suit their agendas.

If you are going to write a piece on two pieces that were published in 2005 and 2011, you might want to at least acknowledge that there has been significant published peer-reviewed academic work responding to the two publications that you cite. My presumption is that you just didn’t know about these responses. To me the lesson is a simple one: if you are going to write a critic of someone’s work, try discussing those critiques with the person who you are writing about.

And so I am skeptical of many claims about crime wielded with certainty in public policy debates, and I believe the literature justifies my skepticism here as well. If you would like to use the comment section below my post, or the letters page, to further litigate methodology in a long-running disagreement with John Donohue about how to test this hypothesis, you are welcome to do that. But I don’t believe I’ve erred in suggesting that the evidence that shall-carry laws lead to less violent crime is not as clear-cut as advocates of the idea claim.

Fine, be skeptical. That is exactly to be what reporters should do. But please be skeptical of both sides. Don’t selectively pick two publications out of all the work that has been done and ignore the research that has been after those papers were written.

I’m not sure who our letters contact is, but I’m cc’ing my editor, David Cho, above, who may be able to tell you.

Dear David: I hope that you will reconsider our letter to the editor.

Ms. Badger did not respond to this email.  Related pieces are here and here.

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