UPDATED: Letter in Scientific American and rebuttal by original author

Nov 10, 2017 | Featured

Scientific American recently ran a 6,000-word article claiming that more guns mean more crime by Melinda Wenner Moyer, who works for Michael Bloomberg’s The Trace.  Dr. John Lott wrote a letter responding to some of the many errors and the author wrote a response to his letter.  Here is Lott’s letter as well as the author’s responses and Lott’s responses to her.  Lott sent these responses to the editor and that exchange is also shown below.  The bottom line is that Scientific American is explaining why they didn’t think that it was necessary to discuss anything after Dr. Lott’s first edition of “More Guns, Less Crime” (1998) and thus why they didn’t feel that it was necessary to interview on the other side of the gun control debate.

The Objection

John R. Lott, Jr., PhD, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center in Swarthmore, Pa., writes:

Melinda Wenner Moyer’s article “Journey to Gunland” (October 2017) is very biased and ignores virtually all of the literature on right-to-carry laws and gun ownership since 1998. About two thirds of the peer-reviewed, published literature shows concealed carry laws help reduce crime. I even provided Moyer with those published papers, but she doesn’t provide a single reference to or quote from them. Moyer appears completely unaware any of my research after 1998, making no mention of the 2nd and 3rd editions of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2000, 2010).

Moyer cites the National Research Council (NRC), but fails to accurately describe its findings. The council was more supportive of right-to-carry laws than it was of any other gun law. As is typical of NRC reports, the 2005 “Firearms and Violence” by the council refrained from endorsing any of the over 100 different gun regulations it studied.

However, there was one unexpected dissent by preeminent criminologist James Q. Wilson. Dissents in NRC reports are extremely rare. In the 10 years prior to the NRC report there were only two dissents out of 236 reports. Wilson, who had always supported gun control, had been on four previous panels but never had written a dissent. Finally, however, he pointed out the NRC’s own regressions consistently show right-to-carry laws reduce murder rates.

Moyer quotes physician Garen Wintemute: “Few studies…suggest that liberalizing access to concealed firearms has, on balance, beneficial effects.” But Moyer ignores 24 peer-reviewed publications just showing that crime in the U.S. drops after people are allowed to carry concealed handguns.

She references a recent unpublished paper by John Donohue, Abhay Aneja and Kyle Weber, but, unlike other studies, they don’t measure the number of permits issued, account for any other gun-control laws or deal with well-known statistical errors (such as truncation problems from a lot of zero values in the crime rates). The study also relies almost exclusively on trends in Hawaii to predict violent crime rates in Idaho, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska and Utah.

Take one example of Moyer’s sloppiness or bias in her article. Moyer has a long discussion of Arthur Kellermann’s work on the risks of guns in the home, and notes that Kellermann studied “444 people who had been killed between 1987 and 1992 at home.” But Moyer fails to note that, in fact, in only eight of these 444 homicide cases was the murder weapon a gun that had been kept in the home (The New England Journal of Medicine, February 3, 1994, p. 368). If Moyer had even read the 1998 edition of More Guns, Less Crime, she would have learned this and that Kellermann’s work misses the even more important problem of not accounting for causality — that some people might own guns because they are already more endangered than someone who didn’t feel the need to own a gun to begin with.


Melinda Wenner Moyer responds:

John R. Lott, Jr., is wrong in his claims. He asserts “two thirds of the peer-reviewed, published literature shows that concealed carry laws help reduce crime.” This figure comes from a 2012 paper Lott himself wrote for the Maryland Law Review. In it he asserts that 18 peer-reviewed studies show right-to-carry laws reduce violent crime but only 11 suggest a different result.

But his two-thirds claim is false. Many of these 18 supposed pro-carry studies are off-topic. One is a paper by Lott on gun storage laws that has nothing to do with concealed carry. A second paper investigates how abortion relates to crime, a third concerns laws that prevent minors from owning guns—again, irrelevant to concealed carry. Lott also includes the second edition of his own book as one of these 18 peer-reviewed studies.

Moyer uses an older list from Dr. Lott’s 2012 paper in the University of Maryland Law Review, not the more complete list on our website that we provided to her.

Just because a paper is generally on safe storage laws or abortion doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also account for other factors.  Those papers also include a variable for right-to-carry laws.  Even though I provided her with links to actual copies of the papers, it appears that Moyer did nothing more than read the titles of the papers.

Dr. Lott’s paper on safe storage laws (see Table 3 on page 679) also discusses right-to-carry laws, waiting periods, and one-gun-a-month rules (and their adoption by neighboring states).  The paper is filled with results concerning right-to-carry laws.

The abortion paper does also deal with right-to-carry laws, see the bottom of Table 2 on page 14.

The next paper mentioned on preventing minors from owning gun also examines overall crime rates.  It finds (page 707, fn. 29), “A rough summary is that the shall-issue laws have little discernable impact except for reducing rape.”

In total, one third of his pro–concealed-carry citations refer to his own work. Not only does Lott inflate the number of studies that support his thesis, but he also completely omits many peer-reviewed studies that belong on the other side.

Yes, a number of the pro-carry papers are by Dr. Lott, but he was counting all peer-reviewed papers that examined US data.  And the three papers we’ve mentioned are all peer-reviewed.  Many of Lott’s papers were co-authored with others.

Lott is also wrong in his contention that I ignore 24 peer-reviewed publications “showing that crime in the U.S. drops after people are allowed to carry concealed handguns.” Included among these 24, which are listed on his Web site, are the irrelevant papers mentioned above, as well as other studies that do not show links between concealed carry policies and low crime. One of them, for example, is a paper on the relationship between crime and subscriptions to Handguns magazine.

None of the papers linked to on the CPRC are irrelevant.  All the papers linked to deal with right-to-carry laws.

As an example, there was indeed a link to a paper with Plassmann that discusses Handguns magazine, and that paper also deals with permitted concealed handgun laws.  Whether she didn’t read the paper or is pretending the paper did something different than it did, the paper does account for concealed handgun laws.

Lott’s inaccuracies certainly do not reflect the true weight of the evidence. My investigation involved far more than the impact of concealed-carry laws and ultimately concluded that more guns—period—are associated with more crime and violence.

Moyer doesn’t accurately describe the literature, and in any case she ignores all of the pro-carry papers by authors other than myself.  Nor does Moyer defend the Donohue, Aneja and Weber paper that she emphasized in her article, and that I critiqued.

Lott mistakenly states that I did not mention that one National Research Council committee member dissented from the committee’s conclusion that “it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates.” I did, in fact, state in my piece that the vote was not unanimous. And 14 of the 15 members did agree with the committee conclusion, a fact Lott ignores. Clearly an overwhelming consensus had been reached among the researchers.

Dr. Lott’s letter to the magazine read: “As is typical of NRC reports, the 2005 ‘Firearms and Violence’ report by the council concluded that there was no conclusive evidence for any of the over 100 different gun regulations that it studied.”  Scientific American changed the wording to “refrained from endorsing.”  But the key point is that the NRC reports come to the same non-conclusion about virtually everything that they study, including all the gun control laws.  The only real endorsement was the extremely rare dissent made by one council member in support of Dr. Lott’s work.  Thus his research had more support than any of the over 100 gun control regulations they studied.

Finally, Lott criticizes me for omitting a detail about the Kellerman study that he considers important—but it is not. The study found the odds of being murdered nearly tripled among those who kept guns at home. Lott says it is important that most of these homicides did not involve the resident’s gun. That is a straw man. The study was designed to assess the relationship between keeping a gun in the home and the risk of being murdered by any weapon. Murder victims are murder victims, regardless of weapon or means.

One would think that if increased gun ownership in the home was responsible for increased homicides of that home’s residents, you would want to mention that in only eight of the 444 homicide cases that were studied was the murder weapon a gun that had been kept in the home.  You are left with two options: either the homicides in the home are being committed by people from outside the home or by people in the home are using a non-gun weapon.

Does Moyer really want to argue that having a gun in the home increases the odds of a non-gun homicide?   What is the exact mechanism that she thinks exists here?  Kellermann’s paper concluded that “guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.”  So why does a gun mean that a family member or intimate acquaintance is more likely to kill someone in the home with a non-gun weapon?

In any case, others accurately summarize Kellermann’s findings this way: “Keeping a gun in the home carries a murder risk 2.7 times greater than not keeping one, according to a study by Arthur Kellermann. . . . The study found that people are 21 times more likely to be killed by someone they know than a stranger breaking into the house.

The notion that Kellermann’s paper was seriously designed to “assess the relationship between keeping a gun in the home and the risk of being murdered by any weapon” is wrong.  My book, “More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, all three editions), explains what the problems are.

Rebuttal to the Editor

Here is the response from Scientific American editor, Josh Fischman (indented italics), and Dr. Lott’s response to him.

Dear John,
Thank you for sending your second round of objections to Melinda Wenner Moyer’s treatment of your work. After reading it and asking several outside experts on public health policy, economic analysis, and statistics to review the claims, I feel we have fulfilled our responsibilities by publishing your original complaint at length, and we are not going to publish more back-and-forth.
You make claims that our consulting reviewers disagree with. I am not going thru the list point by point. In general, papers that use concealed carry as a control variable do not generate strong evidence in support of a causal relationship between that variable and violent crime. A simple control variable is not the causal relationship that the paper is designed to evaluate.
The point of having control variables is to see how sensitive the results are.  In two of the three papers that Moyers mentions (safe storage and abortion) all the regression estimates account for right-to-carry laws.  Thus all the results show not only how sensitive the abortion or safe storage laws are to different estimates.  They are also demonstrating how sensitive the right-to-carry laws are to all those specifications.  In any case, as far as I understand it, no set of regressions demonstrate causality by themselves.  Individual sets of regressions show simply how sensitive the regression results are.
Your paper on minors agrees with this analysis, when you say “Analysis of the results for these three law variables is outside the scope of this paper.” 
Moyers statement was that these other papers did not deal with right-to-carry laws.  You might argue that this particular paper doesn’t deal with them enough to draw any definitive conclusions, but for the abortion, safe storage, and minors papers (the three that she mentions), they and all the others that I list do deal with it.  At the very least her statement is wrong here.
In regard to the NRC report, I believe we characterized it accurately and I do not wish to introduce inaccurate characterizations. The pertinent chapter of the NRC report states in its first sentence, that the chapter is “concerned with the question of whether violent crime is reduced through the enactment of right-to-carry-laws.” The panel did not find evidence to support that RTC laws reduce crime.

The panel didn’t find evidence to support ANY gun control law.  Just like virtually all the NRC reports don’t come to any conclusions.  So let me put it to you this way.  Why doesn’t Moyer note that the NRC report also came to the same non-conclusion on background checks?  She pushes background checks in her piece, but she doesn’t mention this.  Why?  In addition, there was some support for RTC laws with the NRC and no objections to that non-conclusion for background checks.  Thus right-to-carry laws had more support in the NRC report than background checks, but anyone reading her piece would think that the opposite was true, right?

To allow readers to make up their own minds about your work and read your papers themselves, we have a link to your web site with those papers at the end of the Lott-Moyer exchange.
That website that you link to does not have the list of papers or anything close to that list.  I  provided you all (Moyers and you) links to the Crime Prevention Research Center website.  If you really want to give people a link to the articles, us this link and please put it after my letter.  Why would you all link to a website that isn’t relevant so that people can’t actually check the list?  Here again is the list of papers.
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  1. FredZ

    The detail she left out of the Kellerman study isn’t relevant? If the murder weapon used is not the gun owned in the home, how can the gun be blamed for the murder? Also, did it ever occur to her that the alleged tripling is due to the nature of the neighborhood where the victims lived and/or their actions or overall lifestyle rather than some magical power of a gun in the house?

    • Vik Solem

      I agree, but I’d describe it differently. I suggest that the risk of violence being increased if there is a firearm in the home is similar to the risk of having a broken bone if people have died in the the building in which you are standing. The two risks may be related, but the relationship is not causal.

      If you are standing in a hospital then it’s likely (a) that people have died there and (b) that you have an injury like a broken bone. If you have been threatened then your risk of being attacked at home increases. If you have been threatened then I imagine it’s more likely that you will obtain a firearm for protection. Your home is not attacked because you obtained a firearm, although the to things may be related.

  2. Tom Campbell

    My recollection of the only real result from the Kellerman non-study, a pretty sophomoric attempt at an undergraduate class theme paper, was that if someone in the house is somehow involved with or interacts with druggies, they are more likely to get shot.

  3. Tionico

    She is like the guy, blindfolded, enclosed in a small room wiht no windows, and a handful of darts. EVERY TIME he throws one o f those darts, it hits a wall.

    She also plays the fool by refusing to address points raised, and repeating her own points (rather, blunt sticks) she’s used before and have been called into questioin.

    It will be interesting to see what her editors do in response to your request. Will they cover for her, thus becoming knowingly complicit, or will they “have a chat” and straighten her out a bit.

  4. SammysDad

    I suspect she, as a hard- nosed liberal ,will deny any if not all papers and facts that do not add to her agenda.


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