What I learned from John Lott, author of “More Guns Less Crime”

I attended a talk yesterday by Prof. John R. Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws. He spoke for almost an hour, but was so interesting that everyone attending the talk was surprised when he looked at his watch and announced that he seemed to have run over time — and then he took questions. I took notes that I’d like to share with you. There was a lot of data, and I’m not as fast a note-taker as I was in my college days, so any mistakes here are entirely mine, not Prof. Lott’s.

Lott’s focus is not the Second Amendment, although he supports it, of course.  Instead, he’s interested in the data, both in the U.S. and around the world.  After all, those who seek to limit or remove guns will never engage in theoretical fights about defending ourselves against tyranny.  Instead, they’ll always get right down to the nitty-gritty:  “Guns kill people,” they say.  “If guns were gone, fewer people will die.”  As the title of Lott’s book says, though, the opposite is true.

Before digging into the relationship between guns and crime, Prof. Lott wanted to address the issue of government roadblocks to getting guns.  This is going to be a hot-button issue in California this November because Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom collected enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot requiring background checks, not for gun purchases but for ammunition purchases.  Newsom, who hopes to become California governor in 2018, has said of his initiative, “What makes guns dangerous is ammunition. Yet we don’t do background checks on ammo.”

The former party boy appears to think that his initiative very cleverly gets around the Second Amendment’s proscription against infringing on the right to bear arms.  You see, he’s not going to touch the arms; he’s just going to infringe on the right to bear ammunition.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Newsom that the right to bear arms is meaningful only if those arms are functional.  Otherwise, the Founders would have written that the right to play with kids’ toys that look like guns but aren’t really cannot be infringed. The scary thing is that, if Hillary gets her hands on the Supreme Court (or just follows Obama’s Executive Order pattern) he and other Progressives will get away with this kind of Constitution-destroying game playing.

But I digress.  What I was saying is that, because of California’s upcoming ammunition ballot initiative, Lott wanted to talk about the way in which the background check system (a) discriminates against poor people; (b) discriminates against tens of thousands of potential gun buyers annually; and (c) discriminates against minorities.

The whole thing begins with the fact that, every time they increase pre-purchase requirements, Progressives promise that they’re not making getting guns more difficult; they’re just making America’s gun system safer.  Take for example this exchange during a January 16 anti-gun townhall:

ANDERSON COOPER: And before you answer, I want you to meet Kimberly Corban. Kimberly was a college student in Colorado in 2006. Kimberly’s right over there. She was raped by a man who broke into her apartment.

She testified for three hours in the trial against him. Her attacker was sentenced to 24 years to life in prison, and I know that attack, Kimberly, changed your view of handguns. What’s your question for the president?

QUESTION: Absolutely.

As a survivor of rape, and now a mother to two small children — you know, it seems like being able to purchase a firearm of my choosing, and being able to carry that wherever my — me and my family are — it seems like my basic responsibility as a parent at this point.

I have been unspeakably victimized once already, and I refuse to let that happen again to myself or my kids. So why can’t your administration see that these restrictions that you’re putting to make it harder for me to own a gun, or harder for me to take that where I need to be is actually just making my kids and I less safe?

OBAMA: Well, Kimberly, first of all, obviously — you know, your story is horrific. The strength you’ve shown in telling your story and, you know, being here tonight is remarkable, and so — really proud of you for that.

I — I just want to repeat that there’s nothing that we’ve proposed that would make it harder for you to purchase a firearm. And — now, you may be referring to issues like concealed carry, but those tend to be state-by-state decisions, and we’re not making any proposals with respect to what states are doing. They can make their own decisions there.

So there really is no — nothing we’re proposing that prevents you or makes it harder for you to purchase a firearm if you need one. There are always questions as to whether or not having a firearm in the home protects you from that kind of violence, and I’m not sure we can resolve that. People argue it both sides.  (Emphasis added.)

Would it surprise you to learn that Obama was in error when he said “there’s nothing that we’ve proposed that would make it harder for you to purchase a firearm”? It’s already hard and expensive to purchase a firearm and the background check requirement, as it’s implemented, is an unfair winnowing process that deprives thousands innocent people of access to guns. Here’s what Lott had to say:

There are two different types of gun purchases. There’s a transfer of a gun that’s not new, and the sale of a new gun that goes directly from manufacturer, to dealer, to customer. In the case of transfers, the fee in Washington, D.C. is $125. That might not seem like a lot to a comfortable member of the middle class, but as I’ve noted before, I count among my close friends an extremely poor person who lives in a world of extremely poor people. For them, an add-on $125 fee to buy a product is prohibitive. Even if they could scrape up the money to buy a gun, that extra $125 might be the difference between an actual purchase and having to walk away.

California has a price control, meaning that the buyer in a transfer sale has to pay only $19, but the reality is that the seller has to pay the difference to cover the cost of the background check. After all, someone has to pay for a bureaucrat to push the paper. This means that the difference between $19 and the actual cost of the transfer fee is folded into the price of the weapon. Again, the poor may not be able to pay this marginal premium.  If I understood Lott correctly, prices in New York City vary (I’m not sure why), and can run from $125 to $200 per transfer.

Although there’s no visible fee on new gun sales, that is an illusion. The fee is already factored into the price, much the way gas taxes are factored into each gallon you buy. If you’re financially comfortable, you can afford more gallons; if you’re not, you might have to walk away. That kind of financial burden is, of course, a form of infringement on a poorer person’s Constitutional right to bear arms.

Moreover, there’s something very interesting about the way politicians treat what is, in fact, a regressive tax (namely, a tax that almost invariably falls more heavily on the poor than the rich). In 2013, Colorado imposed an enhanced state tax on gun transfers (which led to a ballot box rebellion). When talking to Colorado legislators about the fact that this tax would fall most heavily on the poor, Lott proposed exempting people below the poverty line from the tax. That ought to have been an easy sell among the Democrats in the room. After all, what Democrats don’t want to tax the rich and not the poor?

In fact, all but two legislators refused even to contemplate making it easier for people in poverty to buy guns. The reality is that these transfer fees and taxes are not about raising revenue; they’re about increasing costs.  They are intended to be a barrier to ownership.

The fees for background checks may be high, but they keep bad guys from buying guns, right? Wrong. Lott says that what they mostly do is keep lots and lots of ordinary people from buying guns, especially poor people who scraped together the money for the gun and the fees — and even more especially for poor people who are minorities, especially black minorities.

Lott noted that Progressives love to boast that background checks have stopped 2.4 million dangerous or potentially dangerous people from buying guns. Here’s such a boast from the Brady Campaign (and, since it’s from more than a year ago, we can assume the number is now significantly higher than 2.4 million):

Brady background checks on gun purchases have blocked 2.4 million sales to dangerous people since the inception of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, according to data released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This data includes an additional 352,000 gun sales blocked to criminals, felons, domestic abusers, fugitives, and others since 2010, according to the report.

Once again, there’s a factual vacuum behind that boasting.  Lott, who has actually looked at the numbers, says that what you’re really seeing there is 2.4 million initial denials. The background check first screening look at names is pretty close to the infamous “no fly” list, another carelessly managed government list that dings you if you share a name with someone else. As you may remember with the “no fly” list, Sen. Edward Kennedy was blocked from flights five times over the years. It wasn’t because he was a no-good, drunken, lady-killer (and I mean that last literally); it was because he shared a name with an IRA terrorist.

In the same way, the initial name check sees the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) look at names and, if the name they’re checking is the same name as someone who is a felon or other criminal, the applicant is automatically knocked out of the running as a potential gun buyer. Just like that. The ATF has no discretion on the matter. If there’s a name match, you’re out — which is what happens to 94% of applicants.

Those who survive that screening have their names sent to field offices for a second level check, which usually yields another 1-2% of applicants who get dropped from the lists. Or to put it another way, 96% of applicants do not pass background checks for no other reason than that their name matches a name on a list — and this is true whether or not they’re the person who’s actually on the list.

As of now, we’re guessing a bit at the numbers because the Obama administration, in 2010, instructed the ATF henceforth to stop going public with the information. In 2010, if I heard Lott right, there were 76,000 denials based upon these name checks. Of those 76,000, when follow-up was done, there were a total of only 100 prosecutions that ended in convictions. One of them involved a man who wanted to buy a gun for his wife who was going to travel somewhere dangerous. He neglected to put on the form that, 35 years before, he’d been in a fight (with his brother, maybe?), which resulted in a plea-bargained misdemeanor charge. For failing to mention that, the man earned a three-year jail sentence for perjury.

Think about this: Over the years, almost 99% of the 2.4 million people denied a gun were wrongfully denied. This is bad at a constitutional level, but also at a practical one. After all, who knows how many of those people were being stalked, or suffering domestic abuse, or living in scarily dangerous neighborhoods.

Lott also pointed out that this system has a disproportionate impact on minorities. Tightly knit groups, or racially homogenous groups, tend to have similar names. I can attest to this because my high school was almost 50% Asian. If you open my yearbook to look at senior photos, there are pages and pages of Chans, Changs, Lees, and Wongs. Many of the kids also had the same first name. (I’m willing to bet that my graduating class was one of the few in America that boasted three young men rejoicing in the first name of “Wyman.”)

For black men and women, the name overlap creates an extremely high false positive rate, which again denies law-abiding citizens the opportunity to protect themselves. Moreover, because blacks disproportionately live in poor and dangerous neighborhoods, these are people who want guns, not for sport shooting, but to save their own lives.

Before Obama and during the first few years of his administration, the government did eventually go back and double check all those false positives. It was a slow process, but you might eventually get a phone call saying “Sorry that we blocked you on the background check. You’re clear now.” So, maybe you could get that gun after all, assuming you hadn’t already spent the money or been killed by that stalker.

Eight months ago, things changed. The administration told the government to stop checking the validity of those millions of potentially false positives. Now, if you think you’ve been wrongly included on the “bad guy” list, you have to force the government to revisit its decision about your name. This is a time-consuming, challenging, and expensive process. If you hand it over to a savvy lawyer, it can run you $2,000 to correct the government’s error. Again, this means poor people are blocked from exercising their constitutional right to bear arms.

Things would be different if the government lived up to the standards it imposes on investigative firms and individuals. If you lose a job opportunity because a private investigation company confused you with a bad guy, you can sue. That’s why private investigators, to make sure they’re looking at the right person, use the name, social security number, birthday, and address. The government, however, limits itself to checking only the name (including various phonetic spellings) and birthday.

From an economic viewpoint, Lott also objects to the fact that the background check process is supposed to benefit all of society, yet we put the financial burden entirely on those who buy the guns. He would have background checks paid for out of a general fund on the principle that, if everybody benefits, everybody should pay.

All of this has convinced him that the entire background check scheme is intended, not to increase societal safety, but to decrease access to guns. And here in California, Gavin Newsom wants to extend that same discriminatory financial burden to ammunition.

Lott also touched upon the fear that expanded background checks will create a national gun registry. In theory, the brake on this happening is the fact that the government is supposed to destroy all of the background check records within 24 hours of approving someone’s right to purchase. In fact, Obama’s administration has a hard time meeting that metric. (And I didn’t ask, but I do wonder how we can prove that they’re actually destroying anything at all.)

The really worrisome thing is that, while the government ostensibly destroys records, dealers are still required to keep their forms. It would be perfectly possible for a President Hillary to issue an executive order requiring licensed dealers to send all of those forms to D.C., where they could be digitized and stored away. Voila! A national registry, and none of us would be any the wiser. The best thing, therefore, would be to require that dealer forms must also be destroyed (something that won’t happen under President Hillary).

From background checks, Lott moved to mass shootings. As you may recall, Obama repeatedly insists that if we only had bigger, better, deeper, meaner, stronger background checks, our mass shooting rate would keep us from being the most deadly in the world:

“This type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.” Obama, June 18th, 2015.

“I mean, I say this every time we’ve got one of these mass shootings; this just doesn’t happen in other countries.” Obama, December 1, 2015.

Oh, dear! President Obama, you’re wrong again!

Lott did acknowledge that, in the most violent parts of the world, it’s a bit difficult to get hard data about shootings. They’re so common, they don’t even make the local news, let alone the American news. You won’t find them on a Nexis search either. For example, it was merely serendipitous when Lott stumbled across police reports about mass shootings in the Solomon Islands . . . after their gun ban went into effect.  However, even scraping together what numbers one can find puts these places in the highest brackets.

On the subject of mass shootings, Lott showed us a chart with the 25 worst mass shootings since 1970. He pointed out two things: First, 19 out of the first 20 mass shootings on the list involved Muslims. Second, the United States is not in the top 25. The chart, incidentally, will be in Lott’s new book, coming out this August. Obviously, I’ll need to buy a copy.

When you look at the real numbers, not the pretend numbers, America actually ranks quite well. During the Obama presidency, it had fewer mass shootings than France did just in 2015 (there are those Muslims again).

As the example of France demonstrates, bad mass shootings aren’t limited to Third World countries. Several European countries do not fare well on the list. I couldn’t keep up with Lott’s data at this point, but the website at his non-profit Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC) has a very helpful post on the subject.

The CPRC post challenging President Obama’s statements starts with a pertinent point about data analysis: “We prefer not to make purely cross-sectional comparisons. . . .” By that, Lott and his team mean that you can’t look at the U.S.’s gun crime rate and England’s comparatively lower gun crime rate and then announce “England’s gun ban explains the lower crime rate.” The lower crime rate is explained by the fact that England has always had a lower crime rate than the young, sprawling, diverse, frontier world of the United States. The useful analysis when it comes to gun crime is to see what happens in a given country when that country bans guns. (I’m not giving anything away when I say crime invariably soars.)

Still, while the CPRC doesn’t like cross-sectional comparisons, to the extent Obama was making them, the CPRC followed, and it found that our poor president just can’t get his facts right:

The data below looks at the period of time from the beginning of the Obama administration in January 2009 until the end of 2015.  Mass public shootings – defined as four or more people killed in a public place, and not in the course of committing another crime, and not involving struggles over sovereignty.  The focus on excluding shootings that do not involve other crimes (e.g., gang fights or robberies) has been used from the original research byLott and Landes to more recently the FBI) from 2009 to the Charleston massacre (this matches the starting period for another recent study we did on US shootings and we chose that because that was the starting point that Bloomberg’s group had picked).  The cases were complied doing a news search.  The starting year was picked simply because it match a report the time frame from a recent Bloomberg report and when we evaluated that report it was the last year we looked at Mass Public Shootings in the US starting in 2009.

Comparing annual shooting death rates europe us

The CPRC article just goes on and on and on from there, with mountains of hard data putting the lie to Obama’s words. Whatever may have been true about Europe decades ago, certainly isn’t true now — and let’s not even talk about the increase in rape rates across Northern Europe.   Also, considering how many died in Western and Eastern Europe from 1914 through 1989, whether from wars, purges, genocides, or terrorist attacks, it’s sometimes hard to remain calm when hearing Europeans lecture us on violence.  Just sayin’. . . .

But I digress again.

Fundamentally, said Lott, the issue isn’t the number of guns; it’s where you’re allowed to have them.  Gun crimes happen wherever general citizens are banned from having concealed carry.  The reality is that mass murderers may be crazy, but they’re not stupidly crazy.  The documents they leave behind, or the occasional confession from a mass shooter who hasn’t successfully committed suicide at the scene, show that their invariably goal is to achieve the highest number of murders in order to garner the best news coverage.  They therefore deliberately target gun free zones in order to achieve those numbers.

Lott reminded us that, back in March, a Detroit man averted a terrorist attack when he turned in his own son who was becoming obsessed with ISIS.  (What a tough decision for a father to make, but he made the right one.)  What the FBI discovered when talking to the would-be jihadi was that he very carefully scoped out the largest gun free zone he could find:

“I tried to shoot up a church one day. I don’t know the name of it, but it’s close to my job,” Abu-Rayyan told the agent, according to the complaint. “It’s one of the biggest ones in Detroit. Ya. I had it planned out. I brought a bunch of bullets. I practice a lot with it. But my dad searched my car one day and he found everything. He found the gun and the bullets and a mask.”

The man had wanted to shoot up the church because it would’ve been an easy target, the complaint said.

“It’s easy and a lot of people go there. Plus people are not allowed to carry guns in church. Plus, it would make the news. I regret not doing it. If I can’t do jihad in the Middle East, I would do my jihad over here.”

Adam Lanza was so obsessed with getting coverage that he created a massive Excel spreadsheet detailing every mass murder, the number of dead, and the number of news stories covering it.  He decided that Anders Breivik, the national socialist who went on a shooting spree in Norway, killing 69 and wounding 109, was the man to beat.  Lanza was crazy, but smart enough to figure out that killing enormous numbers of children in a gun free zone would get him the posthumous fame he craved.

In France, after Muslims engaged in horrific, high-body-count mass shootings, the French president promised to put more than 10,000 troops on the street, especially in Jewish communities.  It looks impressive to have all those armed men and women parading around, but their visible presence probably doesn’t deter the terrorist.  After all, the terrorist just needs to go to places where the troops aren’t or needs to shoot those visible troops first (as happened to the Muslim policeman standing guard at Charlie Hebdo, who was the first person killed by his co-religionists).

The only real deterrent to mass shooters is an armed citizenry (assuming that, as in the US, most citizens are law-abiding and choose life, not death).  Israel is the perfect example of this.

In Israel, from the 1940s through to the early 1970s, there were decades of terrorist attacks when Muslims armed with machine guns would start firing on grounds.  The Israeli government responded by putting more police and soldiers on the streets, but their presence did not make a big difference (see the note about France, above) and became cost prohibitive.  In 1972, Israel decided to try something completely different.  Henceforth, civilians could carry weapons.  Machine guns quickly died away in favor of bombs.

Now, a machine gun for bomb exchange may not sound good to you, but it actually was good for Israel.  Machine guns can keep killing and killing and killing until someone finally kills the machine gunner.  A bomb, by contrast, is a one-time chance to kill.

It’s also psychologically bad for terrorists if citizens can guard themselves.  Lott told the story of a machine gun attack shortly after the law went into effect.  Four terrorists walked into a restaurant and started firing.  The diners immediately started firing back, killing three terrorists and wounding one.  When the surviving terrorist was removed from the scene, he complained bitterly about the fact that his brave terrorist act was foiled by a bunch of middle-aged Jewish ladies. Hah!

With those stories in mind, it’s no wonder that, when he worked with Bill Landes, of the University of Chicago Law School, Lott and Landes discovered that the only gun control law that decreases mass shootings is the one instituted in Israel — the right for law-abiding citizens to have concealed carry.  When that happens, mass shootings will drop by up to 60% (and my notes don’t say if that drop was in Israel or elsewhere.  Sorry.).

Even stupid criminals have a feral instinct for survival.  They’ll rob or kill with impunity if there’s no chance someone can be armed.  However, as the number of armed citizens increases, and the chances of an armed citizen being in any given potential crime scene increases too, the would-be criminal will think twice.  Whether his goal is to survive his crime or go out in a blaze of glory having slaughtered massive numbers, an armed citizenry decreases the chance he can achieve his goal.

In response to a question from an older audience member who was drafted and who recalled school shooting clubs, Lott pointed out that both Antonin Scalia and Colin Powell belonged to rifle clubs growing up in New York City.  Guns were a healthy and respected part of American culture.  Now they’re marginalized and scary.

Lott ended his fascinating speech by discussing the contact he had with Barack Obama at the University of Chicago Law School.  According to Lott, the first time Obama met him, Obama announced that he wanted to do away with all guns.  After that statement, and at every other meeting with Lott, he refused entirely to engage with him, going so far as to turn his back on Lott.  Once Obama makes up his mind, you better be damn sure you don’t even try to confuse him with actual data.  He doesn’t want to know.  (Something that means he’s in line with the majority of Progressive scientists, who have abandoned the scientific method and, rather than going where the facts lead, deliberately ignore those facts conflicting with their theory.)

Given that Obama and his ilk are vehemently anti-gun because guns kill, you’d think they’d love to hear that they are wrong and that guns save lives, rather than taking them.  But noooo.  Theory trumps fact.  And so you have to ask, if they obviously don’t care about the lives lost because of fallacious gun policies, why are they so gung-ho on removing guns from citizens’ hands?  That, of course, is a rhetorical question.  You and I both know the answer, which lies in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the soil under Auschwitz, and the bodies still fertilizing the farmland in the Ukraine.

It’s always about government power versus people power.  And the generation that went around screaming “Power to the people,” now that it controls government wants to disempower the people.  I’m not saying that we’re going to have concentration camps, killing fields, and mass starvation anytime soon in America — with luck, we’ll never have them — but the totalitarian impulse is always the same:  People should fear and be helpless before their government.