Reservations of an observer in the gun control (dis)information wars

A recent talk given by John Lott at Fordham University left the audience including myself mildly to moderately stunned: who knew that one of the main arguments used by the Obama administration to push for changes in gun control policy consists of nothing short of blatant prevarication, and that the introduction of gun control laws almost inevitably resulted in murder rates skyrocketing all around the world?

Prevarications, of course, or rather the twisting and spinning of the facts appear to be a sin committed just as heartily and frequently on both sides of the gun control debate. And, more importantly, if we are to borrow Bernie Madoff’s now-immortal phrase, “there is no innocent explanation” for it all.

According to John Lott, the numbers used recently by President Obama as he was urging for increasing gun control laws and zealously repeated by Vice President Biden and the news media are simply incorrect. For example, their claim that “over the last 14 years [background checks] kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun” suggests that as many criminals were denied a gun permit, and hence a possibility of buying a gun.  One might wonder why convicted criminals would even bother applying for a legal gun permit, considering that, first, they are not going to get one issued anyway, and second, that the black market in firearms is alive and well and nothing short of thriving. Lott clarifies that the quoted “1.5 million” reflects the number of initial denials, which are due to systemic errors and are in fact false positives overturned upon review in 94% of the recorded cases. A second round of review reduces the numbers of denials even further, to 0.1%. In 2010, this 0.1% translated into all of 63 cases of an initial denial of a gun permit warranting formal prosecution, which in turn resulted in a grand total of 13 convictions nationwide. Applying very basic math, one might try to extrapolate the 2010 numbers to arrive at some 182 convictions or 882 cases of prosecution over 14 years. Even if the estimated figures were ten or even a hundred times higher, they are still nowhere close to “1.5 million of the wrong people [being kept] from getting their hands on a gun.”

Of course, no one can realistically estimate how many people have been actually discouraged from considering the (legal) acquisition of a firearm by the administrative hassle associated with securing a permit and going through a background check.

Lott points to another apparently misleading statement of President Obama that was repeated widely by the media: “As many as 40 percent of guns are purchased without a background check.” This understandably alarming number is materially incorrect in various ways. First, the actual number in the original 1997 National Institute of Justice report based on a 1994 study was 36%, not 40%. However, the study accounted for 36% of transfers conducted without background checks, not 36% of sales. Transfers included also gifts, lottery winnings, swaps, and inheritances. The number of sales proper conducted without a background check actually amounted to 11-15% according to Lott.  One might wonder why other types of gun ownership transfers, such as inheritances, gifts, private sales, or raffle prizes, should be excluded from background checks in the first place. In that case, using “sales” to refer to “ownership transfers” would appear to be an innocuous slip of tongue in the President’s speech.

However, Lott also directly questions the relevance of the study cited. It had been based on voluntary telephone survey responses of just 291 gun owners (the pollsters attempted to contact 2,568 adults but obtained only a 44-59% response rate; the number of actual gun owners successfully contacted in this fashion was understandably much lower); the majority of the transactions examined by this study was conducted before the Brady Act entered into force that mandated background checks; cheap and easily available gun sale licenses at the time made many of the transactions in question appear to the parties as informal, rather than official sales subject to federal regulation. In other words, those 291 respondents described what they believed to be the case, not necessarily what was, in fact, the case.

But the Obama administration surely could have found a more reliable study to support a policy proposal that was perceived as bringing about significant social change in a constitutionally sensitive area, could it not?

No, it could not. And here is why:  in 1996, the Congress, working with the NRA, banned the use of funding by the Center for Disease Control of any gun-violence related research and thereby eliminated the main source of funding available for this kind of studies. As a readily foreseeable result, annual spending on any kind of gun-related studies dropped from $2.6 million a year to a mere $100,000 per year; peer-reviewed research on gun studies dropped by 60%; there are currently only about a dozen US-based researchers who focus on gun violence at all. No wonder that, as of today, there is no data answering important questions: how many guns exist in the US; how gun ownership correlates with crime; and how gun ownership is correlated to non-crime-related deaths, such as suicides. A recent executive order by President Obama directing the Center for Disease Control to resume gun-related research may hopefully remedy this scandalous void on critical information – unless this ‘need to know’  it is somehow thwarted yet again successfully by the NRA lobby on “budgetary” or “procedural” grounds.

Considering the utter lack of almost any reliable data concerning the situation surrounding guns in the U.S., it is no wonder that studies such as those presented by John Lott in his book More Guns, Less Crime raise lots of controversies. Lott’s results that were obtained through regression analysis (so elegantly presented as graphs during his talk at Fordham) as well as other aspects of his methodology have been contested widely on a plethora of grounds by scholars such as Dan A. Black and Daniel S. Nagin and most notably by Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue,  but they have also found support by Florenz Plassmann and John Whitley.

In the end, without reliable data we simply cannot draw meaningful conclusions that would not be based merely on our emotional responses to the controversial issue of gun control. This is why removing the ability of Congress to manipulate original research and data gathering by means of pulling purse strings is so important.

Let me conclude with a quote of former Chief Justice Warren Burger commenting on a new legal interpretation of the Second Amendment, calling it “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”’

But that is a topic for an altogether different discussion.

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