By Michael Olenick, a research fellow at INSEAD who writes regularly at Olen on Economics
Yves brought to my attention a misleading post, America Ranks 58th … (in mass shootings) based on a flawed study by gun fanatic John Lott.
Here’s the study, How a Botched Study Fooled the World About the U.S. Share of Mass Public Shootings: U.S. Rate is Lower than Global Averageby John R. Lott, Jr., President of the “Crime Prevention Research Center.”
Lott’s paper is meant to rebut a more widely cited, better respected, peer-reviewed piece, Public Mass Shooters and Firearms: A Cross-National Study of 171 Countries, by criminologist Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama.
Lankford concludes that a high rate of gun ownership is positively correlated with a high rate of mass shootings. This finding, in any other context, would be about as controversial as asserting that most people, but not everybody, are born with ten fingers and ten toes. But to Lott and other gun fetishists any heresy that insults their guns are fighting words.
Lankford’s paper was published in the peer reviewed journal Violence and Victims and indexed by the US National Library of Medicine under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. Lott’s paper was published on his own website and Reddit.
Lott drones on for most of six pages with ad hominem attacks against Lankford, plus a few unnecessary potshots at Obama. Summarizing, Lott is angry at Lankford for not emailing him a copy of the paper in 2015 while it was pending publication and for not sharing his data. Fair enough point about the data though he also surely knows that proprietary data sets are seldom released. Lankford could’ve emailed a copy of the paper but it’s easy to see why he’d simply ignore an obvious antagonist.
In any event, after a five-page harangue, Lott finally cites his first mass shooting on page six:
There are lots of other countries around the world that clearly have higher death rates from mass public shootings than does the US. But these cases are very hard to find for countries outside the United States or Europe, especially in earlier years. Take the Solomon Islands, for example. Despite the islands’ 1999 ban on handguns and virtually all rifles, 21 people died in three mass public shootings from 2000 to 2002. There may have been other mass public shootings, but the islands only had one police report that briefly provides details on the years 1998 to 2003. Repeated requests to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force for information on other years proved fruitless. The police made it clear that since their nation gets most of its revenue from tourism, they saw little benefit to providing this information. But even if these were the only mass public shootings from 1998 through 2012, the annual death rate would come to 2.98 per million people (given an average population of 470,000 over those 15 years). This is 46 times higher than the US rate.
Let’s unpack this.
First there’s the standard right-wing meme that Lott couldn’t find more information because there must be – wait for it – a conspiracy (bet you didn’t see that one coming) to withhold the information.
In reality, a quick check — Googling “solomon islands killings 2000” – leads to a Wikipedia page non-creatively titled History of the Solomon Islands as the first result. Pressing Control-F and typing “2000” jumps to this:
In early 1999 long-simmering tensions between the local Gwale people on Guadalcanal and more recent migrants from the neighbouring island of Malaita erupted into violence. The ‘Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army’, later called Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM), began terrorising Malaitans in the rural areas of the island to make them leave their homes. About 20,000 Malaitans fled to the capital and others returned to their home island; Gwale residents of Honiara fled. The city became a Malaitan enclave.
Meanwhile, the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) was formed to uphold Malaitan interests. The Government appealed to the Commonwealth Secretary General for assistance. The Honiara Peace Accord was agreed on 28 June 1999. Despite this apparent success the underlying problems remained unresolved and had already resulted in the death or serious injury of 30,000 civilians. The accord soon broke down and fighting broke out again in June 2000.
Malaitans took over some armouries at their home island and Honiara and helped by that, on 5 June 2000 the MEF seized the parliament by force.
Shorter: There was a civil war. In 2003 the government requested and received international help to stem the violence. This explains Lott’s carefully chosen timeframe, 2000 to 2002, the time of the insurrection. Time required for me to find this information: significantly less than it took to copy and paste it.
From this we can conclude that Lott a) co-mingled killings from wars with school shootings to tilt the scales and defend gun mayhem, b) led other gun fanatics to do the same, c) fabricated a conspiracy, and d) given that with his background he must know better almost certainly did this purposefully. That’s lots of lies for one paragraph, the first to cite anything, and his paper is 34 pages long.
Lott does cite the list of countries by his definition of mass shootings per capita towards the end of his paper. First is the Northern Mariana Islands, which is a US Commonwealth and doesn’t belong on the list. Then comes Iraq: I’ve heard there’s been some problems with war and violence there. Next up is the Solomon Islands: already rebutted that one. Rounding out the top-ten comes, in order, Guyana, Afghanistan, Algeria, Somalia, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Burundi, and Columbia, nine traditional war zones and one drug war zone.
If anything, this list suggests Lankford should release his data because it can’t be more ridiculous than Lott’s. Besides comparing apples to zebras, Lott also fails to balance with frequency so peaceful Norway is above the US thanks to one mass shooting by right-wing fanatic Anders Breivik. Comparing war zones to school zones is ludicrous.
As if this isn’t enough, Lott excludes killings caused by gang and drug violence. So, to Lott, counting deaths from traditional and drug wars in foreign countries is fair game while, at the same time, these figures should be excluded from the US. Uh … sure. The Washington Post highlights that many of Lott’s mass shootings were terror related:
Without terrorism cases, Lott’s count of shooters fell dramatically. In the Philippines, the number of shooters fell from 120 to 11, in Russia from 65 to 21 and in Yemen from 65 to 3. Only France did not have a significant decline, going from 5 to 4. This is for the 1998-2012 period, and with the exception of Russia, the number of shooters is lower than Lankford’s calculations for 1966-2012.
Besides running his “Crime Prevention Research Center” Lott was, among other things, the chief economist of the US sentencing commission at the end of Reagan’s term during the time minimum sentences were introduced. He’s one of the key people responsible for mass incarceration with the crippling societal, economic, and fiscal costs.
Between his stance on crime and guns Lott is like an economics version of Thomas Midgley Jr., the legendary scientist who invented both leaded gasoline and CFC’s, two of the most destructive polluters in history. Except it’s unlikely Midgley released his beasts with malice – at the time it’s unlikely he knew of the harmful effects – whereas Lott knows full-well what he’s doing and, as shown above, there’s a strong argument he’s willing to cook the books to get there. Besides discounting his latest paper, his prison sentencing work should be reexamined; who knows how many people are rotting in prison based on a lotta’ lies.