Michael Olenick: Debunking Yet Another Misleading Gun Study

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.

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  1. kgw

    “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.”

    In the United States. The cause is not having “ten fingers and ten toes,” it is the level of morality in the United States. Do unto others whatever you can get away with is the level.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Not exactly the same thing, but there is plenty of data-and-analysis on corruption (World Bank has a definition for you, http://www.corruption-agenda.org/getting-started/what-is-corruption). Here’s one of many writings on the subject, tailored, of course, to the people who matter, “international investors” (who of course specialize in engaging in and fostering corruption): https://www.riskadvisory.com/campaigns/corruption-challenges-index-2018-view/

        And on relative and absolute morality, like so many other things, everyone has an opinion, just like everyone (except people with ostomies due to excision of the excretory pore) has “one of those:” https://townhall.com/columnists/johnhawkins/2015/07/25/five-consequences-of-americas-moral-collapse-n2030199

        And there are lots of, I guess one might call them silly, prescriptions for how to do away with corruption, like this one: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/01/three-ways-to-end-global-corruption/

      2. kgw

        I think you are capable of doing your own study, Ignacio. A guideline: cultures with a pecuniary value system, exemplified by the United States, are laboring mightily against their own worth.

  2. TG

    OK fine, many excellent points. But consider this:

    Mexico has draconian gun control laws, and the official homicide rate is about four times that of the heavily armed United States.

    Oh, and yes, most of the guns used in crimes in Mexico do not come from the US – and even if they did, why isn’t Canada overcome with gun violence? If the primary factor for the homicide rate is the availability of guns, and the problem with Mexico is guns coming from the United States, why is the homicide rate so much lower in the US than in Mexico? It simply cannot be that the high homicide rate in Mexico is due to guns coming from the US, that does not logically parse.

    While perhaps gun control laws really would decrease the incidence of homicide in the United States (it would certainly decrease the rate of suicide, but this almost never gets mentioned), it is a fact that, overall, gun control laws are not a panacea for high homicide rates. They just aren’t. It is social cohesion, shared prosperity, a sense that if you play by the rules you can map out a decent life.

    But we can’t fix that, because it would be unprofitable for the rich. So let’s not talk about how our communities are being hollowed out by our companies shipping our industries overseas. Let’s not talk about the tens of trillions of dollars being used to subsidize Wall Street. Let’s not talk about those trillions spent on pointless winless overseas wars – no, that would be racist and fascist. And let’s absolutely not talk about how an excessively high rate of immigration is driving wages down – no, because as Bernie Sanders discovered in 2016, that would be racist and fascist and Literally Hitler.

    So no, let’s not talk about social cohesion and having a fair deal for workers etc. Let’s just scream about how we need to take away everyone’s guns so that the proletariat can’t lash out in rage and frustration. I mean, maybe, all other things being equal, gun control would be a good thing. But if it’s used as a band-aid to cover up deeper social pathologies, well, perhaps we should think about that as well.

    Is there any doubt that if the average Japanese were issued a semiautomatic rifle and they kept it in their closet, that their homicide rate (though likely higher than it is today), would still be extremely low?

    1. Tomonthebeach

      Or let’s just ignore the fact that most gun violence is Mexico is due to turf wars between drug well-armed lords – not crazed school students or maniac poker players in Vegas.

      1. JBird

        Or let’s just ignore the fact that most gun violence is Mexico is due to turf wars between drug well-armed lords – not crazed school students or maniac poker players in Vegas.

        Let’s prove TG’s point by not asking why America has crazed school students and maniac poker players willing to commit mass murder.

        Although gun homicides are going down, not up, mass shooting like drug deaths, are going up.

        Let me repeat that.

        America has always been a very well armed society, yet homicides are going down, and mass murder like deaths of despair like drug overdoses are going up. Apparently in tandem with the national breakdown of our nation.

        Further, it is jackasses like John Lott and his “study” or for the other side, the book of lies Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles, that makes getting over our bias and have a decent debate almost impossible. Partisans looking to defend with lies their side are not something to be respected, and I am tired of seeing people using our nation’s sorrows as weapons to be used and not problems whose true causes are to be found, researched, and solved.

    2. Matthew Bechtel

      According to Lott, all drug related violence should be ignored, that makes Mexico far safer than the USA.

    3. danpaco

      The current murder rate in toronto is more than double all of last year and we still have another 3 months to go. Mostly committed by handguns, guess where they came from? Hint, The US. You can own a handgun in Canada, it just takes a while to get one and domestic guns are usually not used by the illegal handgun crowd.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Curiosity got the better of me so I decided to see what his Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lott) had to say about him and it is what you would suspect. Sorry but after reading it, I would be prone to take anything that he said with a large dose of salt. I have my own prejudices but when I see the names University of Chicago, Yale University, the American Enterprise Institute as well as FoxNews just within the first paragraph I would treat anything that he said with suspicion. Again just personal prejudices at work here.

  4. Alex

    Even if he’s right, are the Americans supposed to be happy that their mass shooting rate is lower than in Colombia and Iraq?

    One minor quibble re Norway: you are not allowed to discount the incidence rate because of extreme rarity of the events. The statistically honest statement would be “given the black swan nature of the Utoya shooting, it’s impossible to determine the incidence of mass shootings. Existing evidence is compatible with the average level both above and below the US rate”

  5. Wukchumni

    The average gun nut only needs to read the title of Lott’s effort and what more does he (yeah it could a woman mass murderer via hand cannon, but how many of those can you name?) need to prove to himself that he’s been right all along?

    New Zealand is in the same neck of the woods as the Solomon Islands and Lott would cherrypick between 1988-90 so as to get his desired result, and you can buy a rifle or a shotgun pretty easily there-but no dice on a handgun, and there’s been a total of 5 people killed in 2 incidents since the turn of the century, and they have 1/75th of our population, so if you multiplied it out, we’d have 375 mass shootings in the same time frame, but it’s a wee bit higher @ 1,100 and counting.

    The key incident that pushed NZ gun laws was it’s largest mass public shooting @ Aramoana in 1990:

    The massacre sparked lengthy debate about gun control in New Zealand. The incident directly resulted in a 1992 amendment to New Zealand’s firearms regulations on military-style semi-automatic firearms.


    1. Wukchumni

      In the space of just one day, we equaled the number of people that died from mass shootings in NZ in 18 years, thanks to a murderer in Bakersfield.

      And so it goes in these United States…

  6. Synoia

    Except it’s unlikely Midgley released his beasts with malice – at the time it’s unlikely he knew of the harmful effects

    At the time, 1920/30s Leaded Gasoline was invented, or the additive to Gas (tetra-ethyl lead), to increase the octane level of Gas, the poisonous effect of Lead was well known.

    The English had lead water pipes in the Victorian Era, distribution water from a lead water tank in the roof, and the wisdom was that one only drank water from the rising main, the steel pipe which delivered water to the tank in the roof.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That is an ad hominem attack and a violation of our written site Policies. Lott’s piece was decidedly unscholarly, but you apparently have no problem with that, and are further unable to debunk Olenick on the merits.

      1. Jamie

        It’s a little harsh to call aj’s observation an ad hominem attack. It may be an unwarranted comment better left unsaid, but is there no space for meta commentary? Also, nothing aj said here indicates he has no problem with Lott. It is not “apparent” that he has any position on Lott simply because he made an observation on Olenick’s tone.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          No it isn’t. And arguing with the moderators about how we deal with comments is grounds for moderation and blacklisting.

          Had you bothered to use Google rather than demonstrate your ignorance, you would have found:

          Which is an example of an ad hominem attack?

          An ad hominem argument is one that is used to counter another argument, but it is based on feelings of prejudice (often irrelevant to the argument), rather than facts, reason or logic. It is often a personal attack on one’s character rather than an attempt to address the issue at hand.

  7. David

    If we take the guns away, will the killings will stop?

    Perth man charged with murdering wife, three daughters and mother-in-law

    Anthony Robert Harvey allegedly killed three-and-a-half-year-old Charlotte Kate Harvey, two-year-old twins Alice Ester and Beatrix Mae Harvey, and their mother Mara Lee Harvey, 41, on Monday 3 September in their house in the northern Perth suburb of Bedford.

    He is accused of murdering Ms Harvey’s mother, the children’s grandmother, 73-year-old Beverley Ann Quinn, in the same house the next day.

    WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said police would allege a blunt instrument and knives were used in the crimes, but no firearms were involved….

    It is the third time this year that WA Police have been confronted by what appears to be a mass murder crime scene.

    In May, seven people were found dead after a mass shooting in a house in Osmington, near the tourist town of Margaret River in WA’s South West.

    Katrina Miles and her four children were found shot dead in their beds, and the body of her mother Cynda Miles was found in an adjoining property with gunshot wounds.

    The children’s grandfather, Peter Miles, was also found dead from a gunshot and three firearms belonging to him were found on the property….

    Then in July, a mother and two children were found dead in a house in Ellenbrook, in Perth’s north.

    The woman’s son, Teancum Vernon Petersen-Crofts, alerted authorities to the crime after entering a nearby convenience store, where staff called police.

    When officers went to the house, they found Michelle Petersen and her son, Rua, dead, and her daughter Bella in a critical condition.

    She later died on the way to hospital.

    Mr Petersen-Crofts has been charged with three counts of murder and remanded to the secure wing of Graylands Hospital while he awaits his next court appearance.

    People who want to murder will find a way to murder. The firearm / knife / blunt instrument / vehicle is just a tool.

    1. Wukchumni

      The act of shoving a knife into somebody, strikes me as a bit chilling compared to manipulating an index finger from 20 feet away, followed by a lone projectile racing towards the victim.

      You would think all of the countries with restrictive gun rights might compensate by daggering each other, but the numbers don’t add up.

    2. JBird

      In fairness, mass murders are easier to commit using guns and I say this as a gun rights supporter. What I do not like is advocates using distortions, misdirection, general bs, and outright lies to support The Cause. It looks like “writers” like Lott and Bellesiles are becoming more acceptable although that might be do to the increasing propagandizement of politics, public policy, education, science or anything else that can be monetized under our current neoliberal order. Our Fear Everyone and Everything, the Forever Wars, the Security State, Money is Speech, Obamacare, the War on (Some) Drugs, School-to-Prison Pipeline, Climate Change, etc are all due to that. The debate on guns is a convenient way to get votes and money with the establishment’s ostensible opposing factions having little impetus to actually do anything useful. Rather the impetus is to keep it on a low boil.

    3. TimmyB

      Whenever I read a defense of gun ownership stating “Well, even if you get rid of all guns, murders will still happen” my head explodes. If Charles Witman has a big bag of rocks instead of a rifle, does any sane person really think he could have used those rocks to kill 11 people from the University of Texas tower?

      How about Columbine? Could two students have killed 13 and wounded 21 if, instead of guns, they used knives or rocks?

      Of course not. These questions are as absurd as the claim that without guns, people will merely find another way to kill. Without guns, there would not be the frequent mass shooting. And those shooting, if they became mass stabbings instead, would be much less deadly.

      1. Lord Koos

        Aside from outright murder and mass shootings, the large number of suicides and gun-related accidental deaths in the USA is enough of a public health issue that it warrants gun control regulations IMHO.

  8. Jeff N

    Based on the correlation Lankford found, the remedy is: reduce the percentage of US people that own a gun.

    That can only mean: 1) a ban on any sales of newly-manufactured firearms, 2) a ban on imports of new/used firearms, and 3) Sales of existing firearms would only be allowed to people who already own firearms (i.e., owner-to-owner sales do not raise/lower the percentage).

    To take the percentage down further, federal govt could then do 4) a buyback program, but the govt needs to buyback *every* firearm they own, so they become a non-gun-owner.

    Could also 5) outlaw inheritance of guns from a gun-owner to descendants that don’t yet own a gun.

    1. Wukchumni

      What was that number which came out the other day, claiming 394 million citizens in the guise of guns now, far outnumbering consumers.

      Gun control in our country is a fantasy @ best, am imagined nightmare for those fond of fondling them.

  9. For_Christs_Sake

    ot, but It brings to mind the countless old westerns where the hero of the story foils a plot to sell rifles to the Apaches.

    Apparently the Apaches weren’t allowed to have rifles, wonder why ..

  10. Daniel A Lynch

    There is no agreement on the definition of a mass shooting hence no agreement on how many mass shootings, or whether they are increasing or decreasing.

    The gold standard for measuring violent crime is the murder rate. Stop arguing about mass shootings and pay attention to murder rates, OK? Murder rates are easy to measure and there is lots of data available.

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