Recent mass shootings have brought guns back to the center of national debate, and President Joe Biden has announced new executive orders on gun control.
At the center of the discussion is a question: do gun control measures prevent crime or do they actually do the opposite?
To understand what the data says, I decided to sit down with John Lott, who has studied the impact of gun control measures for decades. He’s the founder of the Crime Prevention Research Center, and author of a number of books on guns and gun control, including most recently, “Gun Control Myths.”
In this episode, Lott breaks down the biggest misconceptions he sees around gun control, how media coverage skews people’s perceptions, and why he believes gun control measures will actually harm minorities and the most vulnerable.
Jan Jekielek: John Lott, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
John Lott: Thanks very much for having me on. I appreciate it.
Mr. Jekielek: John, we’re going to talk today about President Biden’s press conference on gun control and related executive orders. Before we do that, you’re sometimes described, for example, in Wikipedia, as a gun rights advocate. But that’s not how you see yourself or not how you came to explore this whole issue, is it?
Mr. Lott: No. I’m not a Second Amendment advocate. If people read my research, I never talked about the Second Amendment. What got me interested in this was simply what types of rules make people safer or not.
My own views have changed a lot over the last 20, 25 years. If people had told me that I would make making the types of arguments with regard to gun-free zones or other things 25 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it and I don’t think the people who knew me would have believed it. I got into this whole thing by accident. I had done a lot of research on crime. I’ve been chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission.
Back in 1993, I was teaching a class at the Wharton business school [Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania] on crime, mainly white collar and corporate crime type issues.
I made the mistake in the class of mentioning that we were ahead in the syllabus and I had a couple of students come up to me after class and say, “We know this isn’t exactly on point, though it deals with crime generally. Would you be able, if we are ahead and we do have some extra time, to talk a little bit about gun control?” I said, “I can think about it.”
I read a number of academic papers at the time and I thought they were pretty poorly done. If I was going to lecture, it forced me to read through more of the research. I was pretty shocked by how poorly all the research was done. So I decided to start working in the area. Anyway, I ended up writing a paper.
In August 1996, I got a call from a reporter at USA Today, Dennis Cauchon, who I had gotten to know when I was chief economist at the Sentencing Commission. Dennis would call me up every six months or nine months or whatever with some questions he had.
So he called me up, he asked me his questions, and then at the end of the discussion, he said, “By the way, what are you working on?” I told him about the new research I’d done on guns and crime. He said, “That sounds interesting,” and he asked me to send him a copy, and I did. A week later, the paper was discussed on the front page of USA Today.
I guess I was caught up in everything there, a lot of attacks, so I responded to those. Also, I began to learn how much false information there was out there about the issue. I convinced myself if I didn’t go and fight the battle on that misinformation, nobody would do it.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Before we actually jump into looking at the Biden administration’s plans for gun control there have been, in the light of this recent police shooting that is all over everywhere right now, there have been calls once again to defund the police. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has said, “No more policing, incarceration, and militarization, and that it can’t be reformed.” What are your thoughts?
Mr. Lott: It’s just bizarre. This also ties in with Biden’s presentation last Thursday, because one of the claims that he made there was that the reason why we had this historic spike in homicides last year, he claimed, was because of a lack of gun control.
I’d like to know what gun control rules changed last year that caused the spike in all these urban areas across the country. There’s nothing I know that changed in the direction that he was talking about that would explain it, and I think there’s a pretty simple explanation for why homicide rates went up.
You had jails and prisons across the country releasing more than half or more of the inmates that they had. You had police being ordered to stand down and not doing their jobs. You had funding cuts for the police. You had prosecutors in major urban areas refusing to prosecute criminals. It’s not rocket science.
If you make it less risky for criminals to go and commit crimes, guess what? You’re going to have a lot more crime than you would have had otherwise. That applies to the congresswoman’s comments too.
Both Biden and her claim that they care about minorities, that they care about blacks and Hispanics who live in these urban areas, and that’s fine. But the types of proposals that Biden wants to have are actually going to make it worse for those minorities, and we can talk about why that’s the case.
If he really wants to go and help them—have more police there and have prosecutors that actually prosecute violent criminals. Who do you think are the victims of these violent crimes? They’re overwhelmingly minorities. You want to make it costly, you want to make it risky for criminals to go and commit crimes against those minorities.
You have the riots that are occurring right now in Minneapolis again. The businesses are being destroyed. They’re being destroyed in heavily minority areas and some of those businesses are owned by minorities. Who do you think works in those businesses? Overwhelmingly minorities. Who shops in those businesses? Primarily minorities.
They’re now going to have to go farther to get to their jobs. They’re going to have to go to other places in order to go and shop. The value of their property in those areas is going to go down. If they owned a home there, the value of their asset has fallen as a result of the lost jobs and the damages and other things that are going on there. The insurance premiums are going to be going up.
So the notion that no more police, as the congresswoman said, or Biden blaming this on not having enough gun control last year or having to change somehow, it’s sad. You can listen again to Biden’s presentation or Harris’s presentation last Thursday, and not one mentioned, even briefly, even indirectly, that having police there and having them not be able to do their job, could be responsible for the big increase that we saw in homicides in urban areas.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. Every poll that I’ve seen from these communities indicates that they are very interested in having more policing, not less policing.
Mr. Lott: Yes, that’s right. Let’s take Biden’s proposals. My concern is that it’s going to raise the cost of people being able to go and have guns for self defense.
We’re in a weird world right now where we have politicians trying to get rid of police, or not have law enforcement do its job with prosecutors. At the same time, they want to make it so that private individuals aren’t going to be able to defend themselves either. So you won’t allow the government to protect them, and you won’t allow individuals to go and protect themselves.
Take something like these background checks on the private transfers of guns, these so-called “universal background checks” which is one of the things that he wants to have. In Washington, D.C. where they’re voting on this, it costs $125 to privately transfer a gun.
Just to give you an idea of how wacky these are, and this applies in a number of places that have these rules, let’s say you and I lived in Washington, D.C. and I was going to give you four guns. Jan, it’s just you and me trading the guns. You would think that since it’s just two people and you’re getting all four of the guns, there would just be one background check.
But no, they have a separate background check on each gun. For me to give you the guns would cost $500 just in terms of the costs of the background check. Whether it’s $125 or whatever, that may not stop you or I from being able to go and obtain a gun.
But if my research convinces me of anything, the people who benefit the most from guns are the people who are most likely victims of violent crime. That overwhelmingly tends to be poor blacks who live in high crime urban areas.
$125, even if it doesn’t make a difference for you or I to be able to do it, it may make a difference between whether a poor black is able to legally obtain a gun to protect themselves and their families. If you really believe that these background checks reduce crime—and I am very skeptical, I don’t—there are a couple of things to point out.
One, if you believe it reduces crime, you believe it reduces crime for everybody, not just the individual who’s buying the gun. So why should they have to pay the full freight of the cost of doing the background check? As an economist, I’d say, everybody benefits; everybody should pay.
The second point is if you really believe these background checks are beneficial, you want to encourage people to go out of their way to do the background check on a private transfer of a gun. But making them pay $125 fee, essentially a tax on that, how does that encourage them to do that? Do you tax things that you want to encourage people to go and do? No.
For both of those reasons—everybody benefits, as well as encouraging them—you should pay for this out of general revenue. I’ve been making this point for 20 years to gun control advocates, saying that if they made a couple of what I regard as extremely reasonable changes in these background checks that they’re proposing, they could get them passed.
But they will fight you tooth and nail against making any of these changes, and I come to believe that they really don’t care about these background checks in terms of reducing crime. The reason why they push these background checks is simply to make it costly for people to be able to go and own guns. It’s a pattern that you see nationally with regard to Democrats.
I’ll give you an example. Compare Illinois and Indiana, two states that are right next to each other. In Indiana, over 20 percent of the adult population has a concealed handgun permit. In Illinois, it’s 3 percent.
Why the difference? It’s a very simple reason why there’s a difference. In Illinois, we’re not talking about the price of the gun or anything, but the cost of the permitting process is about $450. And you have to pay big fees when you renew it. In Indiana, the total cost of getting a five-year permit is $12.95.
Guess what? If you make it a lot more costly, you have a lot fewer people who are going to go and get permits. But it’s more than that. The type of people who go and get concealed handgun permits in Illinois are basically wealthy whites who live in the suburbs.
That’s fine. I’m glad that they’re able to go and protect themselves, but they’re not the ones who are most likely victims of violent crime. How many poor blacks who live in Chicago are able to pay $450 just to get through the permitting process?
The problem that you create is that the people who need the guns the most don’t get them. In Indiana, you see a much higher rate of concealed handgun permits being issued in those zip codes which are heavily black in urban areas there because they’re the ones who benefit the most.
So the big difference is, Illinois is a heavily Democrat-controlled state; in Indiana, it’s a heavily Republican state. So the irony is that the Democrats claim that they care about minorities, but they’ve set up a system where it’s basically only wealthy whites who go and get concealed handgun permits.
That’s not the only thing that they do in places like Illinois. In Chicago, there are no training facilities within the city. You have to get 16 hours of training and they don’t allow you to take even a permit concealed handgun on public transportation.
So if you’re a poor person who lives in Chicago and if you don’t have a car yourself, [you have to] go and borrow somebody else’s car for two days because it’s 16 hours, two days or three days or four days worth of training, to travel well outside the city in order to get it.
It’s kind of like they went through the cost, the difficulty of getting training, the logistics of getting training. It’s kind of like they checked off all the things they could think of to make it very difficult for poor minorities to be able to go and get a concealed handgun permit.
I’ll just make one other example of this. There are 7 states which are so-called “may-issue” states for a concealed handgun permit. You have to go to some public official and demonstrate some need that you have, a good reason for why they should grant you a permit.
There are 43 states which are either so-called “Right-to-Carry” or “Constitutional Carry” where you have objective rules. You pay your fee, you undergo the background check, you get your training, but once you met those rules, they give it to you. They don’t ask you why you want it or say this is a good reason or not.
A few years ago, I was able to get the names of all the concealed carry permit holders in Los Angeles County. It’s 216 permit holders in a population of 8.5 million adults.
You go through the list, only 7 percent of the permit holders in Los Angeles County are women. Nationwide, it’s about 30 percent. Only 6.5 percent of permit holders are black. Nationwide, it’s almost 14 percent. Only 6 percent of the permit holders in Los Angeles County are Hispanic; 54 percent of the population in Los Angeles County are Hispanic.
So is it only women in the rest of the country get stalked, and that women in Los Angeles don’t get stalked or threatened? They don’t have to worry about crime in Los Angeles? Is it only in the rest of the country that poor blacks have crimes being committed against them? They just are safe in Los Angeles County?
It’s bizarre to think about these things and yet, somehow, when the Democrats have controlled the process, and they get to decide whether or not somebody has a good reason or not, people that have “good reasons” for getting a concealed handgun permit are basically very wealthy, very politically connected white males. Maybe only white males [are in] danger in Los Angeles County, and nobody else is really in danger. But I really think that’s very unlikely in that situation.
Mr. Jekielek: These are really fascinating statistics, John. It’s incredible to think that there are only 200 concealed carry permits in the whole area of L.A., over 8 million people. There are presumably a lot more guns in the area.
Mr. Lott: Yes, sure. You look nationwide, we have over 20 million concealed carry permit holders. If you look outside of California, New York, and New Jersey, over 9.5 percent of adults in all the rest of the country have a concealed handgun permit.
Now, we have 20 Constitutional Carry states. You don’t even need to have a permit in those other states. So the actual rate that people can legally carry is much higher than that 9.5 percent, and they presumably do carry.
So you can see how unusual the media capitals are, Washington, D.C., New York City, California. The people who do the media live in their own little tiny bubble that’s dramatically different than the rest of the country.
They may be fearful of somebody next to them in a grocery store or restaurant having a permanent concealed handgun, but if you’re in Pennsylvania, there are 1.4 million concealed carry permit holders; in Texas, there’s 1.6 million; in Florida, there are 2.2 million concealed carry permit holders.
You go to a restaurant, you go to a grocery store, you go to a movie theater, the probability that somebody next to you is carrying a [concealed carry] permit handgun is extremely high. Yet people go about their business all the time in those places. But if you try to tell somebody in Los Angeles or New York what it’s like to be in Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, or Houston, they probably won’t believe you.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the impact in these states where there is a lot of concealed carry, from what you’ve seen?
Mr. Lott: I think it makes people safer. You can make it risky for criminals to commit crimes, as we talked about, with higher arrest rates, higher conviction rates, longer prison sentences, and the death penalty. But you can also make it riskier for criminals to go and commit crimes by allowing victims to be able to go and defend themselves.
When I was chief economist with the United States Sentencing Commission, I must have read more than 1000 trial transcripts for criminal cases. You can’t read these things without coming away with the fact that criminals are like everybody else. If you make something riskier, if you make something more difficult, they’re less likely to do it.
In a lot of these cases, you’d have a couple of robbers, and the government would get one robber to turn state’s evidence against the other robber and testify against him in some type of plea deal.
They’d ask him the same questions all the time. They’d say, “Why did you go and pick this particular victim?” The guy would say, “We talked about going after the drug dealer down the street, but he has a lot of guns and it’d be really crazy to go after him. We talked about maybe going after cab drivers, but a lot of cab drivers have guns and we really didn’t want to go after that.”
Then they’ll say, “But we saw this small woman going across this parking lot late at night by herself and she looked like a really easy target,” and so they went after her.
You read enough of these cases and you just see time after time that these guys may not be the nicest people you want to be with or anything else, but just like anybody else, if you make something riskier, you make something more difficult, they’re less likely to do it
It’s basically what economics is about. I’m an economist. So if you make something more costly, if you raise the price of apples, people buy fewer apples. If you make it riskier for criminals to commit crimes, they commit fewer crimes.
Mr. Jekielek: At least this is what seems to be coming out in everything you’ve talked about. Presumably, the idea with these high costs for background checks is to reduce the incidence of it altogether.
Mr. Lott: The aim is to reduce the number of people who legally own guns. That’s one of the aims that they have, and it’s not just the costs. The background check system is a mess.
One of the claims that Kamala Harris made last Thursday is that there are 3 million dangerous people that have been stopped from buying guns because of background checks. That’s simply false. What she should say is that there have been 3.5 million initial denials and that virtually, all of those are mistakes.
For the recent year that we have the data, there are 112,000 initial denials, and they had 12 prosecutions. Why do they have 12 prosecutions? It’s because they weren’t real cases. It’s one thing to go and stop a felon from buying guns, and another thing to stop somebody, simply because they have a name similar to a felon, from buying guns.
When you go and fill out the [ATF Form] 4473, which you fill out when you buy a gun, you put down your name, your social security number, your address, your birthday, your race, your eye color. You think they’re using all that information. In the vast majority of the cases, they’re using roughly phonetically similar names and similar birthdays.
The problem is that those mistakes overwhelmingly harm minorities. People tend to have names similar to others in their racial groups. Hispanics have names similar to other Hispanics, blacks tend to have names similar to other blacks.
33 percent of black males are legally prohibited from owning guns because of felony records, whose names [are] most likely to be confused with other law abiding black males who want to have a gun to protect themselves and their families. Through no fault of their own and because of the way the background checks system’s set up, they’re stuck, and there’s no reason for this. There’s no reason at all.
If private companies had an error rate when they do background checks on employees that was 100, the error rate that the federal government has, they’d be sued out of existence. All you have to do is require that the federal government has to do background checks in the same way that the federal government mandates the private companies have to do them.
When the government makes a mistake, they don’t tell you. You basically have to go and hire a lawyer. In theory, it’s possible for somebody to handle the paperwork and everything themselves. But for most people, it’s going to be much too complicated to do that. You’re talking about legal fees that start around $3,000.
Again, what you have is poor and middle income blacks and Hispanics being stopped from being able to buy guns. Even a wealthier person may want to have a gun, but do they really want to spend $3,000 to go through the process? Is it really worth that much to them to fix a mistake that’s not from anything they did and it’s just because of the incompetence that the government has?
I was just [working] in the Department of Justice and I saw some data that indicates that the error rate for black males is more than three times their share of the population. For Hispanics, it’s not quite as high, but it’s pretty high too.
Again, that’s another thing I have brought up to gun control advocates for 20 years. I said, “If you fix the cost and you make it so that they’re not making these mistakes, you will eliminate much of the opposition to these background checks—but they refuse. They will fight you against fixing something like this. I can’t even think of a good logical reason.
There are two other things that would be easy to fix also. One has to do with the fact that in large rural parts of the country, there are no licensed dealers nearby. So if you’re required to go to a licensed dealer in order to buy a gun or transfer a gun to somebody else, you may have to drive 100 miles or so.
There are ways that you can try to get around that. You could have apps on phones or other things that would allow them to do these types of things. Maybe you’d have to have a notary public, but there are a lot more notaries around than you’re going to have licensed dealers. The other thing is the concern that they could go and create a national registering program out of these universal background checks.
Right now, the federal government is banned from keeping the records for more than 24 hours once a background check is completed, but licensed dealers have to keep it forever, basically. So if you had universal background checks [for] all new sales of guns, as well as all transfers of guns, they’d keep the paperwork.
Even though right now, the bills may say that they can’t create a national registry out of it, five years from now, you could have a different Congress, and a president who wants to make that change and will just say, “All those records that you’ve been keeping and you probably already have digitized, we want you just to send those to the federal government.” You’ve got an instant national registration list on all people who legally obtained a gun over the previous five years.
Then you have issues of what can happen with registry. But again, that’s an easy thing to fix. All you have to do is have a limit on how long the license dealers have to keep that information. It may not have to be the 24 hours that the federal government’s had. Maybe it’s a month or six months, or whatever, but as long as you have a limit on it, then you can take care of that problem.
If the goal is to have the background checks, as opposed to the goal of trying to create some type of national registry, then just like fixing the cost, why should you care if you’re one of these people who really believe that background checks are important for solving crime—and they’re not, I don’t believe. But if you believe that, then the federal government should be willing to pay for it, because it produces this big benefit.
Mr. Jekielek: I think we have a pretty good picture of the background checks situation right now. Can you give me a rundown of the other elements of the Biden administration’s approach to gun control?
Mr. Lott: Before we get into that, I just have to say, I was just shocked by how many lies Biden and Kamala Harris said in just a short period of time. We talked about some of the facts with regard to the background check, but it was much broader than that. At least 24 within the 10 minutes or so that they were able to do. I’ve written a couple of pieces that deal with about 12 of them. I’d have to write a couple more pieces to go and deal with other ones that they have.
Biden’s number one proposal is to deal with lawsuits against gun makers and gun sellers. He was claiming multiple times during his presentation that gun makers and gun sellers are just supposedly completely exempt from lawsuits, and that’s simply false. If you make a defective gun and somebody gets harmed, you can get sued. If you sell a gun illegally, let’s say you don’t do a background check and there’s harm that results from that, you can get sued. Those are civil suits that you can have.
What they’re protected by right now is the notion that if you sell a gun and you do the background check, and let’s say if somebody accidentally shoots the gun or commits a crime with the gun, you’re not legally liable for that. Could you imagine if we apply the types of rules that Biden wants to have to, let’s say, carmakers.
There are 4.5 million people injured each year in car accidents that require medical care. Can you imagine all those people suing for pain and suffering, for lost wages, and for medical costs?
I have somebody who’s not paying attention while they’re driving. Maybe they’re talking to somebody, maybe they’re fiddling with the radio, maybe they’re texting, and they get into an accident, and people get killed, seriously wounded, or injured. Why should Ford Motor have to pick up all the damages for this person not paying attention?
What do you think would happen to the automobile industry if they had to have 4.5 million lawsuits there? Presumably, it could even put most of the car industry out of business.
Just as we talked about before, the goal with background checks is to make it costly for law abiding people to be able to go and get guns. That’s the ultimate goal for what Biden kept on saying, his number one proposal, the number one piece of legislation that he liked to have.
Again, he lied with regard to what he claimed the current rules were. Just as an aside with all these types of false claims, it makes you think that they really don’t have confidence in their arguments, if they have to go and make these false statements all the time.
Another thing that’s related to background checks, which he wants to change is what they call the “Charleston loophole” and they link it to Dylann Roof’s shooting in 2015 of the black church in which nine people were shot to death in Charleston, South Carolina. He claimed that if they had longer than three days to check his criminal background, they would have found that he was a prohibited person and prevented from being able to buy a gun—but that’s simply false.
You’re banned from having a gun, buying a gun, if you are a convicted felon, or if you have been convicted of certain misdemeanors, or if you’ve been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime, at least a state crime, that would result in maybe two years or more in prison.
Roof had one arrest. It was for a misdemeanor drug offense. The longest prison term he could have faced by being convicted was six months, so he wasn’t prohibited. They could have checked for 30 years and they wouldn’t have found [anything.]
Now, if they want to have a law that would say, “If you’re arrested for misdemeanors but not convicted, then you’re banned from having guns,”—fine. Let’s have a debate. Or if the [government] says that they want to have a 30-day wait before they allow you to buy a gun—fine. Say that you want to have 30-day waiting periods and then we can debate whether or not there should be a 30-day waiting period or not.
But to hide this long waiting period that they’re trying to put in there and claim that it would have stopped this mass public shooting where it wouldn’t have had anything to do with it, just isn’t honest. If you want the long waiting periods, fine, make the case for it.
There are other things that he’s going to be doing. He wants to ban the importation of guns and that’s also going to have a big increase in the cost of guns. I know he wants to blame this on guns, but the reason why we have the huge increase in gun [sales last year] was because the crime rate was increasing, because people were seeing that the police weren’t able to do their job, that prosecutors weren’t prosecuting, and that inmates were being released.
People love the police but they saw that the police couldn’t do their job, so they realized that they were ultimately responsible for protecting themselves and their families. That was the reason for the increase. But anybody who’s tried to buy a gun or ammunition recently knows how difficult it is to obtain a gun—the short supplies that are there.
You may have 20 percent of guns being imported, but you cut off that 20 percent. What do you think’s going to happen to the price of guns? They’re just going to shoot up even more. It’s going to be more difficult to have people obtain guns. So again, I think all these things have one common factor and that is just trying to make it costly for people to be able to obtain guns.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a number of other key elements of the discussion last Thursday. One of them had to do with these braces. Can you kind of elaborate on that for me?
Mr. Lott: There’s something called, “stabilizing braces.” So often with the gun control movement, you have something that happens with a particular item and they immediately try to ban it. What happened was, in the Boulder, Colorado shooting, the killer had what’s called a stabilizing brace on his handgun, which is really just a strap that attaches to the gun and wraps around your arm.
Biden didn’t mention this, but the reason why stabilizing braces got developed to begin with was for disabled veterans. You may have had a veteran who might have had half of his hand blown off, or might have his arm crippled, and so having a strap that allowed him to hold that gun with what’s left of his hand or with his damaged arm made it possible for those individuals to be able to target shoot.
It also made it possible for those individuals to be able to use a gun to defend themselves. Disabled people are often attractive targets for criminals and so allowing a disabled person to be able to use a gun seems like a benefit that you may want to try to keep in mind.
Unfortunately, as with all the discussions that Biden had, he never mentioned any of the trade-offs that existed. To him, we had this one guy use it. As far as I know, it’s the only mass public shooting that’s used one of these braces and it’s not really obvious to me how it helped him in any way.
We’re talking about somebody firing a gun at short range. There’s nothing that I know with regard to this murder that he had a disability, that his arm was weak, or anything else. It’s not really obvious to me. As far as I know, I really haven’t seen any evidence that this strap that he had attached to the gun made any difference in his ability to shoot individuals in that relatively enclosed space in the grocery store there.
So that would be the type of way you would normally talk about the trade-offs, but it’s not something that seems to have ever even briefly crossed Biden or Harris’s minds on the issue. One thing that he also wanted to push very hard and one that the Department of Justice put together model legislation for was these “red flag laws.”
So you have somebody who’s a danger to themselves or others, [and with the] red flag laws, what they do is they allow a judge who sees a complaint—there’s no hearing or anything initially—to look at a piece of paper with the complaint and order that a person’s guns be taken away. Maybe within a month or something, there’ll be a hearing of it.
The thing that most people don’t realize is that we already have laws in place to deal with this and laws that do a much better job on it, which is probably the reason why gun control advocates don’t like it. They go by different names but it’s pretty much the same thing. In some places, it’s called “Baker Act.” In California, it’s called “5150,” involuntary commitment, [and there are] other types of rules there.
What happens is, if you think somebody is a danger to themselves or somebody else, they can be brought in for a short [period]. It could be a 24-hour or 72-hour psychiatric hold, and you’ll have psychiatric experts evaluate the person. Then immediately after that, you’ll have a court hearing. If the person can’t afford a lawyer, a lawyer will be provided for them at that point.
The irony is that a lot of the Democrats who support red flag laws oppose these types of involuntary commitment rules, because they say that there are not enough civil rights protections. There’s a lot more there. There’s a hearing immediately. If you can’t afford a lawyer, one’s provided for you. Those aren’t the things that happen with red flag laws.
[When] you talk to lawyers, the cost of a lawyer for hearing a red flag case is $10,000 [and above.] So most people say, “I’m not going to hire a lawyer. This is not worth that much to me. If I lose, I lose my guns.” So the vast majority of people who go through these red flag law cases don’t have lawyers represented. One thing that I don’t think is appreciated is how these laws can actually accomplish the opposite of what you want to have.
The vast majority of people who these red flag laws affect are people who you’re concerned about suicide with. The only thing, again, that happens with red flag laws [is] your guns [are] taken away. If I really believe somebody’s suicidal, if I really believe that they’re a danger to themselves, is simply just taking away their gun the solution for making sure they don’t commit suicide? There are so many ways for people to commit suicide. That’s just not very realistic.
Mr. Jekielek: This is incredibly fascinating and thinking about these things from a very different perspective than you often hear, John. I appreciate that immensely. The other thing that jumps to my mind from that press conference is this topic of ghost guns. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that?
Mr. Lott: Ghost guns are basically guns that people make on their own. It’s been a felony already if you make a gun on your own and you sell it to somebody else. I have no evidence that this is a significant problem at all, but you have hobbyists and others who like to make their own guns. I think they just want to prevent people from being able to make their own guns.
I know they talk about the lack of serial numbers and what have you, but there’s no evidence that there’s a significant number of crimes that are being committed with these. You can go and look at a country like our neighbor, Mexico. There’s literally only a couple tenths of 1 percent of the Mexican population that legally owns a gun.
Since 1973, you’ve had only one gun store in the country. It’s run by the military. Guns are very expensive. You have to pay a $2,400 fee even to apply for a license for a gun in Mexico. It’s illegal for a person to sell a gun to another person.
If you’re going to sell your guns, you have to sell them back to the government and then the government will make the sale to somebody else, if they want to do that. Despite all those restrictions, Mexico has a murder rate that’s about six times higher than the murder rate that we have here in the United States.
The criminals aren’t using ghost guns down there. They’re bringing in the guns from around the rest of the world, and despite what claims you hear, these guns are not coming from the United States.
Over a recent five-year period, the Mexican government had confiscated something like 13,000 hand-grenades from drug gangs. I don’t know what gun control activists think, but I’m pretty sure you can’t just walk into a gun store and buy a live hand grenade. So they’re not getting those from the United States and they’re not getting machine guns from the United States.
You don’t go into gun stores and just buy machine guns. They’re bringing them in from South America. They’re bringing them in from militaries around the world. They’re stealing from the Mexican military, but they’re not getting them from the United States.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s the murder rate by firearms that is six times greater?
Mr. Lott: The total murder rates. The vast majority of them, I’m sure are by guns.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible to hear these statistics. I want to jump to something else. When we spoke offline, I thought it was incredibly interesting. You mentioned that there are two things on your mind that this whole discussion about guns in America would change. I’m wondering if you could elucidate on that a little bit for me? I thought it was really interesting.
Mr. Lott: Maybe three things, but they’re pretty simple. One is really just deal with news coverage which creates an impression in people’s minds about the costs and benefits of guns. One is, where we have these mass public shootings, I just wish once in a while the media would mention that we’ve had yet another mass public shooting in a gun-free zone where civilians were banned from having guns.
These attackers may be crazy in some sense but they’re not stupid. Their goal, and they plan these six months, two years, or more in advance, is to try to kill as many people as possible.
We have people who want to overwhelmingly commit suicide, but they want to commit suicide in a way that’s going to get them media attention. They know the more people they kill, the more media attention that they’re going to get. So of course, they go to a place where victims aren’t able to defend themselves. There’s a whole list of cases we could talk about where [they] explicitly chose these places.
If even once in a while, the media would say, “We’ve had yet another mass public shooting in a place where guns were banned,” it would register with people. Instead, the things that the media often goes through are how they think the person got the gun or what types of guns were used, often things that they get wrong initially.
But often the simplest thing to check is whether guns were banned in that facility or that place where the attack occurred. Yet, you will search in vain to see media coverage that will mention that.
The second thing is, about 94 percent of the successful mass public shootings take place in areas where guns are banned. We have a number of unsuccessful attacks and those occur in places where guns aren’t banned.
At our website, CrimeResearch.org, for the Crime Prevention Research Center, we have a list of literally dozens of cases in the last few years where what police say would have been a mass public shooting was stopped because someone with a permit concealed handgun was right there at the scene and able to stop it from occurring. My guess is if even some of those cases got national media attention, it would also have an impact on the debate.
You have something like the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, where at the time it was the most number of people killed in a mass public shooting, 49. Within about a week afterward, there was a similar attack at a nightclub in South Carolina.
There’s one big difference though. Florida is one of 10 states that ban permitted concealed handguns in establishments that got more than 50 percent of their revenue from alcohol. South Carolina was 1 of the 40 states that allowed people to carry in those types of places.
So the attacker in South Carolina had shot three people, was shooting at a fourth person when a person pulled out his permanent concealed handgun and seriously wounded the attacker.
You would think, we just had this huge attack at a nightclub in Florida that was still getting attention a week later. You would think about the fact that you had another attempted attack when the guy was shot, and he still had well over 100 rounds of bullets, and who knows how many people he could have harmed with that much ammunition.
You would think that would be national news too, and people would be sensitive to attacks that tried to occur at nightclubs, but you will search in vain for any type of national news coverage on it, because it didn’t end up the way [and] it didn’t fit the template that the media was looking for.
You look at something like the Parkland school [Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School] shooting. I guess about five or six months later in Florida, not very far away, there was another attack at a school gathering for starting the school year there. It was for an elementary school. You had literally hundreds of students that were there in a park, as well as their parents and teachers.
A man started firing his gun, but he was quickly stopped by a concealed carry permit holder. A vendor there had his gun with him and was able to seriously wound the attacker. We’re still having discussions about Parkland, yet for another school in Florida where the attack was stopped, you will not find any national news coverage on it. There was some local news coverage where the attack was stopped.
You can go through our list, and you’ll find case after case, and people won’t have heard of these cases. There were only a few of these mass public shootings which have been stopped by [concealed carry] permit holders that have gotten national news coverage, and usually the national media completely mucks up the story.
I’ll give you one example of the three that have gotten coverage. You remember the [Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation] synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh? Just a few days different than that, there was an attack at a Kroger grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky.
The murderer had gone into the grocery store [and] started shooting blacks. What got the national news attention on something like Meet the Press or other places was the statement from the murderer to a customer there saying, “Whites don’t shoot whites.” That was a white customer, and the way the national media played it was that this white murderer was assuring this white customer that the white customer had nothing to worry about because they were both whites.
They bungled it because that wasn’t the full quote. The full quote from the murderer was, “[Don’t shoot me. I won’t shoot you.] Whites don’t shoot whites.” That white customer there at the store had a permanent concealed handgun and was pointing it at the murderer. Rather than the murderer assuring the customer that the customer had nothing to worry about, he was pleading with the customer not to shoot the murderer.
The customer did shoot the murderer, and did seriously wound him. The murderer got into his car, drove away, and then passed out. The police later arrested him. But it completely goes against the racist narrative that they have. Here you have a white who’s come to the aid of blacks. He could have just stayed away and not done anything if he believed that since he was white, he had nothing to worry about.
It made the story much more complicated from the national news perspective. They just wanted to emphasize the racist angle. They also would have to acknowledge that the concealed handgun permit stopped the attack that saved other black lives that were there.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating. Your contention basically is that it’s really the media that is fueling a lot of the gun control debate.
Mr. Lott: Right. Then there’s a third point to raise and that is the perception that the United States is somehow unique in terms of mass public shootings. The thing is, the attacks in the United States, everybody knows about them. They get massive news coverage. The same thing isn’t true for attacks in other countries.
So if you were to compare the United States to Western Europe over the last 10 years, where were the two most deadly mass public shootings? Were they in the United States? No. The two deadliest ones were in Europe.
You had in November 2015, the concert shooting in Paris, France, where 130 people were murdered. In July 2011, you had the Norway attack. If you ignore the bombing deaths, you had 67 people that were murdered by shooting. Both of those are significantly more than any of the mass public shootings in the United States.
France has had lots of other mass public shootings. If you look at just 2015 alone, France had more casualties from mass public shootings than the United States—a country with five times the population of France—had in the entire eight years of the Obama presidency. The fatality rate or casualty rate was much, much, much higher in France than it was in the United States.
You adjust for population, which you have to do. You have Finland, Norway, Switzerland, many Eastern European countries, and Russia that have much higher fatality rates for mass public shootings than the United States has, but people wouldn’t know that. We hear about something like the mosque shooting in New Zealand, but who would know that within 24 hours of that, there was a big public school shooting in Brazil or there was a mass public shooting in the Netherlands. They may get some small mention in the back of newspapers.
Biden’s statement last Thursday that the United States is somehow unique in terms of these mass public shootings is simply false. It’s not even remotely close to being true. The United States makes up about 4.6 percent of the world population. We make up about one percent of the mass public shooters in the world. So we’re way, way below the world average. Not only are there many countries in Europe that have higher rates than the United States, but you get outside of Europe and it’s much higher.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating too because often, you’ll hear about the example of Japan where guns are basically banned—crime is low. There are not many mass shootings that I’m aware of anyway, but that doesn’t necessarily show the whole picture globally.
Mr. Lott: There’s a simple point that I make when I talk to people and that is, can you name me one place in the world, any place in the world, that’s banned either all guns or all handguns, and seen murder rates go down? I can’t find the place. I’m talking about places where we have crime data, both before and after the ban there.
People know places like Washington, D.C. and Chicago where we had handgun bans, and we had significant increases in murder rates and violent crime rates after the bans went into effect.
Usually, gun control advocates will say, “Those aren’t fair comparisons because unless you can ban guns [in] every place, a ban won’t work because they can still get guns from the rest of Illinois, or they can get them from Indiana, or Maryland, or Virginia. I suppose my response to that was, it would have been nice if you told people beforehand that you didn’t think the ban was going to work.
But beyond that, you can look around the world. There are whole countries that have banned guns. There are island nations that have banned guns, which you think would be the ideal experiment from their point of view, that have seen significant, huge increases in murder rates immediately after the bans go into place.
You think out of randomness, you can find one place, someplace in the world, that’s either banned all guns or all handguns, and seen murder rates at least stay the same, but you can’t find them either staying the same or dropping. They go up and often by very large amounts after the ban has been in place.
Japan’s pretty much had the same gun control laws from the 1700s and so we really don’t have crime data before that. All I can say is, as far as we know, as far back as we can go, Japan’s always had an extremely low murder rate, and it’s something to do with island nations or whatever, because you generally see they normally have fairly low crime rates.
But there’s not one place where we have crime data both before and after a ban that people can point to where it’s either stayed the same or fall. It’s gone up often by three, four, or five, even seven or eight fold increases in murder rates after the bans been put in place.
Mr. Jekielek: As we finish up based on all the data that you’ve crunched through, it’s obviously considerable here, what does your organization advocate for as a way to achieve a safer society with respect to gun crime and beyond?
Mr. Lott: The Crime Prevention Research Center is a group of academics. I have been an academic most of my life and we try to look at data. The big thing is to try to make it risky or costly for criminals to commit crimes. Higher arrest rates, higher conviction rates, and longer prison sentences are important things.
There are costs and benefits. My research at least indicates to me that police are the single most important factor for reducing crime. But the police themselves understand that they virtually always arrive at the crime scene after the crimes occurred. That raises the question, what should people do when they’re having to confront a criminal by themselves?
My research convinces me that there are two groups of people who benefit the most from owning guns, and I would generally say that [they are] the most vulnerable people in our society. There are people who are relatively weaker physically, women and the elderly, and people who are most likely victims of violent crime, poor blacks, who live in high crime urban areas.
With regard to women and the elderly, you’re almost always talking about young males doing the attacks. When you’re having a man attacking a woman, there’s a larger strength difference that exists there than a man attacking another man. The presence of a gun represents a much bigger relative change in a woman’s ability to resist an attack than it does for a man.
It’d be great if the police were there all the time, but unfortunately, they’re not able to. We have 680,000 police officers in the country, sworn law enforcement officers. You may have 250,000 or 300,000 maximum on duty at any particular time. You have a country of 330 million people.
So the question becomes, what should people do when they’re having to confront a criminal? Having a gun turns out to be by far the safest course of action. There’s a lot of misinformation out there on things like accidental deaths involving guns or suicides, obviously. People can look up the data themselves.
You look at something like the CDC numbers for accidental gun deaths involving children. For children under age 10, you’re talking about 30-some accidental gun deaths a year over the last 10 years or so. If you break those numbers down, and I’ve done this in the past in one of my books, what you find is about two-thirds of those are gunshots fired by adult males, usually in their mid to late-20s, who are either drug addicts or alcoholics, and have violent criminal histories. It’s already illegal probably for most of those guys to own a gun to begin with.
If you’re talking about cases where a child gets a hold of a gun and accidentally shoots another child, you’re talking about cases that are about as rare as lightning strikes killing those types of kids. Is it something that you should be careful about? Sure, you tell kids not to go into an open field during a lightning storm, holding an umbrella above their heads.
There are certain common sense things that you do, but there are a lot of things that represent much greater risks for kids. You would never know that from listening to the news.
My book, the “The Bias Against Guns,” after I wrote it, I noticed, I had had 10 stories where young children had used guns to stop crime. I started looking into it more and I would notice that those stories just didn’t get picked up by other newspapers.
I called up the reporters. There’s one reporter from South Bend, Indiana, that I talked to, for example. She had done a story on a cab driver being killed. I called her up and I said, “In many years, being a cab driver is the most dangerous occupation in the United States because of crime. The old adage in the news is, dog bites man isn’t a new story but man bites dog is.
If you had two stories, one, a cab driver being shot to death, or two, a 10-year-old boy saving his grandmother from a gang leader who had a knife to her throat, you would think the second story would be more unusual and the coverage will get picked up by other newspapers. Instead, in your own paper, the cab driver getting shot was the front page story, the young boy saving his grandmother’s life was buried at the back of your paper and was only 280 words long.
Why the disparity there? Her response to me was pretty much the response I got from other reporters, and that is they were concerned about painting guns in a positive light because they were worried that [it] might encourage other families to let their children get access to guns and then they would be responsible in some sense for any accidental gun deaths that might arise.
Mr. Jekielek: John Lott, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Lott: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.