Transcript of Interview With John Lott

Mon Oct. 13, 2003 3:00 AM EDT

This is the first of two taped telephone interviews conducted with Lott for my Mother Jones article. It was conducted on August 18, 2003, and covers a wide range of general questions, many of them background for the story. The interview was conducted by cell phone while Lott was driving to the hospital and dealing with personal and family issues, so it was cut short.

Chris Mooney: Well, we don't have much time, so, just a couple of quick questions -- factual. How many copies has your book, More Guns, Less Crime, sold?

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John Lott: The 1998 book I think sold something like 56,000 or something like that. I don't know the exact number, but it's.....

CM: And I know that you've testified at a number of state legislatures, do you have any idea how many, and what ones have you done recently?

JL: No, I couldn't tell you off the top of my head. I mean, I've, I think it's probably been a couple years, I'm not really sure what impact any of that had anyway, the original work came out in '96, and between then, no state passed a right to carry law until Michigan in July 2001. So it's five years until another state passed even one law.

CM: But are you still -- have you done it recently?

JL: I haven't done it for a couple years. I don't remember, I mean, I may have done it two years ago, but nothing in the last year or so.

CM: Okay. Okay. I'm just getting that down. Can you also, can you tell me when you're nearing the end, and I'll just ask a couple last questions, if you get any sense of when that is?

JL: Alright, my guess is we've got about five minutes.

CM: Well, in that case, I guess I'm going to have to dive into, get off some of the background stuff -- cause we're not going to get another chance, is that right?

JL: You know, you can try to gamble on something, but my own belief is, I'm spread too thin right now, I've got too many problems that are happening, I'm just relieving my wife right now, and we've got four other kids at home that somebody has to take care of...

CM: I understand....

JL: [continuing]...it's just a mess right now. So....

CM: Well, here's a quick question. You've been saying a lot about peer review, the Stanford Law Review isn't peer reviewed -- how much of your own book is peer reviewed? Is your most recent book peer reviewed?

JL: Well, one of the chapters was peer reviewed, material in it, and part of another -- all the material on the safe storage was peer reviewed, and part of the stuff in the next chapter was peer reviewed.

CM: So some of it was?

JL: Right.

CM: But the press, Regnery, doesn't peer review books?

JL: No. But all the stuff that I've done on, that I've published under concealed carry has been peer reviewed. University of -- More Guns, Less Crime is peer reviewed.

CM: I actually talked to the Chicago Press, they told me that it was. You know, let's talk about the Stanford Law Review-. You removed your name, as I understand it, that was over a one word change that was a correction?

JL: That's not true. I mean, if you look at the, even the editor's statement on the -- when they had that clarification, which I believe I sent you, they talk about revisions.

CM: But it came down to one word?

JL: They said it was over revisions. And besides that, you have to realize that there was a long process involved there, where there were many promises that had been made that had been broken. For example, the length of the paper was changed after it was done originally. You know, I can go through, but there were lots of problems.

CM: I know....

JL: Just one second. And as I knew, also, it wasn't the end of the changes. The changes, additional changes were insisted on in the final galley, and I knew that was going to come up too. I wasn't involved at all in that process at that stage, I didn't want to be involved, but I was told by Florenz Plassmann that several other changes were insisted on being made at that time, and they just agreed to make them. So you know, I just had better things to do than to continually deal with changes that I knew, additional changes that were going to be made, and were insisted on.

You've got to -- first of all, as I said, I'll just point to the clarification, where they said revision, and I'll also just point to the fact that that's just a small part of the picture, even that. And one other thing I'll point out is that they, if it was so small, then it wouldn't have been necessary for the Stanford Law Review to give us an ultimatum that either we agree to the changes or they weren't going to publish the paper. I mean, they're the ones who gave the ultimatum about not publishing the paper. Nobody, nobody had mentioned anybody's name being removed, or anything else, until they gave us an ultimatum.

CM: Now, Ayres and Donohue say your response to them contains coding errors. Is that right?

JL: There are a couple minor errors, the data is on, the data is available for anybody to look at, anybody can go and download the data, I've made it so that people can go and easily replicate the results, if you went to the website....

CM: I did...

JL: [continuing]...the website has not only the data, it has the regression, it has tables listed as corrected, people can easily see the small differences that are made in the result. And if anybody has any questions, they're perfectly free -- I've had, just that one dataset, I've had several dozen people download it. Most of them are academics, so there are lots of people who can verify for themselves whether or not their claim is true.

CM: You said it's true, but you said it's minor.

JL: Yeah, I said it's minor, that's exactly what I said. You can go and look at the result, you can see the small changes that are there, and there are other people that have looked at the data too. I mean, you have a paper by Helland and Tabarrok, who look at the data up through '97 and get statistically significant drops in violent crime rates. I mean, Donohue may not want to cite it, and he may not want to cite the other papers that are there, but I've given out the data, you know, now I'm sure I've given out different datasets to probably a hundred different downloads, on just the right to carry stuff, to different people. The original stuff, looking at data through '92, or data through '96, was not only given to Ayres and Donohue....

CM: They've told me that you've been very good with sharing your data. I mean, I'm not....

JL: Here's the point. The point is, lots and lots and lots of people have looked at the data, all right? And many papers have been published, many other papers have been written, other papers that they don't want to cite, they go and look at this data. And, you know, if -- so it's not just a debate between myself and those two guys.

CM: But they say these errors are much more significant. You don't think that they are significant?

JL: The data's on the website, the regressions are on the website, the tables are on the website, people have been downloading them, they've been looking at them.

CM: But I want to know your opinion, I'm mean, you're an expert.

JL: And I've already told you my opinion.

CM: It's not significant, it doesn't change the result?

JL: You can see for yourself what difference it makes in the result.

CM: But I'm not an econometrician, I mean, I want to know from you.

JL: Then you should go and ask somebody who is. I mean, I've already told you, I've already characterized it myself, I don't know what you're going to get from me if you keep on repeating it. But the point is, if you don't think that, or if you have a question, the data's there. And if you can't do it, maybe there's somebody else that you can ask to download the data and look at it. And they can go look at the tables and everything, the data's been up there since the end of February, perfectly accessible to anybody who wants to go and look at it.

CM: Yeah, no, I just want to know whether you agree to the error that they say is there.

JL: I've already answered that question.

CM: The same tables appear in your book, is that right?

JL: No, the tables don't appear in the book.

CM: The same tables that were published in the Stanford Law Review, and in your book More Guns, Less Crime, they're the same tables?

JL: No, they're not. Because More Guns, Less Crime used data through 199....

CM: I'm sorry, not More Guns, Less Crime, The Bias Against Guns has tables at the back that seem to me to be the same ones in the Stanford Law Review response.

JL: They're not, they're not the same as the Stanford Law Review, there's a few figures that are the same in an appendix.

CM: That's what I mean.

JL: Okay. But you said tables, right?

CM: I'm sorry. They're graphs. I don't have it in front of me. But....

JL: Yeah, there's a few figures in one of the appendices, and you can go and look to see how the figures would change slightly. They're there, you can go and download the corrected figures from the website, that's one of the nice things with websites, you can go and update things, and the website is listed in the book, so people have been advised to go and look at that anyway. And so, and you can compare them. You know, the murder rate, robbery, aggravated assault, you look at the differences between them, and you can judge visually for yourself how big of a difference it makes in murder, for example.

CM: But I just want to know, are they right or are they wrong?

JL: I've already answered your question, okay. I'm not going to repeat it.

CM: You've said they're minor, but you didn't say whether or not....

JL: Do I think that violent crime falls after these laws go into effect? Yeah.

CM: Do you think that the data as originally presented had coding errors that annulled the result?

JL: No. How many times do I have to tell you?

CM: Okay, I didn't, you hadn't said it clearly.

JL: Look, I'm in a bad mood anyway. I'm in a horrible mood right now. Okay?

CM: Well, I'm sorry, you know....

JL: And I'm not blaming you for that, but what I am blaming is, is that, you just are -- just stop being reporter, okay, and trying to get it ten different ways, and just take the answer that I give you.

CM: I'm sorry. Can I ask you some more questions?

JL: Okay, I'm in sight. You have like one fast question you can try to ask me.

CM: Okay, let's just stay on coding errors, since we're on this. The same data was presented at the National Academy of Sciences, right?

JL: No, it wasn't.

CM: No?

JL: That data wasn't put together until last fall. Which was, which was a year, almost ten eleven months after the National Academy of Sciences presentation.

CM: Cause I'm told that coding errors were pointed out in the National Academy of Sciences presentation and in data that David Mustard attempted to include in the Brookings.....

JL: I don't believe there were any coding errors. You should talk to David.

CM: I'm trying to. But I mean, I thought that this was your data.

JL: David has looked at the data, there are no data coding errors, there's no problem with the data that I presented. And you can look at the tables, you can look at the figures, you can go and judge for yourself whether there's a -- it looks like from my results, whether there's a drop in violent crime rate. And if somebody disagrees, you can go and call up some other academic, have them download the datasets, they're available, lots and lots of people have looked at this, alright? And you can ask them to rerun the regressions. I've made it very easy, unlike other people. The data's not only there, but the regressions to replicate the stuff are there. And the tables are printed out, so it's like almost mindless work for somebody to go and check the stuff. Unlike Donohue and Ayres, who don't give out data, and don't answer any questions about why they put data together, I put my data out there for people to go and look at.

CM: I don't dispute it.

JL: And it would be nice if other people would follow anywhere near the same type of protocol. So if you have a debate, and you can't resolve it yourself, you should go and ask somebody else who can, who you trust, who's a third party, to go and look at the data.

CM: Can I ask you -- let's just shift. At this point are you still doing a lot of writing that's going for scholarly journals, or are you doing more popular publications?

JL: I do scholarly stuff, I just had something that came out recently, I've got several other papers that are under review with journals.

CM: So going to the American Enterprise Institute doesn't mean that you're ceasing to have academic aspirations?

JL: I'm hired to keep on doing the same stuff I've been doing before. There are a lot of people who publish academic things at the American Enterprise Institute, and I think I have something like four papers under review at academic journals, which is probably more than either Ayres or Donohue have under review at academic journals.

CM: Do you still aspire to an academic tenure track position?

JL: This is a great position, I don't have to do any teaching, I get to do research full time.

CM: When you were in the university world, did you teach much?

JL: Yeah, I've taught a lot over the years, I've taught a huge amount over the years. I've taught in business schools, I've taught in econ departments, I've taught in public policy departments, and I've taught in law schools.

CM: Did you teach at Yale and Chicago?

JL: I didn't teach at Yale, no.

CM: You did teach at Chicago?

JL: I taught a few classes at Chicago.

CM: Okay -- this is just more background. You were doing a book on campaign finance, isn't that right? Are you still doing that?

JL: I have a book that's looking at individual reputations, and part of that is on campaign finance.

CM: Is that coming out soon?

JL: Well, I've been working on it, it should be. It's almost done.

CM: At this point, just a general broad question, do you think it's....

JL: I really don't have time. I've really got to get going in. I told you one more question, I've let you ask about four or five more.

CM: Sure. I mean, we haven't covered that much, but you know, obviously....

JL: If it's really short, I'll wait one more minute, but I'm going to get in trouble if I wait much longer.

CM: Okay, one more minute. At this point do you admit the possibility that the "more guns, less crime" thesis might be simply wrong? Because, as it was published, it was good research at the time, but criticism has overtaken it at this point? This is what I'm hearing a lot of people say -- is that true?

JL: There are a lot of papers that support it. There are more papers that find a drop in violent crime after right to carry laws have been in effect than find no effect. And that's basically the range of results that you find. And if you look at even -- if you have The Bias Against Guns, look at the appendix -- I mean, this isn't in the major part of the book, cause the book doesn't really deal with concealed handgun laws, but, so it doesn't really deal with it -- look at appendix one, and there's a table there, that looks at the critical papers that have been published that look at national data. And if you go through there, you'll see even the critics, most of their regressions show either a drop in violent crime, or no change. And so...

CM: With the big exception of Ayres and Donohue....

JL: Well, they don't even find an increase, to be honest. Here's the deal, and you can ask another -- this is just one of the reasons why they published it in the place that they did -- they have what they call hybrid specification, which is, you have a dummy variable and a trend that come out at the same time. What they point to is they say, if -- have you read the Plassmann and Whitley paper?

CM: I've read them all, although, I mean, I read them all a few weeks ago.

JL: Here's the bottom line, just a simple point on this. They have essentially two variables, one that's just a dummy that picks up what we could call an intercept shift, and then they have a trend. Now both of those variables are really on at the same time, and if you want to -- and what they're looking at when they talk about an increase is only the dummy itself. So, but if you look at both together, there's no significant increase even during the early years, if they did it right. But they didn't do it right, and that's using their own results. And if you go through their work -- I mean, here's, did you see the figure that Plassmann and Whitley have, that early figure that they have in the paper, where they're showing that if crime's falling at an increasing rate, and you try to fit a straight line to it, and you have an intercept shift, how in order to have the line go through that curved area.....

CM: I didn't see that, I don't know which one you're talking about. I'm sorry, I don't know what one that is.

JL: Well, this is pretty crucial, okay, to understanding this stuff.

CM: Right, but I mean, I'm not an economist....

JL: No, but you just have to understand graphs. This isn't anything deep.

CM: But I don't have it to look at.

JL: Okay. When you go look at it, what you'll see happening is that there's really no increase. When you do it on a year by year basis, the whole thing is just a figment of the type of restrictions that they put on the specification. Okay, they're trying to fit a straight line with an intercept shift to what's a curved line. And if you try to fit a straight line like that to a curved line, that straight line's going to lie above the curved line in part, below it in another part, and above it someplace else, right?

Okay. And so what they're concentrating on is the beginning part, where that straight line is allowed to lie above the curved line. And that straight line isn't the real crime rate, that's their estimated crime rate. Their estimated crime rate is lying above the true crime rate there, and it's only because of the way that they've set it up. And, but even then, even with that bias, if you take account both the intercept shift and the trend together, rather than just looking at the intercept shift by itself, it's not, even in the beginning, statistically significantly different from zero.

CM: Can I ask you something different?

JL: Just one thing. I mean, here you have all these papers, there are a lot of papers, you have like seven papers in the Journal of Law and Economics, which I referred to you for, that found significant drops in violent crime rate. And these people, this was just published a year ago, using more sophisticated techniques in part than Ayres and Donohue would think of doing. And yet all those papers found some benefit and no cost. It's not just, and even the other critics that are there don't find any cost. So you have a lot of papers, a lot of papers that have looked at this stuff, and my argument is, if Ayres and Donohue did it right, and didn't make these simple mistakes that we're talking about, if you can call them that, because you know, they've been told, and yet didn't fix these things. They've been told on multiple occasions, not just by me, but I've been understood, even when they gave a seminar, when John Donohue gave a seminar at Harvard Law School, a couple of years ago, he was told about the stuff that I'm telling you about now, and he didn't fix it. And that's his choice not to fix it, but it's the reason why I think they chose the type of journal that they chose. So that, you know, it's -- you know, they don't, even they don't get a bad effect, and most of their results show a benefit.

CM: You know, I want to ask you something different. You know, I mean, we don't need to get into all the sort of controversies that was in the media this year....

JL: I've really, I've gone much longer -- I have a sick child, I've got to get in, my wife's been waiting, we have the other kids at home, I've given you more time than I should have. Alright?

CM: Okay.

JL: I apologize.

CM: Okay.

JL: I said one more question, and I've let you go on like about seven or eight now.

CM: Well, just -- you know, it's really up to you. I mean, I can't make you stay on the phone. I'll ask you questions for an hour, so....

JL: I tried calling you, and I tried talking today, cause you told me you have a deadline, alright. And I've tried adjusting things right now.

CM: No, I appreciate it.

JL: I have to go in now, and I have somebody that I have to be with. Alright? And rather than, I just hope you can accept that, because I've tried to make time for you right now on this. I've been standing in a parking lot, I've been standing in a parking lot right now when I should be inside. Okay?

CM: Okay. Thank you. Bye.