Economist John Lott Jr., a former visiting professor and fellow at the University of Chicago, recently spoke at an event hosted by the Federalist Society at the UChicago Law School. Now the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, Lott argued that gun control legislation is ineffective in combatting violent crimes and that its poor implementation has inadvertently harmed the country’s most vulnerable populations.
The first portion of Dr. Lott’s presentation framed the importance of his research. “We know that violent crime has soared in the United States over the last couple of years,” asserted Lott, “and it’s not really a mystery what has happened.”
One explanation for why violent crime has risen is that large cities across the country cut police funding in 2020. New York moved to drop roughly $1 billion from its police budget that year; in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., the figures were $150 million, $120 million, and $15 million, respectively.
An additional explanation that Lott proffered for rising crime is that district attorneys like Chicago’s Kim Foxx have neglected their duties by refusing to prosecute violent criminals. He cited the 2021 West Side shootout, after which Foxx refrained from pressing charges despite high-definition video footage nailing the perpetrators.
Moreover, bail reform has allowed seasoned offenders like Waukesha Christmas parade attacker Darrell Brooks Jr. to be released from custody even with a rapsheet fraught with felony charges.
Like Politics, Is All Crime Local?
In the second portion of the event, Dr. Lott focused on the negative effects that crime has on communities: Violence against the social fabric, simply stated, transcends individual victims. For instance, the frequent concentration of crimes in areas predominantly populated by minorities carries external effects, like rendering the local business climate more risky, eliminating potential job opportunities, and decreasing property values.
Illustrating empirically the dense concentration of American crime, Lott observed that the worst 1% of counties (31 total) contained 21% of the nation’s population but accounted for 42% of the murders. Shockingly, the most violent 2% of counties contained 31% of the population but had 56% of the murders.
Cook County, encompassing Chicago, was the worst county in the nation with 775 murders that year.
The Discriminatory Effect of Gun Laws
Lott devoted the last portion of his lecture to firearm ownership data and the fallacies behind background check laws.
Highlighting the demographic trends of gun ownership, Lott’s slide deck claimed that in the last eight years, the growth of permits for women was 109 percent faster than that of men and the growth of permits for blacks was 136 percent faster than that of whites.
Additionally, in Texas, the largest percentage increases in gun ownership from 2000 to 2020 were from minority women. Lott’s explanation for that trend is that the most vulnerable demographics with respect to crime are physically weaker people (i.e., women and the elderly, generally speaking) and poor minorities.
In light of these data showing that minorities and women are leaping at the chance to own firearms, Lott asserted that current policies relating to gun control and background checks are flawed at best and purely nonsensical at worst.
“When you buy a gun, you fill out something called a 4473 where you put down your name, your address, your birthday. . . . And you think they’re going to use all this information,” noted Lott. “But what they actually use is roughly phonetically similar names and similar birthdays.” That results in an abundance of “false denials,” i.e., the rejection of people with a clean background.
The more felons who have a name similar to yours, the more likely it is you will be denied a firearm. And as Lott explains, proportionally uneven felony rates across different demographics mean a disproportionate number of false denials between different races.
According to Lott, the most consequential result of that background-check flaw is that the most vulnerable populations—minorities living in minority-heavy urban areas—are more likely to be denied the firearm with which they could protect themselves and their families. Hence, gun control laws designed to reduce violent crime have actually exacerbated the issue.
Lott received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles; served as a visiting professor and fellow at the UChicago Law School in the 1990s; and published his most famous book, More Guns, Less Crime in 1998. His work is not uncontroversial: Mark Spies writes, for instance, that “Lott’s findings and methods have generated scathing criticism from prominent academics, who have questioned his veracity and exposed flaws in his work.”