Political Science

Doing science a grave injustice

By Dave Kopel & Glenn Reynolds. Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute. Glenn Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee, and writes for InstaPundit.Com.

August 29, 2001 8:40 a.m., National Review Online.

It should come as no surprise to most readers that "objective" government studies are often anything but. In fact, the game is an old one: If you put the right people on a panel, and ask them the right questions, you can pretty well be assured of getting the answers you want. That appears to be what is going on with a Clinton administration-inspired National Academy of Sciences study bearing the innocuous title of "Improving Research Information and Data on Firearms," which opens its formal hearings on Thursday.

According to the NAS, "The goals of this study are to

1.) assess the existing research and data on firearm violence;
2.) consider how to credibly evaluate the various prevention, intervention and control strategies;
3.) describe and develop models of illegal firearms markets; and
4.) examine the complex ways in which firearms may become embedded in the community."

Conspicuously absent from these goals is any research into the benefits of firearms becoming "embedded" in communities, as demonstrated by the research of scholars like John Lott of the American Enterprise Institute and Gary Kleck of Florida State University.

Most of the people selected for the panel have reputations as good scholars, but none of them have specialized in firearms policy. Most of them have reputations as being antigun. Steven Levitt, has been described as "rabidly antigun."

The panel also includes former Jimmy Carter Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti — a long-time antigun advocate, and a strong supporter of America's leading gun-prohibition group, Handgun Control, Inc. (formerly known as "the National Council to Control Handguns," and recently renamed "The Brady Campaign").

The closest that anyone on the panel gets to not being entirely antigun is James Q. Wilson — a distinguished scholar (but no specialist in gun policy), who has said that most gun control doesn't work, but who expresses almost no concern for the rights of legitimate gun owners who are harmed by ineffective laws, and who supports high-tech spy cameras to find people carrying guns. (Notwithstanding the fact that handgun carrying is legal in 33 states by statewide law, and is allowed in many of the rest, on a county by county basis.)

The NAS study will receive $900,000 from the prohibitionist Joyce Foundation, which lavishly funded the Chicago-Kent Law Review's one-sided anti-Second Amendment symposium last year, and which has contributed generously to gun-prohibition groups. It is a fair inference that the Joyce Foundation thinks that the panel is very likely to produce results that will advance its mission. Other funders are the Centers for Disease Control (which was the main funder for antigun junk science, until Congress cut off funding in 1995), and the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, which is also a contributor to antigun groups. Just imagine what gun-control advocates would say if a government study were funded by the NRA or the Scaife Foundation.

The panel is supposed to propose "new…control strategies." The idea of repealing "control strategies" which social scientists have proven to be failures isn't on the agenda. Nor is there any agenda for "strategies" to improve public safety by fostering gun ownership and carrying by law-abiding people — even though social-science data from John Lott and others overwhelmingly show that this strategy really does reduce crime.

The reading packets which have been prepared for the committee are rife with antigun junk science. The committee members find material applauding the study claiming that Seattle and Vancouver are demographically similar (although the latter has virtually no blacks or Hispanics) and that gun control is the reason for Vancouver's lower homicide rate (even though Seattle whites have a lower homicide rate than Vancouver whites, and difference in homicide rates between the two cities is strongly correlated to Seattle's black and Hispanic population).

The committee reading packets contain fulsome praise not only for the Dr. Arthur Kellermann's Seattle/Vancouver junk-science article, but for many of the rest of his junk-science productions, like the claim that owning a gun triples the risk of being murdered (even though hardly any of Kellermann's murder victims were killed with a gun from their own home, and a significant number of the murder "victims" were lawfully killed by police, and the whole factoid disappears once you account for the true rates of gun ownership among the "control group" of people who weren't murdered).

Or the ludicrous study claiming that Washington, D.C.'s 1976 handgun ban reduced homicide — even though homicide in the soared to national record levels after the ban was enacted, while nearby Baltimore (which didn't ban handguns) had no such catastrophic increase. It turns out the "decline" in D.C. homicides was created by pretending that the low-homicide years of 1975-76 were the products of the 1976 handgun ban, which was put into place in the last quarter of 1976 through February 1977.

Not one sentence in any of the official materials prepared for the committee criticizes any gun-control law. The committee members were not given even one of the many social-science articles detailing the failures of various gun-control laws.

The NAS study was originally planned during the Clinton administration, and the study outline and panel makeup ensure that it will produce a properly Clintonian outcome — just in time for the Democrats to use against President Bush in the 2004 elections. Rather than go along with this time-bomb strategy, President Bush should send the NAS back to the drawing board, to come up with a study that also examines the benefits, not just the costs, of firearms, and that does so with a panel containing scholars on all sides of the issue. There is no reason to allow the National Academy of Sciences to be hijacked to advance a partisan political agenda through a stacked panel that will address artificially narrow subjects.

If the Bush administration and the National Academy of Sciences value honest research, and value the reputation of the National Academy, they will see that this study is either canceled, or reconstituted in a fair and balanced fashion, so that scholars can challenge each other. The panel should still include scholarly gun-control advocates like Levitt, but there's no reason for the panel to include people like Civiletti, who have no social-science expertise. And the funding for a National Academy of Sciences study ought to come exclusively from the federal government, not from prohibitionist foundations.

The first meeting of the proposed study group is scheduled for this Thursday and Friday, August 30-31. After that, it will become increasingly difficult to change the course of this study, however ill conceived.

April 22, 2003, National Review Online, The Corner weblog


Earlier today, Glenn Reynolds posted an update about an article we wrote in August 2001, raising concerns about possible bias in a National Academy of Science panel which was beginning a study of firearms law. Perhaps our warnings had some effect; the panel's "charge," which we linked to from our article, focused only on examining the negative effects of firearms in society. That link is no longer operative, and a more detailed charge has replaced it; the new charge requires the panel to also consider beneficial aspects to firearms ownership. Expressing concerns of the make-up of the panel, we pointed to the appointment of Benjamin Civiletti (President Carter's Attorney General), who is not a scholar, and who has well-established anti-gun credentials. Regarding Steve Levitt, a young scholar at the University of Chicago, we wrote that he "has been described as 'rabidly antigun.'" Shortly after this article was published, Steve Levitt wrote to Glenn: "I don't understand your National Review article in which I am described as 'rabidly anti-gun.' "No one who knows me would describe me that way. I love to shoot guns and would own them if my wife would let me. I recently published an op-ed piece in Chicago Sun-Times entitled 'Pools more dangerous than guns' (July 28, 2001) that could only be construed as pro-guns. I have never written anything even remotely anti-gun. I think your sources must have me confused with someone else." As Glenn notes in an Instapundit post today, Glenn promptly posted an Instapundit item noting Levitt's statement about his view on guns. Levitt's Sun-Times article argues that the risks of gun accidents are grossly exaggerated by the media compared to other accident risks. I wrote back to Levitt something which I should have asked then to be posted on this article, so I'm belated posting it now:

As Glenn's Instapundit site details, we have checked with our original source. Nevertheless, since I try (not always successfully) to shed light rather than heat on the gun issue, I think that in retrospect the adverb 'rabidly' shouldn't have been used. So I promise to avoid it in the future. I'm glad to know about your swimming pools piece, and I enjoyed reading it. I did check your publications page on the web before I submitted the article, but the pool piece wasn't there -- understandably, since your page just cites journal articles.

And, as the article said, whatever your views on guns, there's no dispute about your scholarly abilities. My forthcoming article "Lawyers, Guns, and Burglars: Why Mass Tort Litigation Fails to Account for Positive Externalities and the Network Effects of Controversial Products'" 43 Arizona Law Review (no 2, 2001) cites and discusses your excellent LoJack article.

I think that Levitt is mistaken in his belief that he has "never written anything even remotely anti-gun." In "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime," 116 Quarterly Journal of Economics (No. 2, May 2001): 379-420 (co-authored with John Donohue), Levitt wrote: "Elevated youth homicide rates in this period appear to be clearly linked to the rise of crack and the easy availability of guns." p. 395, note 21 ("this period" refers to the late 1980s and early 1990s).

In "Guns, Violence, and the Efficiency of Illegal Markets," 1998 AEA Papers and Proceedings 88 (May): 463-67 (also co-authored with John Donohue), Levitt concluded that the presence of firearms lead to greater levels of violence. He argued that this effect stems not from the lethality of guns per se, but from how they make the outcomes of fights less predictable. A small person who knows he would very likely lose a fistfight to a larger person, will usually choose not to the fight. But if the smaller person has a gun, he may choose to fight: "Guns are an equalizing force that makes the outcome of any particular conflict difficult to predict. All else held constant, this increases the willingness to fight among weaker combatants, leading to greater levels of violence." p. 467.

I'm not arguing (at least not in this post), that Levitt's statements are incorrect, and they are certainly not "rabid." But if a person selecting panelists for the NAS study were looking for panelists who might be expected to see benefits from reducing "easy availability of guns," it would have been reasonable to pick Levitt. There is nothing logically inconsistent with a scholar favoring gun control to address the very large problem of criminal homicide with guns, while also recognizing that the magnitude of the problem of fatal gun accidents involving children is not nearly as large as the media imply.

Posted at 08:27 PM

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