Streetwise Professor

December 23, 2012

All the Views That Are Fit to Spit Out

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 8:07 pm

The New York Times has published a hysterical-in the unhinged, illogical sense of the word-editorial about concealed carry, claiming that such laws are a “scourge.”  The evidence of this?:

Among the arguments advanced for these irresponsible statutes is the claim that “shall issue” laws have played a major role in reducing violent crime. But the National Research Council has thoroughly discredited this argument for analytical errors. In fact, the legal scholar John Donohue III and others have found that from 1977 to 2006, “shall issue” laws increased aggravated assaults by “roughly 3 to 5 percent each year.”

That’s it.  One study that claims to show that aggravated assaults rose 3-5 percent in the aftermath of the passage of concealed carry laws.  Murder? Not a word about that.  Manslaughter?  Uh-uh.  Rape?  Nope.  Battery?  Nope.

Scourges ain’t what they used to be.

Several comments. First, the BS test.  What is the mechanism by which concealed carry leads to increased rates of aggravated assault?  That is, perhaps there is a correlation here (but perhaps not-more on that in a bit), but what is the causal mechanism?  Is there any evidence that concealed carry permit holders are responsible for this alleged increase in assaults?  Zero.  Any theory that has as a refutable prediction that concealed carry should lead to higher rates of assault generally?  Not to my knowledge.  So this is an empirical finding, in one study, that is difficult to attribute to concealed carry per se.

A 5 percent rise in assault (with no evidence of a rise of murder or rape or battery) hardly constitutes a “scourge”, and is nonetheless very difficult to attribute causally to more relaxed rules on concealed carry.

But that doesn’t stop the NYT from recommending wholesale Federal intervention into state gun laws:

The federal government could help protect the public from lax state gun laws. For starters, the Fix Gun Checks Act, proposed last year in Congress, would close gaping loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and make a huge [HUGE!!!!] difference in identifying many people who should be denied permits under “shall issue” laws yet slip through the state systems.

Similarly, Congress could require that states set higher standards for granting permits for concealed weapons, give local law enforcement agencies greater say in the process, and prohibit guns from public places like parks, schools and churches. It could also require record-keeping and licensing requirements in the sale of ammunition, and strengthen the enforcement capabilities of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Any evidence whatsoever that people “who should be denied permits” commit crimes?  In HUGE!!!! numbers, no less? Not in the editorial, certainly, and the empirical evidence that I am familiar with shows that concealed carry permit holders are overwhelmingly law abiding, and commit gun-related crimes at a far lower rate than the populace at large.  So the insinuation that “many people” should be denied concealed carry permits because they represent some sort of danger to public safety is another baseless and slanderous claim.

Second, the NYT’s hysterical claim of a “scourge” is based on the slenderest empirical reed.  A debate on the effects of concealed carry has been raging for over 15 years, since the publication of the research of Lott and Mustard in 1997.   This was followed by Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime, and rejoinders by Ayers and Donohue, among others.  The debate has been extremely contentious, and has often been bitter and personal, and punctuated by both invective and lawsuits.

The original Lott-Mustard and Lott work claims to find that adoption of concealed carry has resulted in a drop in crime.  There is a plausible theory as to why this should occur.

Ayers, Donohue and others have presented empirical results that primarily find no effect of the adoption of concealed carry laws, or perhaps weak evidence of increases in some crimes (notably aggravated assault).

The debate has become a highly technical one, with disputes over specification (what variables to include or exclude, what observations to include or exclude) and techniques for adjusting for serial correlation in panel regressions (“cluster adjustments”, anyone?)  To be honest, I have reservations about the kitchen sink regressions that those on both sides of the argument employ, and think that there could well be an Ed Leamer “con in econometrics” issue here.  That, and a Deirdre McCloskey fetishization of t-statistic issue.  There are also issues about how to interpret one-time effects of the passage of CCL laws and their effects on trends.

To me, the evidence is on the side of a beneficial effect of concealed carry laws, especially since there is a plausible causal mechanism.  But the evidence is not overwhelming either way.  But certainly there is nothing in the empirical literature to support shrieking claims of a “scourge.”

Indeed, not even Ayers and Donohue are adamant about there being a negative effect of concealed carry laws: they mainly dispute that there is a beneficial effect. Indeed, they state explicitly that the adoption of concealed carry laws has not led to the widely predicted bloodbath.  I remember well claims that “every fender bender has the potential to turn into a gun fight”.  Quoth Ayers and Donohue:

We conclude that Lott and Mustard have made an important scholarly contribution in establishing that these laws have not led to the massive bloodbath of death and injury that some of their opponents feared. On the other hand, we find that the statistical evidence that these laws have reduced crime is limited, sporadic, and extraordinarily fragile.

In other words: no scourge, but only weak evidence that concealed carry has reduced crime.

The National Research Council study, the composition of which was certainly not congenial to the More Guns, Less Crime hypothesis or Lott personally, arrived at a similar conclusion.  They found “no credible evidence that the passage of right-to-carry laws decreases or increases violent crime.”  Note: no evidence of increases.  Moreover, even the contention that concealed carry does not reduce crime is itself disputable, given that it is based primarily on one dubious specification.  It should also be noted that an eminent sociologist, the late James Q. Wilson, dissented from this conclusion, finding that concealed carry did reduce murder rates.

Even the study cited in the Time’s editorial is equivocal: “For every other crime category [i.e., other than aggravated assault], there is little or no indication of any consistent [right to carry] impact on crime.”  Again, no evidence that concealed carry reduces crime, but no evidence that it increases it either, except perhaps for assault.  Which again, is puzzling: why would that be?  How could more widespread concealed carry lead to greater assault, especially in the absence of any evidence that permit holders are committing the assaults?

In sum, after more than a decade of extensive empirical research and spirited and often acrimonious debate, there is: (1) virtually no evidence that concealed carry increases crime; (2) no plausible causal mechanism that could lead to this result; (3) some evidence that concealed carry reduces violent and property crime; and (4) a plausible causal mechanism that could produce this result.

One thing that is abundantly clear: there is no evidence of a “scourge.” None.  Zip. Zero. Nada.

If concealed carry was leading to a scourge, it would be easy to find evidence that more relaxed rules for granting concealed carry permits should lead to increases in crimes committed by concealed carry permit holders.  No evidence exists.  Given how far the times was willing to stretch the limited empirical evidence in support of its view, you know that it would have dug up something, if it existed.

There is no evidence for that whatsoever.  None.  None. None.  Again, as I noted before: the evidence is that concealed carry holders are extraordinarily law abiding.  Moreover, even those who criticize empirical research claiming that concealed carry reduces crime readily acknowledge that  no “scourge” of violence (by anyone, let alone concealed carry holders) has followed the adoption of “shall carry” laws.

In other words, the NYT editorial is completely baseless.  It is actually far worse than that.  Despite its complete lack of empirical or theoretical support, it makes incendiary and extravagant claims, without the slightest support for them.  It slanders a group of individuals that is overwhelmingly responsible and law abiding.  Despite its lack of factual support, it recommends expansive new Federal laws, including laws that trample on what are properly state and local responsibilities.

One last thing.  The editorial’s recommendation that the Federal government create gun free zones is dangerous and irresponsible.  (Not to mention the fact that in most states, shall carry laws already create such zones.)  Gun free zones are target rich environments for those intent on mass murder.  There is empirical evidence (by Landes and Lott) that gun free zones are disproportionately the sites of mass public shootings.  And again, this makes logical sense.  If you want to encourage a scourge of mass public shootings, expanding gun free zones is the way to do it.

In other words, just what you expect from the NYT.  All the news that’s fit to print?  Hardly.  All the views that are fit to spit out is more like it.

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  1. If they don’t get gun-free zones, they won’t get enough mass murders. If they don’t get mass murders they won’t get to feel righteous by screaming hysterically for more gun-free zones.

    I think conflating the NRA and mass killers is a bit like conflating gays and child molesters; it isn’t reason that gets people into such beliefs and reason won’t get them out.

    By the way, is it just my sample of the news or is the US left getting unhinged – even for them – lately? Didn’t they just win an election?

    Comment by Lark — December 23, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

  2. Ah yes New York and the mayor there is so concerned about our safety and welfare. The mayor that so frequently informs us about the evil of guns and informs us and informs us. The same man that told a pregnant womed in his employ at Bloomberg LLC to “kill it” and was so adept at firing pregnant women. Quite the humanitarian that guy.

    Comment by pahoben — December 23, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

  3. An Opinion On Gun Control

    Fred:  I hate guns and wish they didn’t exist.
    Mike:  How does that plan solve the problem?

    12/20/12 – Larry Correia   [edited]
    Mr. Correia has owned a high-level gun store serving law enforcement, was a concealed weapons instructor, has taught defensive gun use, has shot competitively, and has written for national publications about gun laws and the use of force.
    === ===
    •   The high side estimate is 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year. This dwarfs 16,000 homicides per year, only 10,000 from guns, of which about 200 were rifles. Most anti-gun sentiment concerns rifles, used in only a tiny fraction of murders.

    •   On average, 14 people are shot in a mass shooting which is stopped by law enforcement, 2.5 when stopped by civilians. The armed civilians were there when the shootings started.

    •   Concealed Carry works. Most of the states have enacted some form of concealed carry. Opponents predicted wild west shootouts over parking spaces. These simply have not happened.
    === ===

    Comment by Andrew_M_Garland — December 24, 2012 @ 12:04 am

  4. And be careful about criticizing John Lott’s research – you might face a sockpuppet army attack or even a crap lawsuit

    Comment by paul — December 24, 2012 @ 2:09 am

  5. @paul. I’ve known John Lott for quite a while, and have tangled with him a few times. But then, that doesn’t make me unique. He’s a disputatious person with a somewhat saturnine personality. He is frequently his own worst enemy, as the episodes you mention attest.

    He has been a very productive scholar who has had the courage to take on highly charged issues, and has paid a price professionally for that.

    Insofar as the gun research based on crime data is concerned (I have no idea what went on with the survey on defensive use), I view most of the controversy as typical of what goes on in empirical research. There is always room for dispute about econometric methodology, specification, sample period, what data to include/exclude etc. Those disputes take on particular vehemence on a subject like guns. His choices are defensible, but also subject to criticism. The same is true of Ayers-Donohue and other opponents.

    In brief, I view John Lott as a very high variance guy.

    In this post, I am trying to give his opponents every benefit of the doubt and to downplay the strength of his findings. Because even if you do, you cannot under any stretch support the NYT’s claim of a RTC “scourge.”

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 24, 2012 @ 10:03 am

  6. I agree, conceal and carry is not going to increase violence or really make much of a difference in lowering crime rates unless a substantial minority of the population are carrying a gun, and yeah, the NYT is def wrong in this editorial. But by far the nuttiest thing to come out of this is the NRA suggestion to create a national database of the mentally ill. The government choosing who is considered mentally ill and putting them in an easily accessible database for law enforcement? This is so creepily draconian and flat-out stupid I don’t know where to begin. My family owns guns, but we left the NRA in the 50s because my grandfather, who was a shooting instructor for the Marines at Quantico, thought they were getting unhinged in the Cold War atmosphere. And that was in the 50s..

    Comment by paul — December 24, 2012 @ 10:24 am

  7. @paul. You anticipate my next post . . . or at least a future post . . . that I’ve been mulling over.

    Yes, the NRA’s proposal is . . . insane. So will those who thought it up be in their database?

    But they are not alone. Everyone has their pet theory, their hobby horse. Most of these are based on the observation that certain traits, behaviors, and activities are prevalent among mass murderers. Mental illness and intense involvement in violent video games are two examples.

    But even if it is possible to identify a set of traits/behaviors that most mass murderers have, this information is almost totally useless in predicting who is a likely mass murderer.

    How do I know that? Bayes’ Theorem.

    All of the observations about common traits are of the form: “conditional on someone being a mass murderer, the probability they played a violent video game or are mentally ill is high.” But what we’re really interested in is: “what is the probability of someone being a mass murderer, conditional on his being a player of violent games or mentally ill?” Even if the first probability is nearly 1, the second probability-the one we’re interested in-is almost certainly very low. For the second probability is the first multiplied by the ratio of the unconditional probability of someone being a mass murderer to the unconditional probability of someone being insane, or a player of violent videos.

    The prevalence of mass murderers is far smaller than the prevalence of people with mental illness. Meaning that this ratio is near zero. Meaning that conditioning on mental illness tells you virtually nothing Put differently, the rate of false positives is near one for virtually any set of conditioning variables you choose.

    It all boils down to this: even if all mass murderers are mentally ill, very few mentally ill people are mass murderers. Which means that information about mental health is essentially useless for predicting ex ante whether a particular individual is a potential mass murderer. You can substitute pretty much any other conditioning variable or set of conditioning variables for “mentally ill” and draw the same conclusion.

    Which means that the NRA’s proposal is not just creepily draconian, it is a complete waste of resources. Complete. Tarot readings would be about as effective, and a lot cheaper.

    There is a tragic truth in all this; a truth that people hate to acknowledge. Things like Newtown are extremes of the extreme. They are difficult to explain ex post, and virtually impossible to predict ex ante. I understand perfectly the intense desire to do something, but every something that has been proposed-including the NRA’s proposal-will have no impact on the likelihood of such events. As I said in my first post-Newton post, the rates of false positives and false negatives will both be quite high. Both types of error are very costly.

    We live in a fallen world. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about that, and trying to do something is often the worst thing you can do. But that is something that people are loath to concede.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 24, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

  8. Thanks for a thoughtful and intelligent post on this. At least I think so, but then I have been making similar arguments to my “Something must be done!” friends for some time now. Although it hardly qualifies as evidence, I can’t help but imagine that as the Principal of Sandy Hook considered her options to stop the carnage she never thought “Thank heavens I don’t have a weapon. Someone could get hurt.”

    Comment by txslr — December 24, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

  9. Thanks @txslr. And I think you imagine correctly.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 24, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

  10. Professor, your previous response (imho) was your best post of the year. This highlights a common theme which connects with Larks’ first response: incorrect mental models and the misplaced faith in the effectiveness of policies arising from those models. This has manifested itself in many ways over the past few years, but none so sweeping and dangerous as in Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy. The application of too many policies (which in the end are just constraints) arising from poorly conceived models is suboptimal at best, and infeasible at worst. Everyone should be aware of their own models’ limitations, but I would agree the left is unhinging precisely because their policies are not producing the outcomes they’ve promised.

    Comment by dh — December 25, 2012 @ 11:44 am

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