The Gun Crowd's Guru

Look at John Lott's 31-page resume, and you'll see that he got his Ph.D. from UCLA by the time he was 26. At 31, he was chief economist for the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Not bad. But then you'll see that he's been shown the door at some of the nation's finest schools. There were brief stints at Texas A&M, Rice, UCLA. Four years at Wharton, four harsh winters at U. of Chicago. Most recently, Lott managed to catch on at Yale Law, doing research from a basement office that even the receptionist can't find. He's applied for literally hundreds of tenure-track jobs and received just one offer--in Australia.

Why? Lott may be brilliant, but his theories are so controversial that some academics won't so much as look at him when he's standing in a room. Among his conclusions: affirmative action for police causes crime, wealthy people should be able to buy their way out of court and giving women the vote made government spending surge out of control. That last paper was too much even for his wife, who begged him not to publish it.

But there is one place where John Lott has found nothing but love and acceptance: in the hearts of besieged gun lovers, who'd gladly give him the Nobel Prize if they could. Lott's three-year-old book, "More Guns, Less Crime," in which he claims to prove that the world is a safer place when citizens carry concealed firearms, has emerged as a kind of bible in the gun world. Described by admirers as a "Yale professor"--never mind that he isn't on the faculty and doesn't teach--Lott has become the gun lobby's house intellectual. Blessed by a cable culture that loves anything contrarian, Lott now pops up frequently on shows like "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Politically Incorrect." He's helped persuade several states to adopt "concealed carry" laws. "He's had an enormous impact," says Stanford professor John Donohue, who's spent years reviewing Lott's data. "It's really striking." There's just one problem: even some colleagues who applaud Lott's research methods say the conclusions he draws from the data are dangerously misguided. "What a lot of people worry about is that if it really is the case that the results aren't good," Donohue says, "then he's really peddling a false message."

There's no easy answer to that debate--partly because it takes an advanced degree in statistics to truly grasp Lott's methods. (We won't even try.) Some experts who've tested Lott's numbers say the figures do suggest that concealed-gun laws don't create crime, which is an important finding in itself. But, characteristically, Lott goes much further. Not only does giving out guns lower the crime rate, he insists, but child-safety locks are "dangerous." Teachers should carry guns to prevent school shootings. Even Lott's protege and research partner, David Mustard, won't go there; in a recent deposition in an Ohio gun case, he admitted he had "concerns" about the idea.

Lott's not a lifelong gun fanatic; he never owned one before his own study--prompted by a class he was teaching on crime--persuaded him to buy a Ruger pistol. "I've probably become radicalized on the debate," the 42-year-old Lott says. What drives him is a need to attack politically correct ideas with his cherished mathematical formulas--and to get some attention while he's at it. He seems gentle and bookish, but he can be vicious to his critics. After one debate, he sent an e-mail to Doug Weil, Handgun Control's resident Ph.D., which read in part: "Either you no longer have a conscience and thus no longer care whether your false statements end up getting people killed, or you're unable to separate your dreams from reality."

His enemies are equally vitriolic. Perhaps because Lott comes from their own academic world, gun-control advocates just about lose their minds talking about him. "This guy has been dishonest from day one," shouts Weil. Opponents have accused Lott of getting funding from the gun industry (he hasn't) and lying about his Ph.D. (he didn't). None of that has hurt his status among conservatives. He was hired by one partisan group during the Florida recount; his research showed that Pat Buchanan really did clean up in Palm Beach. In his next book, Lott will argue that campaign contributions don't influence the way officeholders vote. That theory may not help him land a teaching job. But it'll probably land him on TV.