Lott and Lasers, the update

The Australian published a letter to the editor the day after Lott's piece on laser pointers:

John Lott (Opinion, 24/3) claims an Australian academic with a laser pointer would cause panic. I'm an Australian academic and when I use a laser pointer it does not cause a panic. Lott has confused high-powered lasers, which are restricted because they can cause eye damage, with the low power laser pointers we use in lectures. He also thinks that the Victorian ban on swords applies to steak knives. It's funny when a foreign newspaper has a story about kangaroos hopping down George St. It's not so funny when an Australian newspaper does the same thing.
Tim Lambert
Maroubra, NSW

A couple of people commented that Lott was just being sarcastic. I know he was trying to be sarcastic, but his starting premise that laser pointers were banned was wrong. Anyway, wbb demonstrates how sarcasm is done.

Lott's continued ability to get published in newspapers caused John Quiggin to wonder if bloggers can make a difference. He writes:

Clearly bloggers have a lot more work to do.

No problem. Stay tuned, folks.

Ken Parish criticizes Lott's claim that the 1996 gun laws were a failure because:

Violent crime rates have gone up dramatically in Australia since the 1996 Port Arthur gun control measures. And violent crime rates averaged 20 per cent higher in the six years after the law was passed (from 1997 to 2002) than they did in 1996, 32 per cent higher than the violent crime rates in 1995. The same comparisons for armed robbery rates showed increases of 67 per cent and 74 per cent, respectively; for aggravated assault, 20 per cent and 32 per cent; for rape, 11 per cent and 12 per cent; murder, attempted murder and manslaughter rose by 5 per cent in both cases.

Parish correctly notes that this is a strawman argument. It is unreasonable to expect the law to reduce non-gun crimes. Parish points to statistics that show a substantial reduction in gun deaths which may have been caused by the gun laws.

Lott's numbers also contain several significant errors. A table containing all the crime figures is here. (I also have them in a spreadsheet.) Lott's first error is that he doesn't know what the crime categories are. He calls the figure for sexual assaults, "rape", and that for assaults, "aggravated assaults", making the crimes seem more serious than they actually are. Next, he compares the rate in 1996 with the average rate in the years following the law. Because rates fluctuate from year to year this is likely to lead to misleading results. In the last column of my table I instead compare the average for 1993--1996 with the average for 1997--2002. Another thing that is clear from the table is that gun crimes are only about 1% of violent crimes. The most important crime where guns are involved a significant fraction of the time is murder. The with-gun murder rate declined from 0.37 to 0.3, while the overall murder rate fell by a similar amount, from 1.7 to 1.65. So how did Lott manage to avoid telling his readers about the decline in murder rates? Look again at the figure he reports---it's for the total of murders, attempted murders and manslaughters. This total increased because the number of attempts went up by more than the number of murders went down. Murder attempts became less lethal, but by carefully selecting the statistics to report, Lott tried to make it look like the law had not produced any crime decreases. If you look in the table you will see some other decreases as well, but naturally the only figures that Lott reports are increases.

I should note that the decrease in murders isn't statistically significant. More data will be needed if we to find out if the decrease was caused by chance.


More like this

Lott has a new article at Fox News where he claims that gun control is unravelling: Crime did not fall in England after handguns were banned in January 1997. Quite the contrary, crime rose sharply. Yet, serious violent crime rates from 1997 to 2002 averaged 29 percent higher than 1996; robbery…
Over the past few years crime rates in Australia, Canada and England have fallen dramatically. For example, in NSW crime plunged to thelowest level in 20 years, in Canada, the 2003 homicide rate was the lowest in 36 years, while in England the crime rate was the lowest since the BCS started in 1981…
R Bryner said: Changing what is continuous data(numbers) to ranks to do an analysis on them is throwing information away. Why is it done, I will tell you why, someone did not like the information and decided to remove it. The funny thing is it even has a legitimate sounding name. Yeah, "non-…
Joyce Lee Malcolm has an article in Reason online entitled Gun Control's Twisted Outcome. In that article she claims"And in the four years from 1997 to 2001, the rate of violent crime [in England] more than doubled." and asserts that this increase was caused by British gun control.…

What are Australian laws like on:
a) Use of deadly force in self-defense?
b) The use of (legal) firearms in self-defense?

"Parish correctly notes that this is a strawman argument. It is unreasonable to expect the law to reduce non-gun crimes."

Wrong. Parrish incorrectly understands the rationale argued by Lott and other gun-rights advocates.

Crime is crime; robbery is robbery; murder is murder -- all regardless of the use of a weapon (if any) in the commission of the crimes. The question is not whether a gun-control law would tend to REDUCE non-gun crime, but whether gun-control laws have the perverse consequence of contributing to an INCREASE in crime overall.

Lott's claim is that private gun ownership has a crime-deterrent effect. Such an effect might be difficult to determine and isolate as a statistic, but one way to look for it is to follow what happens in the wake of laws which severely restrict or effectively prohibit private firearms ownership. Does crime then increase, decrease or state the same?

The true "strawman" here is your idea that it matters whether criminals in Australia use guns or don't use guns to commit 20 percent more crime after the passage of strict gun laws. The point of Lott's argument is that criminality is encouraged by the criminals' knowledge that LAW-ABIDING CITIZENS ARE NOW DISARMED. Thus, the predators can prey more freely, and with less concern that their intended victims will respond with lethal force.

Lott's critics are siding with criminals and against law-abiding firearms owners. It is that simple.

Central to the gun-control rationale is the false assumption that criminals are just normal people who, as a result of circumstance, happen to commit a crime. Crime, in this view, is more or less accidental and random, and it is impossible to predict who will commit crime.

Lott, and most conservatives, have in recent decades offered a critique: Criminals constitute a discrete class of individuals. A preponderant majority of SERIOUS crime -- including violent crime -- is committed by a relatively small number of criminals, whose criminality is persistent and predictable. This criminal class, as it were, can be identified by records which are "as long as your arm," by their generally anti-social behavior patterns (substance abuse, sexual predation, dishonest, etc.), and frequently by their association with criminal gangs.

While there are, indeed, episodic crimes committed by persons who do not fit the "criminal class" definition, such crimes --- e.g., the affluent businessman who poisons his wife -- are a relatively small percentage of the serious crime rate in modern society. Morever, such crimes do not create a pervasive sense of threat in society at large: Fear of being poisoned by a businessman does not make people afraid to drive through affluent neighborhoods.

Based on an understanding that society can be divided roughly into two categories (criminal and non-criminal), Lott and his ideological allies defend private firearms ownership as an institution that empowers the law-abiding and impedes the lawless.

You may dispute Lott's worldview, but it is not dishonest.