Lott attacks Tom Smith

On pages 36-37 of The Bias Against Guns Lott attacks Tom Smith:

A few years ago, while I was doing research at the University of Chicago,I had lunch with Tom Smith, who is the director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). This private organization conducts many important national surveys for the government as well as other clients. During lunch Tom mentioned how important he thought the General Social Survey was. He felt the large drop in gun ownership implied by his survey would “make it easier for politicians to do the right thing on guns” and pass more restrictive regulations. His surveys have traditionally shown one of the lowest gun ownership rates among any of the surveys: for example, almost 20 percentage points lower than recent polling John Zogby. After Tom made his comment about politicians, I didn’t ask him whether he had deliberately phrased his questions in such a manner to obtain an artificially low gun ownership rate. But the question certainly crossed my mind. Possibly Tom is still right and Zogby and others are wrong.

  1. So Lott believes that if a survey gives a result that differs greatly from other surveys and in a direction that favours the views of the designer it is reasonable to suspect that that the survey was contrived to give that result.
  2. Lott seems to think that the GSS is run in the same haphazard fashion as his own survey, with Smith writing the questions himself without consulting any experts. In fact, Smith did not write the GSS questions on gun ownership—they date back to 1973, before Smith was associated with the GSS.
  3. Tom Smith did not tell Lott that his survey would “make it easier for politicians to do the right thing on guns”. I asked him about it and he replied:
    I have no public views on gun control and am in no way pro or anti-gun nor pro or anti-gun control. To the extent that his statement implies that I favor gun control or have any position on changes in public policy regarding guns, it misrepresents my position. It possible that I stated as a fact that lower levels of gun ownership would strengthen the pro-gun control political position, but I did not and do not either favor or oppose such a development.

  4. The GSS does not give a household gun ownership rate 20 points lower than other surveys. The rate is actually much closer (Zogby 46%, 2002 GSS 36.5%). Lott has confused personal gun ownership rates with household gun ownership rates. The GSS also asks if the gun is personally owned, and the 2002 GSS found that 26% of people personally owned a gun. The Zogby poll asked “Do you or anyone in your home own a gun” (my emphasis). Lott ignored the “or anyone in your home” part of the question. On page 83 of The Bias Against Guns he multiplies the 46% household gun ownership from the Zogby poll by the number of adults in the US to come up with an erroneous estimate of 94 million gun owners in the US. The GSS is only 20 percentage points lower because Lott has mistakenly compared household ownership from Zogby with personal ownership from the GSS.

So, in one paragraph Lott managed to misrepresent Smith’s position, misunderstand the survey data in question, mistake the author of the GSS questions and mount a personal attack on Smith.