Lott’s myths

A 1998 Lott op-ed called “The Cold, Hard Facts About Guns” has been getting some blogspace attention, with links from Margi Lowry, Joshua Claybourn and pecksnif. pecksnif, apparently unaware of Mary Rosh, even asserts:

unlike Michael A. Bellesiles, who also wrote about guns, Lott is not a known liar and fabricator of facts, nor was he forced to resign his position at the University of Chicago.

Unfortunately, many of Lott’s claims in his op-ed are inaccurate. Since his piece was written in 1998 when debunking his claims I won’t use anything from after 1998. He writes:

Myth No. 1: When one is attacked, passive behavior is the safest approach.

The Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey reports that the probability of serious injury from an attack is 2.5 times greater for women offering no resistance than for women resisting with a gun. Men also benefit from using a gun, but the benefits are smaller: offering no resistance is 1.4 times more likely to result in serious injury than resisting with a gun.

As I detailed earlier none of the differences he presents are statistically significant and he has no business making such a claim from the NCVS data.

Lott also says:

Myth No. 3: The United States has such a high murder rate because Americans own so many guns.

There is no international evidence backing this up. The Swiss, New Zealanders and Finns all own guns as frequently as Americans, yet in 1995 Switzerland had a murder rate 40 percent lower than Germany’s, and New Zealand had one lower than Australia’s. Finland and Sweden have very different gun ownership rates, but very similar murder rates. Israel, with a higher gun ownership rate than the U.S., has a murder rate 40 percent below Canada’s. When one studies all countries rather than just a select few as is usually done, there is absolutely no relationship between gun ownership and murder.

In fact, a 1993 study by Killias did find such a relationship. (You see an on-line summary of the study here.) Here is the data on homicide and gun ownership from that study:


gun ownership










New Zealand












We see that contrary to Lott’s claims, the Swiss, New Zealanders and Finns all own guns much less frequently then Americans, Switzerland and Germany have the same homicide rate, and New Zealand had the same rate as Australia. Finland has more gun ownership than Sweden and also a higher homicide rate.1

Lott got pretty well every single fact wrong in his passage.

Lott also writes:

Myth No. 5: The family gun is more likely to kill you or someone you know than to kill in self-defense.

The studies yielding such numbers never actually inquired as to whose gun was used in the killing. Instead, if a household owned a gun and if a person in that household or someone they knew was shot to death while in the home, the gun in the household was blamed. In fact, virtually all the killings in these studies were committed by guns brought in by an intruder. No more than four percent of the gun deaths can be attributed to the homeowner’s gun. The very fact that most people were killed by intruders also surely raises questions about why they owned guns in the first place and whether they had sufficient protection.

This is wrong from beginning to end. It is not true that “virtually all the killings … were committed by guns brought in by an intruder”. If you look at the data (available from the ICPSR, study 6898), you will find that less than 10% of the killings were of this type. And it is not true that “No more than four percent of the gun deaths can be attributed to the homeowner’s gun” In fact, the majority of them can be.

1 Lott is apparently talking about homicide rates in 1995, while Killias’ data is 1983–86, but the picture does not change if you use homicide rates from 1995. It is possible the discrepency is caused by the use of different data sources, but while Killias tells us where his data comes from (ICVS and WHO), Lott does not.


  1. #1 Simonov Jr
    July 14, 2003

    I thought it was interesting to note a footnote at the very bottome of Killian’s study:

    “The Swiss gun ownership rate excluded military guns”.

    My question is, if the study was designed to test whether the presence of a firearm corresponded to higher homicide rates, what difference does it make who “owns” the gun? Is it somehow posited that guns predispose citizens to homicide unless murdering someone with them would entail misusing government property? I studied in gymnasiumschule in Switzerland and can speak from some experience: Every male between 18 and 45 is required to keep a machine gun and ammo at home. Not only that, they must demonstrate proficiency with it annually or they actually lose the right to vote. In other words, much more powerful firearms are much more prevalent in the Swiss population than the US as they are found in most houses in city and country alike. This differs from the US, where rural homes have higher firearms ownership rates. Of course, including the firearms present but not “owned” WOULD make something of a mess of Mr. Killian’s graph and the neat correspondence it purports to show…

  2. #2 Tim Lambert
    July 14, 2003

    Whether you include Swiss militia weapons or not makes little difference to the results of Killias’ study.

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