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Hypothesis or Hyperbole Gun Control Researchers Balk at Betting on Gun Control

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Dr. John Lott, Jr., a leading researcher and founder of the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC), recently embarked on an unusual personal experiment: how many pro-gun control academics would literally bet in favor of their own findings, using Brazil as a case study?

What sparked the inquiry were the predictions in the wake of changes to Brazil’s laws on private gun ownership following the election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva last October. Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, had campaigned on a pro-gun platform and, once elected, relaxed gun laws, with the result that legal gun ownership increased six-fold during his term. In contrast, Lula’s first act as president was a radical executive order to roll back these changes, with new restrictions on gun owners and the acquisition of firearms and ammunition. “Now, they predict that Lula’s severe crackdown on gun ownership will reduce crime.”

Brazil offers a unique research opportunity because, as Lott notes, many American gun control advocates discount the evidence of increased murder rates following the implementation of local gun ban laws, on the basis that “the ban could only work if the entire country instituted the same rules.” Brazil represents such a “country-wide case” in which to explore the strength of this “less guns, less crime” hypothesis.

Lott contacted twelve prominent researchers and professors with a put-your-money-where-your-hype-is challenge. “Let’s bet $1,000 and make it simple on whether the homicide rate in Brazil will go up or down during the first two years of Lula’s presidency. If the homicide rate goes down from what it was in 2022, I will pay you $1,000. If it goes up, you will pay me $1,000.”

Washington Post article on Brazilian gun ownership, published weeks after Lula was elected, referred to research in America showing a “strong correlation between gun ownership and homicide rates, suicides, accidental shootings and shootings by law enforcement,” and cited Johns Hopkins professor Daniel Webster: “Every 1 percent increase in firearm ownership is associated with a 0.6 percent increase in overall homicide rates and a 0.9 percent increase in firearm homicide rates.” Webster “called the belief that arming more civilians makes society safer ‘a fantasy that is put forward by the gun lobby’ – [that] is not grounded in any data.” Nonetheless, the article admits that Brazil’s homicide rate “had fallen more than 27 percent since 2017.”

This echoed a 2019 NPR article on Bolsonaro’s election, which quoted a different expert “on data-driven and evidence-based security.” According to him, “[i]n Brazil, a 1 percent rise in firearm availability increases the homicide rate by 2 percent,” and that “[v]irtually without exception, more guns equals more violence. Studies from the U.S. and around the world consistently show increases in firearm ownership and carrying are positively correlated with increases in homicide and suicide.” Interestingly, the “correlation formulas” cited in both articles include no qualifications, being presented without conditions or parameters, and both contain a flat denial of the possibility that increased access to legal guns could have a positive impact on individual safety.

According to Lott, applying Professor Webster’s formula should have resulted in a 360% increase in the homicide rate in Brazil, based on a 600% increase in gun ownership during the relevant time, instead of which the rate declined each consecutive year, dropping by 34% in 2021. (Applying the formula in the NPR article yields an even more exquisitely inaccurate prediction of a 1,200% jump in the homicide rate.)

Daniel Webster – currently the Bloomberg professor of American Health affiliated with Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions – was one of the dozen U.S. academics that Lott contacted (the NPR source was not in the group contacted). Lott reports that seven out of the twelve failed to respond to his emailed offer, and none of the twelve actually accepted his wager.

Of course, evidence on the risks and benefits of firearms is complicated and correlation is not causation, but the terms of Lott’s offer were straightforward: “Given the importance you put on gun control and the large percentage change in gun ownership that Lula is imposing, you should expect a substantial drop in homicides, but, as I say, let’s keep it simple on whether the homicide rate goes up or down.”

At the time of writing, not a single individual was daring enough or curious enough to throw in and place his research on the line, even when they claim the odds are so much in their favor. (Our own prediction is that the amount of the bet was irrelevant: the result would stand even if the amount wagered was a penny or a peppercorn.) The saying is that knowledge is power, so this outcome, while disappointing, still represents something of a victory for Lott.

 “These academics have no problem confidently making predictions for the press or legislative committees about the future effects of gun-control laws,” writes Lott. “But they aren’t willing to put their money where their mouths are in a way that would make people remember their bad predictions. Maybe that’s because they already know the crime-fighting benefits of private gun ownership.”

There may be further developments with this experiment. The CPRC’s May 20 newsletter includes an invitation from Lott to “let me know if you have any suggestions on other prominent gun control advocate academics who should be approached.” Stay tuned.

Article by NRA-ILA

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