John Lott, a controversial pro-gun researcher, is working in an advisory capacity at the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs. The appointment has alarmed gun violence researchers, who fear Lott may manipulate or withhold federal data in order to support his agenda.
A trained economist, Lott rose to prominence after the 1998 publication of his book More Guns, Less Crime, which argued that the proliferation of civilian-owned firearms deters violence. Gun-rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, were quick to embrace his argument. Lott then founded the Crime Prevention Research Center, a nonprofit organization that publishes research papers and articles with a pro-gun bent. He remains a fixture at conservative conventions, and is often called to testify before state legislatures in support of bills expanding access to guns.
But respected academics have repeatedly discredited Lott’s work. “This is someone who’s body of research has been studied, critiqued, and most people would say thoroughly debunked by a large number of respected scholars in the field,” Dr. Garen Wintemute, the director of the Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California, Davis, told The Trace. “What concerns me as an individual who works in this field is: We don’t know, and we’re being prevented from knowing, what his scope of action and authority is, and he’s been hired by an administration in its last days that is investing in making it difficult to govern the country.”
Lott did not respond to emails we sent him starting on November 12, but we reached him through the DOJ switchboard on November 30. He refused to answer any questions about his hiring, which was first confirmed by Politico, and instead criticized The Trace. According to his LinkedIn page, Lott left the Crime Prevention Research Center in October.
The Office of Justice Programs conducts research into violent crime and provides billions in grants to local, state, and federal authorities to implement crime-prevention strategies, and also funds research on firearm violence and prevention. “Lott could have been hired, in part, to disrupt that research, in whatever ways the federal agency can do,” Wintemute said. He said he fears that Lott may block the release of gun violence data to researchers and academics, including FBI crime data. In the months after Trump took office, thousands of web pages containing information about climate change from federal websites, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Energy, were removed or buried. “There’s no reason to think the administration wouldn’t do the same here,” Wintemute said.
“I think it’s a fairly safe assumption at this stage in the Trump administration that [Lott] was brought in for ideological purposes,” said Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. That prospect concerns him. “I’ve seen him in different venues literally start making stuff up,” Webster said. “What can he do in this lame-duck phase that could be harmful?”
Tannyr Watkins, a spokesperson at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division of OJP, told The Trace that Lott “has been appointed Senior Advisor for Research and Statistics at the Office of Justice Programs” but did not respond to follow-up questions, including some regarding who appointed him or what the nature of his work is. Advisor roles are typically appointed, and do not usually come with civil service protections. A researcher at the OJP, who asked not to be named, told us that Lott almost certainly has extensive access to crime and firearms statistics, and would probably be able to influence any possible suppression of such data.
John Donohue, a gun researcher at Stanford Law School who has scrutinized Lott’s good-guy-with-a-gun assertions, said that simply giving Lott access to a trove of federal crime data may be problematic, as it “may allow him to spin more tales. Anyone who runs a crime institute where Ted Nugent is a member of the board, you get a sense that this is not an organization that is really interested in true science, but is rather trying to tell a story to match a political agenda.” (Nugent, a longtime NRA board member known for inflammatory statements directed toward Latinos and Jewish people, served on the Crime Prevention Research Center’s board of directors until 2018.) “So in that sense, any power that John has to steer funds and data in a certain direction is likely to be harmful to the public interest.”
Research has consistently demonstrated that states with less restrictive concealed carry laws actually have higher rates of violent crime than states with no such laws, refuting one of Lott’s central tenets. He’s argued that mass shooters seek out gun-free zones, despite evidence to the contrary. He also claims that the National Instant Criminal Justice Background Check System (NICS), the federal background check system, doesn’t work, pointing to cases of criminals who have circumvented it to obtain weapons — without mentioning how deliberate loopholes built into the system hamper regulation.
Lott’s ethics have also come into question. In 2003, he admitted to The Washington Post that he created a false persona by the name of Mary Rosh, an amalgam of the names of his four children, to respond to critics of his work. But last year, Lott testified before a joint congressional committee on gun violence that someone in his family had authored the comments.
Even conservative researchers have detailed issues with Lott’s work, and questioned why some media organizations continue to repeat his findings. He’s a frequent contributor to conservative outlets such as Fox News, The Daily Caller, and The Federalist, as well as legacy media outlets including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.
Webster noted that Lott’s appointment couldn’t have come at a worse time. “When it’s all said and done, 2020 is going to see one of the sharpest increases in gun violence in a generation or more,” he said. “We need good reliable data now more than ever to understand what’s going on and what to do about it. And putting someone like Lott in that role can’t be helpful.”
Additional reporting by Kevin T. Dugan.