John Lott, a controversial pro-gun researcher who was hired last fall as a senior advisor for research and statistics at the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, left the position this week.
Lott’s departure was revealed in a January 16 email sent by the Crime Prevention Research Center, a nonprofit he founded that publishes research papers and articles with a pro-gun bent. The email, from Nikki Goeser, CPRC’s executive director, claims that Lott’s hiring “generated more opposition than almost any other Trump appointment,” and that “gun control activists also launched a fierce email and telephone campaign demanding Lott’s firing.” Lott will return to the CPRC as its president.
Discredited Gun Researcher’s Justice Department Post Raises Alarms About Future of Crime Statistics
As The Trace reported in December, gun violence researchers were alarmed by Lott’s appointment to the DOJ, and the possibility that he could influence the release of firearms data. 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. Respected academics have repeatedly discredited Lott’s work.
Lott’s work during his short stint at the DOJ still remains something of a mystery. But documents provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The Trace provide a glimpse. In October, Lott was slated to attend a meeting about the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — a system he’s derided in the past. In 2018 he pushed the false narrative that NICS improperly blocked gun sales to “millions of law-abiding citizens” simply because they have names and birthdates that are the same as or similar to someone disqualified from possessing firearms.
Lott also had a meeting in late October about JustGrants, the DOJ’s grant payment management system, the documents show. The Office of Justice Programs, where Lott was an advisor, 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.
The documents also provide more clarity on the nature of Lott’s appointment at the DOJ. He was a Schedule C employee, a designation for political appointees. According to the Office of Personnel Management (OJP), which signs off on Schedule C employees, “incumbents of most of these positions customarily resign at the request of the new incoming administration or before a new agency head takes office.” His annual salary was listed as $116,353.
In the CPRC email, Goeser wrote that Lott’s “political appointee position ends with the end of the Trump administration.” Tannyr Watkins, a spokesperson at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division of OJP, did not reply to a query about the exact date and circumstances of Lott’s departure.
The possibility that Lott may have been in a position to disrupt research that informs grantmaking had alarmed gun violence researchers, who feared he could manipulate or withhold federal data in order to support his agenda. “I’ve seen him in different venues literally start making stuff up,” Daniel Webster, the director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, told me last month.
Lott has argued that mass shooters seek out gun-free zones, despite evidence to the contrary. And 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. Even conservative researchers have detailed issues with Lott’s work, and questioned why some media organizations continue to repeat his findings.
Lott’s hiring also concerned lawmakers. In a letter to then-Attorney General William Barr in December, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said his hiring “raises concerns about the continued integrity of the nonpartisan career civil service.”
During his time at DOJ, Lott also aided in former President Trump’s effort to overturn the election with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, producing a report in December that said 289,000 “excess votes” had been found across six decisive swing states due to “dead people voting, ineligible people voting, or even payments to legally registered people for their votes.” Trump White House adviser Peter Navarro used the findings to call for postponing the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia.