In July 2020, John Lott, the economist who for three decades has provided the statistical veneer for the gun rights movement, received a house in a hilly, picturesque neighborhood in Missoula, Montana. The previous owner, an isolated man named David Strom, had recently died at the age of 79, and left the property to Lott in a trust.

Around the time of Strom’s death, Lott and his wife were moving toward a divorce, and the researcher was living out of a rental home in Las Vegas. Strom, who had been struggling with long-term illness, was a lifetime National Rifle Association member who stockpiled guns and firearms accessories. 

Some details about the Montana house were first reported in early November, when The Trace and The New Yorker published an investigation into Lott’s life and work, which has elevated the notion that crime goes down when more civilians own firearms. Republican lawmakers and lobbyists routinely use Lott’s findings to thwart proposed gun regulations and to loosen restrictions. But, the investigation found, his career has been marked by questionable conduct and even deception.   

Before the publication of the story, Lott had never publicly acknowledged Strom. Now, Lott has disclosed how he and his benefactor were connected. 

In response to a series of questions over email, Lott wrote that Strom was a donor to Lott’s nonprofit, the Crime Prevention Research Center, and that on a few occasions the two men had chatted on the phone. “David reached out to me each time we spoke,” Lott said. “It is my understanding that he greatly admired my work. I was told that he would buy 50 or so copies of each of my books and give them out to people.”

When Strom died, he left behind three adopted children he had not spoken to in decades. One of them, Tim Strom, is a soft-spoken artist in his late 50s who lives about 45 minutes outside of Missoula. He, his two siblings, and his mother had not received any assets from Strom after his death, and were not aware that he had left Lott a house. Strom and Tim’s mother had divorced when Tim was 17. Before that, Tim told The Trace, David Strom had spent a decade terrorizing their family, subjecting them to vicious, manipulative, and unusual behavior.

Tim’s mom and biological dad, whom he described as a “hippie type,” got divorced when he was very young. Seeking a man with a different disposition, his mother started dating Strom, but the two broke up. When Tim was around 7, his biological father died, and “Dave came running back.” There was now money, Tim recalled. Each of the kids was entitled to Social Security owing to their father’s death. Strom and Tim’s mother married, and Strom adopted the children.

For a time, Strom worked in law enforcement, and then as a private investigator. According to Tim, he seldom had a reliable source of income, and convinced his new wife to invest the children’s Social Security money in land and property around Montana. This did not include the house that was eventually given to Lott, but the funds allowed Strom to create and grow wealth.

As the kids were growing up, Tim said, David Strom sought to assert control over the family, and was physically and mentally abusive. “He cut my mom off from all her friends, cut her off from all of her family,” Tim said. “He really restricted everything that she did.” Strom would time the children’s showers with an egg timer, and count how many tampons Tim’s sister used when she had her period. “He would also berate her for being overweight,” Tim said. “And she was not overweight.”

Strom made no attempts to manage his rage, and, when it welled up, he would hit the boys, often for no discernable reason, or punish them in cruel ways. “Any little thing he could get you for,” Tim said. “He’d find a reason.” He would beat them with his police belt. Once, when Tim was in third grade, he took baloney out of the refrigerator to make a sandwich. He then changed his mind, deciding he wanted peanut butter and jelly instead. Strom was standing nearby and did not approve; he forced Tim to eat a peanut butter and baloney sandwich.

On another occasion, Tim sat on a piano bench as Strom lectured him. “Dave got mad at me for being quiet and ran up and slapped me so hard he sent me back against the piano,” Tim said. With Strom, he added, “It was fast. It was harsh.”

But no one in the house had it worse than Tim’s older brother, who was the primary focus of Strom’s wrath. “I remember Dave taking him in the kitchen and grabbing him by his hair and shoving him down to his knees and beating his head against the countertop,” Tim said.

Strom kept a cache of some 30 guns in a large, custom-made workbench. After he and Tim’s mom divorced, when the children were no longer eligible for Social Security, Strom moved out, and then, for a time, stalked the family. “We used to see his car down the block all the time,” Tim said. They thought about Strom’s arsenal of firearms, and about how “he’d been trained to use them for years and years.” For the family, Tim said, “It was just living in fear.” 

Tim’s mother and sister declined to comment for this story. Tim’s brother could not be reached. 

Lott told The Trace that Strom had “disowned” the children, and shared a passage from Strom’s will, which is not public, to confirm his assertion. 

“I never heard anything about Dave disowning us,” Tim said.

Lott suggested that Tim’s characterization of Strom was at odds with the way Strom’s neighbors remember him. He pointed to a 95-year-old woman named Iva Nell Burton, who lived next door. “She said that the claims ‘were shocking,’” Lott asserted. “In fact, as a measure of her trust in David, she gave him the key to her house” and “trusted him with her safety.”

When The Trace contacted Burton, she recalled that she lived near Strom for 10 or 15 years — the last decade of his life. “He was no problem,” she said. “He was very kind to me. While I was gone, he would water my plants or pick up mail.” Burton added, “I’ve told you everything I know.”

Lott suggested that a “fuller picture of David” might include the time he “stopped a mass shooting on the University of Montana campus when he was a police officer.” When asked if the anecdote could be independently corroborated, Lott shared a 1975 article from the Missoulian. The news story describes a man who walked onto campus carrying a bolt-action rifle, called police from a pay phone, and said, “I’m going to shoot someone.” Strom, then working for the Missoula Police Department, found the man, who had fired two rounds into the ground, sitting on a rock, and sat down beside him. After the man fired a third round into the grass, Strom, who never pulled his own firearm, pounced and wrestled the gun away.

Lott was skeptical that Strom had stalked Tim’s family. “Can you find even one criminal complaint logged against David that are related to stalking or any other supposed wrongs?” he asked. “If they really felt that they were endanger[sic] of being shot, they would have gone to the police.” 

Tim said this was not an option. “Dave had a lot of friends on the city and county police forces,” he explained. “Who would we have gone to?”