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Taking Aim: A Gun Study and A Conspiracy Theory

Stephen Chapman
Chicago Tribune
August 16, 1996

(This information is excerpted from this URL.

Some years ago, shortly after being hired by the Tribune, I was asked to do an article for an obscure national magazine arguing the case against federal funding of public broadcasting. After it appeared, though, the magazine's editors got a letter from a reader exposing something shocking: The Tribune's parent company owned several commercial TV stations, and it stood to make more money if public broadcasting were to disappear. His conclusion was that I could only be doing the bidding of my corporate masters.

Damning? Well, not quite. What the letter writer didn't know is that I had written a similar article long before coming to the Tribune, while working for a magazine that had no broadcast investments, that I hadn't discussed the article with anyone at the Tribune and that the newspaper itself, in blind disregard of its own interests, had editorialized consistently in favor of public broadcasting subsidies.

Conspiracy theories are easy to spin and hard to refute. But absent serious evidence, they are simply the idle conjectures of overheated minds. Showing a coincidence is not the same as proving a cause. What may look incriminating to the uninformed may in fact be perfectly irrelevant. Consider the case of John Lott.

Lott is an economist at the University of Chicago Law School who last week presented a paper in Washington based on his examination of crime rates in states that have passed laws granting ordinary people licenses to carry concealed handguns. The first comprehensive study of the subject, scheduled for publication in the prestigious Journal of Legal Studies, it reached a conclusion that did not ingratiate Lott to gun-control advocates.

The new laws, the study found, actually reduced the volume of blood running in the streets--not increased it, as feared by opponents. Lott and his co-author, graduate student David Mustard, calculated that if other states had also adopted such measures, there would have been 1,570 fewer murders, 4,177 fewer rapes and 60,000 fewer aggravated assaults in the United States each year.

Like any academic monograph, this one was open to expert criticism based on the data used, the assumptions made, the variables considered and so on. But to Lott's surprise, the main line of attack was on something else: his scholarly integrity. According to critics, he was nothing more than a venal hireling of the gun industry, paid to prove its official line.

The argument, made at a Chicago press conference sponsored by several gun-control groups, goes like this: Lott is currently the John M. Olin Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. Olin fellows are funded by the John M. Olin Foundation, which got its money from the Olin Corp., which owns Winchester Ammunition, which has a stake in lax gun laws.

"That's enough to call into question the study's legitimacy," said Dan Kotowski, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. "It's more than a coincidence." In the stories that followed, several news organizations highlighted the connection.

But there are some serious defects in this conspiracy theory. The first is in the facts. The Olin Foundation was created with money not from the Olin Corp. but from the personal fortune of John M. Olin upon his death. The foundation has no parent corporation and, in fact, is entirely independent. To suggest that it is merely an arm of the gun industry is like regarding the Ford Foundation as a puppet of American carmakers.

Another problem is that the foundation didn't 1) choose Lott as a fellow, 2) give him money or 3) approve his topic. It made a grant to the law school's law and economics program (one of many grants it makes to top universities around the country). A committee at the law school then awarded the fellowship to Lott, one of many applicants in a highly competitive process.

Even the committee had nothing to do with his choice of topics. The fellowship was to allow Lott--a prolific scholar who has published some 75 academic articles--to do research on whatever subject he chose.

His critics prefer not to think he may have actually reached his conclusion through honest investigation. Instead, they clutch at a wild hypothesis.

To accept their conspiracy theory, you have to believe the following: A company that derives a small share of its earnings from sporting ammunition somehow prevailed on an independent family foundation to funnel money to a scholar who was willing to risk his academic reputation (and, since he does not yet have tenure, his future employment) by fudging data to serve the interests of the firearms lobby--and one of the premier research universities in the world cooperated in the fraud.

For some people, that absurd fantasy is perfectly credible. But then, some people could believe that Lott was on the grassy knoll in Dallas.

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