John R. Lott, Jr.
New York Times has suffered a major black eye with revelations
that one of its reporters made up events, facts, or engaged in plagiarism
some 50 times. Yet, the Times has won praise for owning up to this
problem, and in doing so may seem to have put the controversy behind
this pattern of reporting goes much deeper than the Times
admits. As an example, take the major 20,000 word series on "rampage
killings" the Times published during 2000.
paper declared that the evidence they compiled "confirmed the public
perception that they appear to be increasing." Indeed, the Times
found that exactly 100 such attacks took place during the 50 years
from 1949-to-1999, 51 of which occurred after the beginning of 1995.
Their conclusion: "the nation needs tighter gun laws for everyone."
done a lot of work on this topic (together with Bill Landes at the
University of Chicago), I immediately noticed that the Times
noted virtually all the cases during the second half of the 1990s,
but omitted most of the cases prior to that.
a side bar to one of the articles briefly cautions that the series
"does not include every attack," the omissions are so extremely
skewed as to produce a nine-fold increase between the 1949-to-1994
and 1995-to-1999 periods.
Times claimed that from 1977 to 1994 there was an annual
average of only 2.6 attacks where at least one person was killed
in a public multiple victim attack (not including robberies or political
killings). Yet, what we found was an average of 17 per year.
of the sudden surge starting in 1995, the actual national data we
compiled shows lots of ups and downs, but with no generally rising
or falling pattern. For instance, 1996 had an unusually large number
of attacks, though the level began to recede in 1997.
telephoned the article's main author, Ford Fessenden, who after
initial claims that they had been extremely careful admitted that
the staff working on the project had primarily concentrated on cases
in the more recent years. They had only gotten the easily obtainable
cases from earlier years. I noted that it was strange that anyone
would think that there were exactly 100 such attacks over the 50
years, and he indicated that 100 simply seemed like a convenient
number to stop at.
the data was collected also affected other less dramatic findings.
The Times claimed that attacks had increased modestly in
the late 1980s and that this increase coincided with the period
during which the "production of semi-automatic pistols overtook
the production of revolvers."
again, there was no such increase in the late 1980s. If anything,
just the opposite was generally occurring, when one examined all
the cases during this earlier period, even though there was a significant
variation from year-to-year in the rate of attacks. The number of
public shootings per 10 million people had actually been falling
prior to that, declining from 1 in 1985 to .9 in 1990 to .5 in 1995.
noted that he was familiar with our research but that they had never
made an attempt to compare the two data sets. He then asked how
long it had taken us to get together all the cases. When I told
him a couple of thousand hours he said that there was "no way" they
could have devoted that much time to the project.
the Times never ran a correction and never published any
letters noting that the huge increase in these crimes that undoubtedly
scared many people was merely a figment of how the data was collected.
policy prescriptions put forward by the Times simply assumed
that tighter gun laws would save lives. Fox Butterfield, another
reporter who wrote part of the Times’ series, told me that
no formal statistical tests were done because some academics had
advised him that there was "no way that [they] would get any statistically
significant results," and that the Times never checked to
see whether that was true.
more importantly Butterfield's answer also creates other disturbing
problems for the Times study. Why would the newspaper, or
any institution doing research, assert benefits to gun laws if they
seriously doubted that their data would confirm their claims?
as the Times knew, Bill Landes and I had examined all the
different gun control laws advocated by the Times and come
to the opposite conclusion. All the gun laws discussed by the paper
(such as waiting periods, background checks, and one-gun-a-month
restrictions) turned out not to have any significant effect on public
shootings. We found only one policy that effectively does this:
the passage of right-to-carry laws. A policy that the Times
never even discussed.
much of the public policy debate is driven by lopsided coverage
of gun use. The New York Times series played to the worst
sensationalism by trying to scare people into thinking that there
was an exploding crisis of "rampage killings."
Lott [send him mail], a resident
scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the
newly released The
Bias Against Guns, which examines this evidence on multiple
© 2003 John Lott