U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez’s decision to strike down California’s Assault Weapon Ban has caused some gun controllers to lose their minds. California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCalifornia secretary of state confirms Newsom recall election Newsom overstated California’s wildfire prevention efforts: report 70 percent of Californians over 12 have received one shot of coronavirus vaccine MORE called the judge “a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA.” John Donohue, one of California’s three expert witnesses in the case, warned that the ruling puts his state “at great peril.” There was a time during the Trump administration when presidential attacks on a judge would cause the media and politicians to descend on the offender like a pack of wolves. Now, the mainstream media isn’t coming to Benitez’s defense.
Benitez’s 94-page opinion primarily concentrated on public safety. The judge pointed out that none of the state experts offered any evidence that assault weapon bans reduce murder or overall crime. None offered evidence that California’s ban reduced mass shootings in California. And he questioned the state’s experts’ claims that such bans reduced mass shootings.
Benitez was very critical of some of the state’s experts, explaining in detail his dissatisfaction with apparently manipulated statistics.
I should acknowledge that I was the statistical expert for those challenging the assault weapon ban, and the judge relied on my research.
Devin Hughes of the Gun Violence Archive criticized Judge Benitez’s opinion, claiming that the decision contained “blatant falsehoods” and that we “cannot continue to allow misinformation and myths to seep into our courtrooms.” Using data from his center, Hughes states that “assault weapons were used 2.7 times more often to perpetrate mass shootings than they were used defensively against any type of attack.”
Many in the media rely heavily on the Gun Violence Archive, with dozens of mentions in news sources on the day I composed this op-ed, but there is a reason that none of the statistical experts in the case used the archive’s data. I examined the Gun Violence Archive data from Jan. 1 to June 15 this year, and found only 581 defensive gun uses. However, 95 percent of these cases come from initial news reports. The remaining cases come from initial police reports, and two-thirds of these police reports come from one city — Houston, Texas.
The problem is that what makes cases newsworthy distorts which cases get covered. Murders are normally deemed more newsworthy than woundings, and woundings are deemed more newsworthy than cases defused simply by someone brandishing a gun. But we know that woundings occur seven to eight times more frequently than killings with guns. Survey data also indicate that around 95 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely brandish the gun to make the criminal back off. These defensive gun uses rarely make the news.
Forty-two percent of Gun Violence Archive’s cases involve murders, 42 percent woundings, and 11 percent shots that were fired defensively but didn’t hit anyone. Less than 5 percent of cases involved no shots being fired, and half of those involve the criminal being held at gunpoint until the police arrive.
If other cities had reported defensive gun uses like Houston and Hughes had managed to find initial police reports from around the country at the same rate, that alone — according to my calculations — would cause the number of cases to increase by 74 percent. These cases tend to be of less interest to the media, with only 3 of the 17 in Houston involving a death. But they still are of interest to the police, as all of them involved shots fired.
Nor does it help that the Gun Violence Archive is missing defensive gun use cases. Even a very quick glance through just cases where people used permitted concealed handguns in public to stop crime during the first three months of this year shows they have missed cases from Florida, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.
There are other problems with relying on news stories. When people use guns defensively in public, they are very likely to be arrested, unless the police are certain about what happened. Only later will the charges be dropped, but this is virtually never announced in a follow-up news story or a report on the police blotter — so relying on initial news stories can get some genuine defensive gun uses classified as crimes.
On top of that, this discussion assumes that people are reporting these crimes to police. Yet, only half of violent crime victims report violent crime to police, and if people successfully use guns defensively without firing the gun, they may never view themselves as being victims.
If assault weapon bans actually reduce mass public shootings, the share of mass public shootings committed with assault weapons should have declined during the period of the assault weapon ban and then gone up after the ban ended. But gun control advocates ignore that the opposite actually happened. After the nationwide ban sunset in 1994, mass public shootings actually became relatively more frequent in the states that had their own bans.
You wouldn’t know it from the political debate or news coverage, but the vast majority of studies find no effect from federal or state assault weapon bans, and the few that do ignore any impact of law enforcement or any other gun control laws, or had other problems. There is a reason that many academics who have published peer-reviewed empirical research on gun control do not think assault weapon bans reduce either mass public shootings or murder.
Few would also know that the United States is well below the world average when it comes to mass public shootings. While the U.S. makes up about 4.6 percent of the world population, we make up only about 1 percent of the world’s mass public shooters. Many European countries have higher per capita fatality rates from mass public shootings than the U.S. despite those countries having extremely strict gun control.
Mischaracterizing a judge’s decision isn’t helpful. Instead, the media might want to ask themselves why they are constantly citing data that even gun control experts never use in a court.
John Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of “Gun Control Myths.” Until January, he worked in the U.S. Department of Justice as Senior Advisor for Research and Statistics.