The Shoddy Conclusions of the Man Shaping the Gun-Rights Debate


The C.P.R.C. never takes in more than a few hundred thousand dollars a year, and Lott has always drawn a salary of less than a hundred thousand dollars. He frequently emphasizes that his research is untainted by the gun industry or by special-interest money, and points to the C.P.R.C.’s policy of refusing donations from all manufacturers or groups that have a stake in the gun-control debate.

But, during Lott’s deposition, when asked if the C.P.R.C. receives contributions from individuals who may be affiliated with the gun industry, he admitted, “I’m sure we probably get some donations from people that are in those things. But I don’t go and screen them.” He went on, “I draw the line in terms of banning an individual with their own money.”

Lott said that the C.P.R.C.’s integrity was further guaranteed by the group’s academic advisory board. “I think we’re a relatively unique organization in terms of having people with strong views—or views on different sides of the issue about what’s right or not. The reason why we do that is, like with any good academic-type organization, you need to have critical people who disagree with you to give you comments before you put out research.” He added, “You want to make sure it’s right.”

Lott named several of the C.P.R.C.’s advisers who hold either neutral or supportive views on gun control. One was Scott Masten, a business-economics professor at the University of Michigan, and another was Karpoff, his U.C.L.A. classmate. When I asked Masten about his role at the C.P.R.C., he said, “The sum total of everything I did with respect to the center was agree to be an adviser.” When I asked Karpoff what he did, he said, “Literally nothing.”

On April 10, 2015, Lott held the C.P.R.C.’s fund-raiser at a Hilton Hotel in Nashville, during the N.R.A.’s annual meeting there. In addition to Dana Loesch, who was on her way to becoming one of the N.R.A.’s most recognizable names, several other right-wing celebrities spoke, including the musician and gun activist Ted Nugent, who was both an N.R.A. and C.P.R.C. board member until 2018. Dressed in a camouflage shirt and a cowboy hat, he advocated for the extrajudicial killing of criminals and told the crowd that the C.P.R.C.’s work was just as important as the N.R.A.’s. “John works his ass off,” Nugent said, “and he needs to be paid more.” For the movement to succeed, he declared, Lott’s “almost Mr. Rogers-like delivery” was a necessity. He explained, “the juxtaposition between Ted Nugent the Second Amendment guy and John Lott the Second Amendment guy is dynamic. And we need both.”

As if to underscore the point, Lott delivered a fifteen-minute slide presentation with charts and graphs. Without the C.P.R.C., he said, the public would be exposed only to a “tidal wave” of research that was dishonest, overwhelmingly biased against firearms, and funded by President Barack Obama’s Administration and such insidious billionaire philanthropists as George Soros. Less than two weeks later, Lott pressed the same case on the conspiracy show Infowars, during a period when its founder and host, Alex Jones, was telling his listeners that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staged by the government in order to justify new gun regulations. “He didn’t raise the claim while I was on [the] show,” Lott told me, by e-mail. “If he had, I would have corrected him.”

Around this time, Donald Trump was launching his Presidential campaign. He spoke at the N.R.A.’s convention, and, as the election drew closer, Lott began to campaign for Trump in numerous op-eds and radio interviews.

A month after Trump took office, Lott began corresponding with a top official at the Department of Justice named Ryan Newman, who now serves as general counsel to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In an e-mail in February, 2017, Lott wrote, “There were a number of ideas that I hope can be dealt with by the D.O.J.” He brought up the D.O.J.’s National Crime Victimization Survey, which, he said, “gun control advocates use” to “claim that guns are rarely used for self defense.” He asserted that “it needs to be fixed by changing a couple survey questions,” such as the poll’s screener about being a crime victim, which, by reducing subjectivity, weeds out potentially millions of unreliable responses.

Eventually, Lott compiled his recommendations into a document titled “A Partial List of John R. Lott, Jr.’s Ideas on Empirical Work That Could Be Done by the Department of Justice.” He circulated the list on multiple occasions to Newman, and, under a slightly altered title, to another D.O.J. official named Gary Barnett. In an e-mail to Barnett, he wrote, “As we discussed, we need new research to advance the Trump agenda and pull indefensible studies done during the Obama administration.”

After Trump took office, one policy that was on the table in Congress was “reciprocity,” which would require states to recognize one another’s concealed-handgun-permit holders, allowing individuals to carry their weapons anywhere in the country. Lott wrote, “Everyone knows the types of claims that will be made during congressional debates about how dangerous permit holders are, so before the various reciprocity bills come up, it is extremely important that [the D.O.J.] do a study on this issue.” He clarified, “It is one thing for myself to do studies on how law-abiding concealed handgun permit holders are. It is something entirely different for the Department of Justice to do it.”

In cities around the country, police chiefs were critical of licensed gun carriers who were driving into metropolitan areas and leaving firearms in their parked cars. Thieves, the police said, were breaking into the vehicles, stealing the guns, and distributing them through the illegal market. Lott wanted this narrative put to rest. “There is one item that I could use your help quickly on [getting] some data before the reciprocity debate that is coming up in September,” he wrote to Newman. “The claim coming out from gun control advocates is that concealed handgun[s] are being stolen from permit holders and then being used in crime.” Lott then appears to ask Newman to do something illegal. “As I suspect you already know, there is a database for this information,” he said, “but unfortunately only law enforcement are allowed access to it.” Lott was referring to the National Criminal Information Center, which is strictly off limits to the public; a violation of the policy can be prosecuted as a federal crime. A week later, he followed up with Newman: “Just so you know, I believe that I was able to get a hold of the data that I had asked about.”

When I asked Lott about these e-mails, he wrote, “I have no memory of anyone ever mentioning anything to me about the data not being accessible to the public.” He went on, “In any case, while I was waiting to hear back from Newman, I talked to a Congressman about my interest in getting that data, and he offered to get the data for me. So that is how I got it.”

This summer, John Donohue, an empirical researcher and Stanford law professor who also testified in the California case, published a study in the National Bureau of Economic Research examining “shall-issue” laws in forty-seven U.S. cities over a forty-year period, from 1979 to 2019. The statutes, the study found, were linked to a twenty-nine-per-cent increase in violent gun crime. One of the driving factors: a thirty-five-per-cent jump in firearm theft.

In late 2019, John Dillon, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the California assault-weapons case, asked Lott to join his team as an expert witness. During Lott’s deposition, he said, “I have a rule that I won’t take a case if I’m going to be paid by anybody who is involved in the gun industry or the N.R.A. or somebody else who has a dog in the fight.”

It was a strange answer, given that multiple gun-rights organizations were listed as plaintiffs in the case. When asked if he was aware of their involvement, Lott said, “I have no doubt that that’s true. I have no connection with them, and have had no contact with them about it.” The attorney pressed him further. “Do you know which particular organizations are plaintiffs in this case?” he asked. “I haven’t tried to look that up,” Lott said. “It isn’t relevant to me.”

One of the plaintiffs was the Second Amendment Foundation, a group that focusses on litigation to expand gun rights. The month Lott joined the case, the organization held a conference in Phoenix. Dillon, the plaintiffs’ attorney, was one of the speakers, and he discussed the case on a panel. Another speaker was Lott, who delivered a lecture at the event, and was named Scholar of the Year. He told me, “When the case was in process, I never talked to anyone at the Second Amendment Foundation about it. I didn’t even know that they were involved.”

I asked Lott if he was paid for his work on the California case. He replied, “I was not paid by the plaintiffs.” During his deposition, he had disclosed that he was earning four hundred and fifty dollars an hour to serve as an expert. When I followed up, he wrote, “I was paid by a private individual who doesn’t work in the firearms industry and does not run nor hold a position of any type in any self-defense oriented organization.” He added, “I will not go into further detail out of respect for their privacy.”

In June, 2020, under the direction of the Trump White House, the D.O.J. offered Lott a job, pending a background check. It was an exciting time for him. Lott was moving to Missoula, Montana, after David Strom, a seventy-nine-year-old who had recently died, left him money and a two-bedroom house with a view of the mountains. Strom was a veteran, a police officer, a gun enthusiast, and a lifetime N.R.A. member; according to an obituary, he supported organizations that “defended the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” Before his death, records show, Strom had made Lott a beneficiary of his trust, which held the home. It is unclear how Lott and Strom were connected. But Lott once told Karpoff, his former classmate, that he had received the house from a fan. Lott has never publicly acknowledged Strom, but, according to court documents, he sued the trustee for more cash. “There was ten thousand dollars in the trust,” Lott wrote me, “and as soon as the trustee disbursed the cash in accordance with the will, the lawsuit was dropped.”

It can take months to clear a government background check, and, by the time the D.O.J. was finished looking into Lott, the Trump Administration was near its end. Before taking his position as a senior adviser, ethics rules required him to relinquish his role at the C.P.R.C. On October 9, 2020, the organization put out a press release announcing Lott’s replacement, Robert F. Turner, a national-security specialist in his late seventies who was a law professor at the University of Virginia for more than thirty years.

Lott started at the D.O.J. on October 20, 2020. Two days later, one of the most prominent national-security think tanks in the country, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, released a report titled “The War Comes Home: The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States.” Its key finding was not surprising: “White supremacists and other like-minded extremists conducted two-thirds of the terrorist plots and attacks in the United States in 2020.” Turner said that “Dr. Lott was anxious to have me respond” to the study. “It was my understanding,” he told me, that the C.P.R.C. “wanted me to write something challenging or refuting” it. Turner did not know why, and declined to do so. “I did not want my name associated with anything that might imply that I was other than outraged by such monstrous behavior,” he said.

In a matter of weeks, Turner, a cancer survivor who was struggling to write op-eds—one of his core responsibilities as president of the C.P.R.C.—left the organization. Lott does not dispute Turner’s recollection of the report, but said that Turner’s departure was not related to it, and instead pointed to his lack of productivity.

Lott’s three-month stint at the D.O.J. was unremarkable. He compiled data relating to the background-check system, and reviewed F.B.I. reports he found problematic. Lott left the day before Joe Biden was sworn into office.

In June, 2021, after the judge struck down California’s assault-weapon ban, Lott turned his attention to other matters. In the past few years, a flurry of states have passed laws abolishing their concealed-carry permit systems. Known among gun-rights advocates as Constitutional Carry, the new statutes allow anyone who can legally purchase a firearm to carry a concealed handgun in public, with no license required. It is the logical evolution of the “shall-issue” concept, and Lott has embraced it. In December, he co-wrote an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel arguing in favor of the law with Anthony Sabatini, a Republican state representative in Florida who was sponsoring a Constitutional Carry bill there and had the first byline. A month later, Lott co-wrote an op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald with Tom Brewer, a Republican state senator in Nebraska who was sponsoring Constitutional Carry legislation in his state. The column’s language was virtually identical to that of Lott and Sabatini’s op-ed in the Sentinel. In February, the column was published again, in Yellowhammer News, an outlet in Alabama. Lott’s co-writer was Shane Stringer, a Republican representative who was sponsoring the Constitutional Carry bill there. Finally, Lott published the op-ed on his own in March, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, replacing the names of the other states with Georgia, which was considering similar legislation. The bills in Florida and Nebraska stalled, but passed in Alabama and Georgia. Half of all states now have a Constitutional Carry law in place.

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