It’s likely nobody anywhere has done more research on, or knows more about, mass shootings than researcher John Lott. Author of the recent book The War On Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies, Lott is also head of the Crime Prevention Research Center, an organization dedicated to providing an objective and accurate scientific evaluation of both the costs and benefits of gun ownership.
We recently posed a handful of questions to Lott to learn the truth about mass shootings that the so-called “mainstream” media won’t report.
A1F Daily: Last year, President Barack Obama claimed, “We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency.” And that has become kind of a rallying cry among anti-gun advocates. What does your research show?
John Lott: It is completely false. And Obama repeated this claim many times. For example, last year he flatly claimed: “It doesn’t happen in other advanced countries. It’s not even close.”
To gun control advocates, if the U.S. would only adopt the types of gun control laws that exist in other countries, this problem would supposedly go away. Hillary Clinton made this explicit when she said mass public shootings “are rooted in the much too readily available weapons of mass killings, usually assault weapons.”
However, in just 2015, France—a country with one-fifth the population of the United States—had more casualties from mass public shootings than the U.S. had during the entire eight years of the Obama presidency (532 versus 527). And, of course, mass public shootings in France have occurred regularly over the years. All the weapons used in the 2015 France attacks were already illegal. The eight who attacked various sites in Paris in November 2015 were armed with automatic AK-47s and explosive suicide belts. The February 2015 Copenhagen attack was carried out with an automatic M95 assault rifle. In the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdoand a kosher supermarket in Paris, the terrorists were armed with automatic Kalashnikov rifles, a loaded M42 rocket launcher, semi-automatic handguns, smoke grenades, Molotov cocktails, a hand grenade and sticks of dynamite.
Mass public shootings are defined as four or more people killed in a public place, and not in the course of committing another crime, and not involving struggles over sovereignty. Using the traditional FBI definition, the EU and the U.S. each experienced 25 mass shootings during the first seven years of Obama’s presidency (January 2009 to December 2015).
The rate at which people were killed was virtually the same: 0.083 per million people in the EU versus 0.089 per million people in the U.S. But the injury rate in the EU was more than twice as high: 0.19 versus 0.087. The cases are listed in my book, The War on Guns, so people can check each case themselves.
If you compare the U.S. to individual countries in Europe over the same period, the U.S. had the 11th highest fatality rate. Because of Anders Breivik’s 2011 attack at a summer camp, Norway had the top spot—1.9 per million people per year. This rate was 21 times higher than that of the U.S. But other advanced countries such as France, Switzerland, Finland, Belgium and the Czech Republic also came in above the U.S.
Looking only at the frequency of attacks—as Obama seems wont to do—while still adjusting for population, the U.S. came in 12th, with 0.078 per million people.
Compared to the rest of the world, moreover, the U.S. and Europe are quite safe from mass public shootings. In Russia and elsewhere, struggles over sovereignty have led to a large number of devastating attacks. For instance, the 2004 Beslan school siege—carried out in the name of Chechen independence—claimed 385 lives.
Since 1970, all but one of the 20 worst mass public shootings and 45 of the worst 50 cases occurred outside the United States. Again, I list the cases in my book so people can check all the cases up through March 2016.
A1F: Do you think those who oppose gun ownership know these facts, or are they simply misled?
Lott: Several things are happening here. Part of the problem is the media simply don’t give the same coverage to most mass public shootings in Europe that they give to attacks in the U.S. Part of it is also that people don’t adjust for population differences across countries. You can’t compare the U.S. with more than 320 million people with other countries that may only have 4 million or 8 million people. As just noted, even France has only a fifth of the U.S. population.
Unfortunately, there is a third problem. There has been clear fraud and complete incompetence in this area. The study that has gotten the most media coverage is by Adam Lankford. He reportedly covers the years 1966 to 2012 and claims: “Despite [the U.S.] having less than 5 percent of the global population, it had 31 percent of global public mass shooters.”
His claims got uncritical coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Associated Press, “PBS Newshour,” NPR, “ABC Evening News,” Fox News, and many hundreds of other outlets. In fact, many prominent outlets have covered the claim repeatedly. It has even received coverage in countries like Australia, Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, India, Iran, Mexico, Peru, Sweden, Turkey, UK, Vietnam and Cuba.
But when Lankford’s study got massive uncritical media attention he only shared the paper with reporters, and he required that they didn’t share it with researchers. Despite the wide publicity given to his findings, he repeatedly turned down my requests to see his paper. On Dec. 1, 2015, the Washington Post’s Michelle Lee wrote me: “I do have a copy but [Lankford] asked that I not distribute it or post it online before it’s formally published. You can contact him and request, maybe now that his study is being discussed he might be more open to share?” But I contacted Lankford both before and after Lee’s email—he declined to provide either the paper or his data.
I finally obtained a copy of Lankford’s paper when it was published at the end of January 2016 —more than five months after it originally started getting news attention. Incredibly, even after his paper was published Lankford still refused to let me look at his list of mass public shootings from other countries. All I wanted was a list similar to what I have provided in my book.
At first, I simply hoped that Lankford had discovered some previously unknown way of collecting these cases. But his paper provides very little specific information, not even telling us the number of shootings in more than four foreign countries. No breakdown is provided by continent. It is hard to believe that Lankford even has such information, but there is no way of checking his data and seeing what cases he has missed.
People shouldn’t trust a researcher who refuses to share even the most basic information behind his research. The fact that he is unwilling to let anyone check his work shows a bad conscience.
A1F: How much affect does it have on the debate when someone like Obama makes such a statement and the media don’t even check to see if it is true?
Lott: For the president of the United States to keep repeating this claim over and over again in public—and for the media to give massive coverage reporting Adam Lankford’s work without interviewing any critics of it—these things surely have an impact on the debate. I frequently hear reporters and legislators repeat these claims. I have a list of mass public shootings in other countries with strict gun control available so that those advocating gun control can check the cases themselves and see how many are occurring around the rest of the world.
A1F: What do you think is the most important thing people should understand about this topic?
Lott: The most important thing is how these mass public shooters pick targets where they know that victims can’t defend themselves. Over 98 percent of the mass public shootings in the U.S. since at least 1950 have occurred in “gun-free zones,” places where general citizens aren’t allowed to defend themselves. All the mass public shootings in Europe and Canada have occurred in these gun-free zones.
It is hard to ignore the explicit statements made by these killers when they have explained why they have picked the targets that they have. These killers pick places where people won’t have guns to protect themselves and others.
Last year, a young ISIS sympathizer planned a shooting at one of the largest churches in Detroit. An FBI wire recorded him explaining why he had targeted the church: “It’s easy, and a lot of people go there. Plus people are not allowed to carry guns in church. Plus it would make the news.” Fortunately, that ISIS sympathizer ended up being only a would-be shooter. But, during the last couple of years, shooters have made similar statements after attacking a church in Charleston, S.C., a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and a sorority house in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Police are extremely important in stopping crime, but they have an extremely difficult time stopping terrorist attacks. A uniformed officer might as well be wearing a neon sign saying, “Shoot me first.” But with concealed permit holders possibly being present, terrorists have a much more difficult job when they reveal themselves. Consequently, police officers can breath easier.
A1F: Given these facts, what do you think is the most important thing people should do?
Lott: People need to make sure that they are informed. Getting rid of gun-free zones is extremely important. I would argue that it is the most important legislation to get passed as quickly as possible. Whether it is gun-free zones on college campuses or government buildings, gun control advocates claim disasters will occur if people are allowed to carry concealed handguns. But gun control advocates greatest fear is that these gun-free zones actually will be eliminated and people will find out that the gun control advocates’ claims never happen.