Earlier today, Glenn Reynolds posted an update about an article
we wrote in August 2001, raising concerns about possible bias in a National Academy of Science panel which was beginning a study of firearms law. Perhaps our warnings had some effect; the panel’s “charge,” which we linked to from our article, focused only on examing the negative effects of firearms in society. That link is no longer operative, and a more detailed charge has replaced it; the new charge requires the panel to also consider beneficial aspects to firearms ownership.
Expressing concerns of the make-up of the panel, we pointed to the appointment of Benjamin Civiletti (President Carter’s Attorney General), who is not a scholar, and who has well-established anti-gun credentials. Regarding Steve Levitt, a young scholar at the University of Chicago, we wrote that he “has been described as ‘rabidly antigun.’”
Shortly after this article was published, Steve Levitt wrote to Glenn:
“I don’t understand your National Review article in which I am described as ‘rabidly anti-gun.’
“No one who knows me would describe me that way. I love to shoot guns and would own them if my wife would let me. I recently published an op-ed piece in Chicago Sun-Times entitled ‘Pools more dangerous than guns’ (July 28, 2001) that could only be construed as pro-guns. I have never written anything even remotely anti-gun. I think your sources must have me confused with someone else.”
As Glenn notes in an Instapundit post today, Glenn promptly posted an Instapundit item noting Levitt’s statement about his view on guns.
Levitt’s Sun-Times article argues that the risks of gun accidents are grossly exaggerated by the media compared to other accident risks. I wrote back to Levitt something which I should have asked then to be posted on this article, so I’m belated posting it now:
As Glenn’s instapundit site details, we have checked with our original source. Nevertheless, since I try (not always successfully) to shed light rather than heat on the gun issue, I think that in retrospect the adverb ‘rabidly’ shouldn’t have been used. So I promise to avoid it in the future. I’m glad to know about your swimming pools piece, and I enjoyed reading it. I did check your publications page on the web before I submitted the article, but the pool piece wasn’t there — understandably, since your page just cites journal articles.
And, as the article said, whatever your views on guns, there’s no dispute about your scholarly abilities. My forthcoming article
“Lawyers, Guns, and Burglars: Why Mass Tort Litigation Fails to Account for Positive Externalities and the Network Effects of Controversial Products’” 43 Arizona Law Review (no 2, 2001) cites and discusses your excellent LoJack article.
I think that Levitt is mistaken in his belief that he has “never written anything even remotely anti-gun.” In “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,”
116 Quarterly Journal of Economics (No. 2, May 2001): 379-420 (co-authored with John Donohue), Levitt wrote: “Elevated youth homicide rates in this period appear to be clearly linked to the rise of crack and the easy availability of guns.” p. 395, note 21 (“this period” refers to the late 1980s and early 1990s).
In “Guns, Violence, and the Efficiency of Illegal Markets,” 1998 AEA Papers and Proceedings 88 (May): 463-67 (also co-authored with John Donohue), Levitt concluded that the presence of firearms lead to greater levels of violence. He argued that this effect stems not from the lethality of guns per se, but from how they make the outcomes of fights less predictable. A small person who knows he would very likely lose a fistfight to a larger person, will usually choose not to the fight. But if the smaller person has a gun, he may choose to fight: “Guns are an equalizing force that makes the outcome of any particular conflict difficult to predict. All else held constant, this increases the willingness to fight among weaker combatants, leading to greater levels of violence.” p. 467.
I’m not arguing (at least not in this post), that Levitt’s statements are incorrect, and they are certainly not “rabid.” But if a person selecting panelists for the NAS study were looking for panelists who might be expected to see benefits from reducing “easy availability of guns,” it would have been reasonable to pick Levitt. There is nothing logically inconsistent with a scholar favoring gun control to address the very large problem of criminal homicide with guns, while also recognizing that the magnitude of the problem of fatal gun accidents involving children is not nearly as large as the media imply.