The National Rifle Association’s favorite researcher, John Lott, published a Wall Street Journal opinion piece making the ridiculous claim that soaring gun homicide rates in Mexico in recent years are the result of the country strengthening its gun laws in 1971. Lott’s analysis fails to establish any causation between the law change nearly 50 years ago and current levels of violence, and he ignores or downplays intervening factors that better explain Mexico’s gun homicide rate -- including the rise of the drug cartels in the 1980s, the Mexican Drug War, the related breakdown of law enforcement in Mexico, and the flood of firearms being illegally smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico.
Although Lott’s primary pro-gun research theory -- that “more guns” equal “less crime” -- has been repeatedly debunked over the years by academic researchers, the Journal is the latest major outlet to give him a platform to spread pro-gun nonsense. Lott’s opinion piece also follows a recent embarrassing episode in which he was called out by a U.S. senator while testifying about his past use of a fictitious sock puppet account to defend his research online.
In his October 21 piece, headlined “Mexico’s Soaring Murder Rate Proves Gun Control Is Deadly,” Lott claims that the current astronomical gun homicide rate in Mexico is a result of a change in the country’s gun regulations. According to Lott, “Mexicans had a right to own guns until 1971, when the constitution was amended to give the federal government total control over firearm access,” but today, “Mexico’s murder rate is about twice what it was in 1972.” Citing a favorite NRA catch phrase, Lott concludes: “It’s pretty simple—the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun. Disarming the latter emboldens the former.”
The supporting evidence Lott offers for his claim is wrong. He writes, “If you look across all countries or all developed countries, the ones with the highest gun-ownership rates tend to have the lowest homicide rates and the lowest murder rates from mass shootings.” But according to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, “across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides. These results often hold even when the United States is excluded.” Research has also shown that high-income nations typically experience low rates of gun violence -- with the exception of the U.S., which has both remarkably high gun availability and a high gun homicide rate for a high-income nation. (Lott’s claim about mass shootings is an aside to his main point, but his research on that topic has also been thoroughly debunked, as Lott obviously distorted his data set.)
What makes Lott’s argument about Mexico ridiculous on its face, however, is his failure to account for intervening events between 1971 and present. Perhaps the most obvious example is that the modern drug cartels, which are fueling violence in Mexico, didn’t exist in 1971, and instead have their genesis in the 1980s. Cartel activities led to the start of what is known as the Mexican Drug War, which began in 2006 and continues to this day.
Another point Lott missed is the difference between the gun laws and the gun availability, something that is significant in a country where the rule of law has broken down and authorities are unable to enforce laws on the books. Gun availability is a major driving factor of gun homicide, according to numerous studies reviewed by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and the breakdown in law enforcement effectiveness in Mexico has allowed illegal firearms to become widely available. Civilians in Mexico have organized in some cases into vigilante groups which use firearms to confront drug cartels, though those efforts have often been corrupted through subsequent cartel infiltration. (In one instance, a Mexican citizen self-defense group evolved into a violent criminal organization.)
A secondary purpose of Lott’s opinion piece is to downplay the extent to which violence in Mexico is carried out with guns smuggled from the U.S. -- a phenomenon driven by weak U.S. gun regulation. Lott takes issue with data about firearms recovered at crime scenes in Mexico, pointing out that the percentage of firearms traced back to the U.S. depends on the sample size of firearms collected:
According to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, 70% of all criminally owned guns in Mexico come from the U.S., but these figures are based only on the limited number of guns Mexican authorities have seized, traced and submitted to the agency for checking. That’s a small subset of guns. For instance, Mexico submitted 11,000 guns to the ATF in 2007-08, though it seized 29,000 guns during that time. Of those, 6,000 were successfully traced and 90% of those traceable weapons came from the U.S. Thus by one estimate only about 17.6% of the firearms Mexico collected in total could be traced back to America.
But even without knowing the full picture, the data Lott acknowledges shows an alarming number of firearms are being illegally diverted from the U.S. to Mexico.
Lott also attempts to further downplay arms smuggling from the U.S. with two falsehoods. First, he points out, “Between 2005 and 2014, more than 13,000 grenades were seized by the Mexican government, and these simply can’t be bought in the U.S.” While grenades are unavailable for civilian purchase in the U.S., grenade parts are legal, and there are documented cases of grenade parts being smuggled into Mexico for cartel use.
Lott also claims that cartel violence often includes fully automatic weapons and notes that such weapons are highly restricted in the U.S. However, functionally similar semi-automatic assault weapons that can be easily purchased in the U.S. are routinely converted into fully automatic weapons south of the border. (It’s also noteworthy that Lott’s reference to effective regulation of fully automatic weapons in the U.S. is a tacit admission that gun laws work if they are properly enforced.)
Lott’s research on gun violence should not be taken seriously: It is routinely discredited and Lott has been at the center of a number of ethics scandals. Unfortunately, major outlets like The Wall Street Journal continue to give him a platform to distort the debate over gun policy.