Gun “Researcher” Pushes Sham Statistics In The Wall Street Journal

In an opinion piece in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, discredited gun "researcher" John Lott cited dubious survey research to make the claim that members of law enforcement generally believe that “too often the laws disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals, and thus make it easier for criminals to commit crime.”  In fact, academic research indicates broad support for some gun violence prevention measures within the law enforcement community. 

Lott's goal was to admonish New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made waves last week when he suggested that police officers “go on strike” until legislative bodies agreed to address gun violence. But Lott's reliance on surveys with extremely suspect methodology makes it difficult to take his critique seriously.  

Lott first cites a 2010 survey of 20,000 police chiefs and sheriffs conducted by the National Association of Chiefs of Police (NACOP). The number of officers that actually responded is unknown because NACOP did not release any methodology other than to say that the survey was conducted by mail. According to Lott:

Seventy-seven percent believed that concealed-handgun permits issued in one state should be honored by other states “in the way that drivers' licenses are recognized through the country” -- and that making citizens' permits portable would “facilitate the violent crime-fighting potential of the professional law enforcement community.” 

The fact that the survey would use such a leading question was probably of little concern to Lott, who has faced convincing allegations that he fabricated data in his own research. That the survey was released with insufficient information to describe its methodology means that it cannot convincingly be said to prove anything.

Lott also never mentioned that during the 1990s NACOP was a public opponent of the Brady Bill; legislation that required individuals purchasing a firearm from a gun dealer to undergo a background check. NACOP used the same mail survey methodology seen in its 2010 survey to claim that law enforcement officers largely opposed the Brady Bill. In a 1991 CNN special, pollster Robert Miller, who had examined NACOP's methods, stated, “The results would not be considered accurate by any scholarly or recognized body that evaluates polls.” [CNN, 11/6/91, via Nexis] 

In 1995 the Miami New Times reported that other law enforcement professionals questioned the legitimacy of NACOP as a charitable organization because NACOP had sent of millions of dollars in fees to a for-profit company then-run by NACOP founder Gerald Arenberg. Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson also accused Arenberg using donated money to lead a lavish lifestyle while also operating a for-profit degree mill. 

NACOP has also been criticized by former Congressman Ed Feighan (D-OH), who questioned the organization's polling methods in the 1991 CNN special by stating, “It is a dangerous organization because it operates and disseminates wrongful information under a very legitimate-sounding name.”

Dewey Stokes, the then-president of the Fraternal Order of Police, added, “I believe Mr. Arenberg represents a concoction of individuals, in some cases, none of them even associated with law enforcement.  And, in my opinion those people could not possibly speak for law enforcement because they do not understand law enforcement.”

The next survey cited by Lott to buttress his argument that police officers in general oppose gun violence prevention laws, a 2007 survey conducted by Police Magazine editor David Griffith, also suffers from flawed methodology. Griffith's explanation of the survey methodology shows a profound miscomprehension about what constitutes a representative sample:

How valid is our survey? Well, let's take a look at the numbers. The best estimate is that there are 1 million sworn (give or take 200K) law enforcement officers in the United States. So that begs the question: Can 1,572 officers out of a pool of 8,794 really speak for them all?

Statistically, yes. Hey, if 10,000 Nielsen families can determine what the other 300 million Americans get to watch on TV and the profit-and-loss statements of the major networks, then 1,572 cops can speak for a population of slightly more than a million other LEOs.

What Griffith fails to appreciate is that Nielsen carefully controls the demographics of its survey population to be representative of the general population. A survey directed towards individuals who choose to subscribe to Police Magazine does nothing of the sort.

The final survey cited by Lott in his column to make the claim that a large majority of police officers oppose a ban on assault weapons was also released with very limited methodology. What is known is that the survey was published in a 1997 edition of The Informant, a magazine published by the San Diego Police Officers Association (SDPOS).

What is unknown is the rate that Informant subscribers completed and returned the survey. It is also impossible to say whether the views of police officers in the SDPOS in any way represent the views of police officers as a whole.  

All three of the surveys are obviously unscientific. But John Lott, a professional statistician, cited them because they confirmed his pre-existing belief about gun regulation. Lott's desire to confirm his own biases also likely led him to ignore a study examining what police chiefs think about gun violence regulations that actually produced statistically significant results.

The 2006 mail survey, which appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, was conducted by actual academics who put measures in place to ensure the internal validity of their survey. Among the findings:

  • 93.5% of police chiefs supported requiring a background check to purchase a handgun.
  • 73.4% of police chiefs were in favor of child access laws.
  • 69.4% of police chiefs supported mandatory handgun registration.
  • 58.4% of police chiefs believed civilians should not carry firearms in public places.

Just last week the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence (NLEPPGV), a group of nine national police leadership organizations, held a press conference to demand more stringent firearm regulation in the wake of the July 20 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. NLEPPGV, which is comprised of Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc., Hispanic American Police Command Officers Association, International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Major Cities Chiefs Association, National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Police Executive Research Forum, and Police Foundation, demanded that Congress strengthen background checks and ban high-capacity magazines.

NLEPPGV also expressed strong opposition to H.R. 822, the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011, that would have forced states to recognize the validity of concealed handgun carry permits issued by other states.

For its part, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, an organization that receives approximately ten times the funding of NACOP, has endorsed a number of gun violence prevention measures including requiring universal background checks to purchase a firearm, banning assault weapons and .50 caliber sniper rifles, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms, safe storage laws, and eliminating the National Rifle Association-backed Tiahrt Amendment.

Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, a state organization which receives approximately two-thirds the funding of NACOP, has been a leading supporter of universal background checks in Virginia.