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A Scholar Under the Gun

At the Yale Law School, as in most of academia, job titles are examined as carefully as Supreme Court decisions. So it riles more than one faculty member there when the media refer to economist John Lott as a “Yale professor.” Lott is in his second one-year term as a senior research scholar at the Law School, a position that comes with a salary and an office but not the title “professor.”

But there may be more to these faculty objections than just concern for academic etiquette. Lott happens to be an advocate of laws permitting citizens to carry concealed weapons—a position outlined in his 1998 book More Guns, Less Crime. Lott, an economist by training, examined the effect of “concealed-carry” laws on crime; in his book, he offers statistics demonstrating that such laws reduce crime rates—and furthermore, that laws limiting access to guns have no demonstrable positive effect.

Lott did not start his gun research expecting such results. He says he merely wanted to do a better job of compiling and analyzing data. “If I’d known gun ownership offered this kind of benefit,” he says, “I wouldn’t have waited until I was 40 to write the book.”

While gun-control advocates have questioned Lott’s methodology and even his integrity, conservatives have delighted in his research, and Lott has become a frequent contributor to the right-of-center editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times.

Those credentials don’t always sit well in academia, though. At 42, Lott finds himself with a stack of publications, teaching experience, and a national reputation, but without a tenure-track job, a fact that at least one colleague attributes to his gun research. “I always assumed that in academia people valued discussion and exchange of ideas,” says Lott. “I’ve been dissuaded from that assumption over time.”

Lott, who received his PhD from UCLA, has taught at six universities and served as chief economist for the United States Sentencing Commission. He has had positions in business schools, law schools, economics departments, and public policy programs, and he is drawn to research subjects that are part of public-policy debates. In addition to his work on guns, he has examined the effect of campaign contributions on elected officials’ voting records (negligible, he says) and the consequences of affirmative-action programs on the effectiveness of police departments (significantly negative).

Lott’s record leaves him open to accusations of conservative bias in his work, but he bristles at the notion that his preconceptions drive his conclusions. “I rarely hear such charges against people on the left,” he says. “But I get it a lot, and I have to spend a lot of time describing cases where my research had a more 'liberal' outcome.”

Lott says his position at the Law School—which requires no teaching—has been a boon to his research efforts. Asked how friendly his Law School colleagues have been, he smiles, hesitates, and says, “Plenty of people have been very nice.”  the end


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