A decades long coordinated misinformation campaign is headed to the Supreme Court
Caitlin Clarkson Pereira & Devin Hughes
firstname.lastname@example.org & email@example.com
Once again, the laws that are designed to keep us safe from gun violence are under attack. And once again, widespread misinformation is to blame.
On November 3rd, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association (NYSRPA) v. Bruen, a case that seeks to overturn New York’s requirement that people seeking a concealed handgun license who don’t carry a gun for work demonstrate a heightened need for self-protection. “Proper cause” requirements like New York’s have been previously upheld by courts, including this March by the Ninth Circuit Court in a decision written by Judge Jay Bybee, who served in George W. Bush’s Department of Justice before President Bush appointed him to the bench. Such cases hinge not only on legal arguments and constitutional history, but also on the scientific evidence surrounding the life-saving and crime-reducing aspects of such laws.
If the Supreme Court issues a broad verdict, it could not only strike down such “proper cause” requirements, but also overturn “May-Issue” Permit-to-Purchase laws which grant police discretionary authority over granting gun licenses, including whether those firearms may be carried in public. Under a broad ruling, states that currently have strong concealed-carry laws could be forced to adopt Right-to-Carry laws, which provide much less state oversight and are linked with increases in violent crime.
We’ve seen a version of this story play out before. In decades past, the National Rifle Association (NRA) transformed from an organization focused on marksmanship to a political and financial behemoth focused on marketing that has altered the trajectory of gun laws. A key component in their decades-long endeavor was funding a handful of legal scholars in the 1970s and 80s to rewrite the legal history of the Second Amendment. The success of this campaign managed to overturn the longstanding consensus that the Amendment was a collective right based on militias. The triumphal coup was crowned in 2008 with Justice Scalia’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which codified an individual right to gun ownership.
Now the gun lobby is attempting a similar strategy to overturn years of academic research that shows that firearms make people less safe and that stronger gun laws save lives.
To understand how this has been possible and why it has happened under our noses without most people noticing, we need to understand the extent of the coordinated campaign that has slowly infected the gun narrative in America. Much of the work to change public opinion about guns was born from the research conducted by just two researchers: John Lott and Gary Kleck. Although their research has been substantially repudiated by many scholars over the past two decades, it has had a large impact in shaping America’s national conversation about firearms. Currently, 56% of Americans believe that more people carrying firearms in public would make the country safer.
So let’s look at how this misinformation campaign using invalid research is impacting the current Supreme Court case:
First, particularly salient are the plaintiff’s claims about the impact of weakening concealed carry laws. The amicus brief filed by the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC), an organization founded and run by John Lott, argues that a majority of the academic research finds that Right-to-Carry (RTC) laws reduce violent crime. Yet a closer analysis of this claim reveals the precise opposite.
The CPRC padded the number of studies that support its position — a key component of its argument. Six studies included in CPRC’s analysis did not actually study the impact of RTC laws on violent crime; two studies were misclassified; several studies had severe errors; and the brief failed to include 23 studies that were germane, of which twelve found an increase in crime (seven found no effect and four agreed with CPRC’s position). Furthermore, the brief relies on heavily outdated and flawed studies conducted before 2005. Combined, these errors and omissions substantially skew the brief’s findings and render its conclusion that RTC laws reduce violent crime fatally inaccurate.
After correcting all the errors in the CPRC’s brief, an accurate examination of modern academic studies since 2005 finds:
· 23 studies that show RTC laws increase crime,
· Seven studies that found RTC laws have no effect on crime, and
· Five studies that found RTC laws decrease crime.
In summary, 66% of the modern academic literature finds that loosening concealed carry laws has a detrimental effect on crime, while only 14% finds a beneficial impact.
Second, the amicus briefs filed in this case touting widespread defensive gun use (DGU) rely on obsolete and highly flawed data. For example, both the briefs filed by law enforcement groups and the State of Arizona claim that millions of DGUs occur annually and outnumber criminal uses of guns. Those estimates come from small private surveys conducted by Gary Kleck in the 1990s, yet subsequent validity tests reveal that the survey numbers are inaccurate because the survey’s suffer from a number of errors including false-positives, human error, mathematically impossible results, and other methodological problems that render the data useless. Further, every survey that examines both the number of criminal firearm uses and defensive uses finds that criminal uses outnumber defensive uses by a substantial margin. Reliable evidence from the Gun Violence Archive indicates that approximately 2,000 verified DGUs occur annually — a far cry from the millions touted in the briefs that may sway this Supreme Court case.
Unfortunately, these specific false claims on concealed carry and defensive gun use are but a fraction of the literature promulgated by Lott, Kleck, and a handful of other academics. The false narrative that firearms make people safer rests not only on the myths of widespread defensive gun use and more guns resulting in less crime, but also on the false notions that shooters deliberately target gun-free zones and that stronger gun laws increase violence. Incredibly, almost all of this intellectual architecture can be traced back to just Lott and Kleck. While the idea that guns make people safer certainly existed before their research, their work gave it the patina of academic rigor necessary for the idea to become widely accepted.
If the Supreme Court is led astray by disinformation as it was more than a decade ago in District of Columbia v. Heller, discretionary Permit-to-Purchase laws — which are the most effective gun violence reducing laws that states can pass — could be ruled unconstitutional. Such an outcome would be devastating for public safety, the consequences of which will be measured in lives lost for decades to come.