“I am not interested in giving any serious thought to John Lott
or his claims.”
Those are the words of University of Alabama associate professor
Adam Lankford in response to Fox News after economist John Lott
called Lankford’s highly publicized study into question.
Lankford’s study was published in 2016 but was touted by
President Obama and a fawning media anxious for any “evidence”
that gun ownership is somehow evil even before it was officially
published. Lankford’s anti-gun perspective is evident early on
in his paper. His eighth paragraph starts, “Less positive may be
the fact that, according to a comparative study of 178
countries, the United States ranks first in gun ownership…”
Despite all of the attention it received, Lankford’s study is
troublesome. He claims to have found that 31% of global mass
shooters attacked in the United States between 1966 and 2012. He
states that the U.S. suffered 90 offenders during this period
while only four other countries had more than nine offenders.
Obama took this alleged finding and ran with it, claiming “The
one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass
shooting in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in
The problem is that Lankford’s study is lazy and sloppy, if not
deliberately limited. He used the New York Police Department’s
2012 Active Shooter report supplemented with the FBI’s 2014
Active Shooter Report and “data gathered on incidents from other
countries.” Lankford used the same methodology as the NYPD to
gather additional information.
The NYPD only used open-source material – i.e., Google. They
didn’t use subscription-based research services like LexisNexis,
government databases, or any of the resources available to
professors at well-funded world class universities. The “NYPD
limited its internet searches to English-language sites,
creating a strong sampling bias against international
incidents.” That methodology works for the NYPD’s purpose of
developing recommendations for risk mitigation but it doesn’t
work for a cross-national study because most of the world speaks
a language other than English. The FBI 2014 Active Shooter
report was limited to incidents in the United States.
President Obama and others eager for anything that casts gun
ownership as fundamentally dangerous took Lankford’s 31% claim
at face value. Other researchers, academics, and journalists who
questioned Lankford’s work – or even asked to see his data –
were rebuffed by the UA professor.
John Lott thought that 31% seemed high, so he asked if Lankford
would share his dataset – a common courtesy among academics and
researchers. Lankford refused. Repeatedly. Lankford also refused
to explain how he measured (or counted) mass shootings. Lankford
refused to tell journalists how he collected his data, despite
his claim that he found complete data for 171 countries –
somehow without using foreign language sources. Journalists at
Real Clear Politics asked Lankford questions about his
methodology and for access to his raw data; he refused.
Lankford’s paper does not include a list of the number of
shooters in each country, only providing the totals for five
countries including the United States.
So Lott built his own dataset using the University of Maryland
Global Terrorism Database, Nexis, and web searches for mass
shootings. Lott hired people who spoke foreign languages to help
with this effort. Unlike Lankford, Lott provides the search
terms he used as well as a list of the cases in his dataset.
Lott has been as transparent as possible with his study and even
acknowledges that his monumental effort likely undercounts
shootings in foreign countries due to current and historical
news coverage of such events in the developing world. Lott
looked at the years 1998-2012, likely to ensure the availability
of better data.
Lott found at least fifteen times more mass public shooters than
Lankford in less than a third the number of years (1998-2012).
Lankford claimed to find 292 mass public shooters over 47 years
while Lott found more than 10,000 such shooters around the world
in the last 15 years. Professor Carl Moody at the College of
William & Mary confirmed Lott’s counts for The Washington Times
and added, “By the way, anybody can do this. The GTD database is
free and available to all.”
Lott’s most important finding is that 1.43% of mass public
shooters attacked in the United States. That is starkly
different than Lankford’s 31% claim. Lott extended his work to
the number of attacks and found that 2.88% of mass public
shootings between 1998 and 2012 were in the United States.
Since Lott’s paper was published, his findings have been covered
in The Washington Timesand in a comprehensive article on
RealClearPolitics.com that touches on the importance of allowing
other researchers or journalists to verify one’s data (including
infamous cases within the context of firearms-related research).
Lankford’s conclusion – that reducing gun ownership would reduce
mass shootings – falls apart when one considers the undercounted
foreign cases. One would hope – even expect – that a professor
would give serious thought to valid questions about his work and
to more comprehensive studies that refute his findings. Petty,
dismissive, and evasive answers do not reflect poorly on the
genuine questions raised or those asking them.