Is gun advocate John Lott a straight shooter?

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Last month, The Dispatch published an op-ed piece of mine, “Focus needs to be on reducing gun deaths,” where I stated that, if we’re serious about reducing gun deaths, we should stop debating whether more guns result in less crime because the evidence is inconclusive.” I also questioned the credibility of John Lott, an ardent advocate of concealed carry laws, because Lott had created a pseudonym, “Mary Rosh,” a supposed former student; posing as Rosh online, he praised his own work. I referred to this in the contest of a lawsuit that Lott had brought against author Steven Levitt for defamation.

Lott responded in The Dispatch on May 3. In his article, “Research shows crime goes down with concealed-carry,” Lott wrote, “[I]f D’Aurora had actually read the briefs in my case, he would know that I had contested the claims Levitt made about the ‘Mary Rosh’ pseudonym, and in deposition I made it clear that everything he claimed was false. By the way, Levitt wrote an apology letter stating that the claims that he made about my research and that of others were wrong.”

What’s going on here? Did I get it wrong, or is Lott blending two ideas—one about him contesting the Mary Rosh pseudonym and the other about Levitt apologizing? Does Lott want us to believe that Levitt apologized for publishing a falsehood concerning the Mary Rosh pseudonym, or is Lott denying the Mary Rosh story?

Let’s start at the top to figure this out and review the pleadings and other writings I read before publishing my op-ed piece. In an article published by The Washington Post on February 1, 2003, “Scholar invents Fan to Answer his Critics,” Lott admitted that he had created the name, Mary Rosh, and wrote flattering commentaries about himself as if he were Mary Rosh. Here are excerpts:

Mary Rosh thinks the world of John R. Lott Jr., the controversial American Enterprise Institute scholar whose book “More Guns, Less Crimes” caused such a stir a few years ago.

In postings on Web sites in this country and abroad, Rosh has tirelessly defended Lott against his harshest critics. He is a meticulous researcher, she’s repeatedly told those who say otherwise. He’s not driven by the ideology of the left or the right. Rosh has even summoned memories of the classes she took from Lott a decade ago to illustrate Lott’s probity and academic gifts.

“I have to say that he was the best professor I ever had,” Rosh gushed in one Internet posting.

Indeed, Mary Rosh and John Lott agree about everything.

Well they should, because Mary Rosh is John Lott—or at least that’s the pseudonym he’s used for three years to defend himself against his critics in online debates, Lott acknowledged this week.

“I probably shouldn’t have done it—I know I shouldn’t have done it—but it’s hard to think of any big advantage I got except to be able to comment fictitiously,” said Lott, an economist who has held senior research positions at the University of Chicago and Yale.

 . . .

When a reporter attempted to read the posting to him over the telephone, Lott stopped him after the first few words. “I’m sure I did that. I shouldn’t have done it.”

Julian Sanchez, a Cato Institute staffer, is the cybersleuth who tracked Mary Rosh back to John Lott.

Sanchez is a blogger—someone who maintains a Web site where they report and comment on the news—who had been tracking the debate between Lott and critics of his gun research. He became suspicious about Rosh after he noticed that several of Rosh’s online defenses of Lott seemed to track closely with arguments the scholar himself had made in private e-mails to Sanchez and other bloggers. He tracked Mary Rosh’s IP address (the computer code translation of the standard e-mail address) to Pennsylvania.

“I compared that IP with the header of an email Dr. Lott had sent me from his home address. And by another astonishing coincidence, it had originated at the very same IP address. Now what are the odds of that?” he wrote in a posting on his Web site. “Sarcasm aside, we’re a little old to be playing dress up, aren’t we Dr. Lott?”

Lott said he initially used his own name in online debates with critics. “But you just get into really emotional things with people. You also run into other problems.” So he started using the name Mary Rosh. “I should have not done it, there is no doubt. But it was a way to get information into the debate.”

In 2005, Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner published Freakonomics, a book that takes novel approaches in exploring social issues. Levitt referred to Lott’s gun research and to the Mary Rosh story.

In 2006, Lott sued Levitt in the U.S. District Court of Illinois for defamation concerning two statements. The first concerned a statement in Freakonomics about Lott’s research. The second concerned an e-mail about one of Lott’s publications.

Levitt asked the court to dismiss Lott’s complaint on the grounds that, even if the allegations were true, they failed to rise to the level of defamation. In the memorandum he filed with the court in opposing the motion, Lott did not challenge the Mary Rosh story; then again, Lott didn’t sue over the Mary Rosh story. The court dismissed the first count but not the second count about the e-mail, and Lott and Levitt reached a settlement on the second count. Lott then asked the district court to reconsider its decision on the first count and for permission to file an amended complaint. Both requests were denied.

Next, Lott filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit concerning the first count. The court ruled that it “[saw] no error in the district court’s dismissal of the defamation claim or its refusal to accept the futile amended complaint.”

Now, let’s go back to Lott’s statements. He says he “had contested the claims Levitt made about the ‘Mary Rosh’ pseudonym.” Perhaps at one point he did, but who cares? Lott had already admitted to creating Mary Rosh.

Let’s look at Lott’s statement about Levitt’s apology. It’s possible that Levitt apologized, as Lott maintains, for the statements made about Lott’s research. I don’t have access to the settlement agreement reached between Lott and Levitt, but any apology would likely be related only to the second count concerning Levitt’s e-mail.

With the first count being dismissed, Levitt had no reason to apologize for anything he stated in the book, and it’s unlikely he apologized for publishing the Mary Rosh story. Remember, Lott didn’t sue over the Mary Rosh story, and the reason he didn’t sue over the Mary Rosh story is that he admitted it was true in The Washington Post article. Remember also that the court of appeals weighed in on the Mary Rosh matter, saying it was “an embarrassing charge, but one that was apparently true as Lott takes no issue with it in this case.”

Now, as to Lott’s claims that more guns reduce crime. I’m not going to engage him in a series of rebuttals. This is his province, where he has apparently devoted his life and developed a following—some of whom are probably real. Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, which he founded. Look at his website. CPRC  The focus isn’t about reducing crime; it’s a platform for Lott to talk about the benefits of gun ownership.

I’d rather focus my energy on figuring out how we can reduce the 12,723 gun deaths that occurred in the U.S. in 2012.

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  1. Chris Harpster  May 20, 2014

    As a supporter of the 2nd Amendment, I have no issue with people owning guns. We are lead to believe there only two choices on gun rights, banning guns altogether or going out and buying assault rifles by the dozen. Needless to say, there is a whole lot of room for compromise, (which means neither side gets everything they want). We can certainly put our heads together and come up with some common sense laws to account for the 200 plus years since the 2nd Amendment went into law.

    Personally, I have a hard time seeing how background checks and license / registration requirements infringe upon our right to bear arms. Our government requires a license to practice law, sell real estate, drive / own a car, which holds people accountable for their actions. Why can’t we apply that same principal in owning a gun? It would surely make us more accountable and make you think twice about leaving a gun lying around for your children to play with or selling it to a stranger at a gun show.


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