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Measuring the value of gun control

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Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

John R. Lott Jr. is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission and author of the 2010 book “More Guns, Less Crime.” Lott spoke to the Trib about elected officials' recent calls for additional gun control measures in the wake of last month's school shootings in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 students and six educators dead.

Q: What do you think of Sen. (Charles) Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicting broad support for his legislation calling for universal background checks?

A: Everybody wants to try to keep criminals and others who shouldn't have guns from getting them. I guess the problem is the current background check system is severely flawed and the additional changes he wants to make will make things even worse. (President Obama claimed) that 1.5 million people were prohibited from buying guns because of the background checks, and that's simply false.

Q: Where did that number come from?

A: It's not that those (1.5 million people were) prohibited from buying guns. What it was was 1.5 million people had initial denials for buying a gun. There's a huge difference between saying someone was initially denied and saying someone was prohibited from buying a gun. Something like 99.8 or 99.9 percent of those denials turned out to be false positives. The president with pride points to this 1.5 million number. I don't view it as something he should be particularly proud of, when you have 1.5 million basically law-abiding citizens who should have been able to go and buy a gun, but were stopped for weeks or months or longer to go through the (permitting) process.

Q: What are your thoughts on Sen. (Dianne) Feinstein's (D-Calif.) bill to once again ban assault weapons?

A: I don't know anybody who argued seriously that the previous ban that we had on either certain types of guns or on magazines had any serious impact on crime rates in terms of a beneficial impact. The president refers to these as military weapons, Sen. Feinstein refers to them as military weapons. That's completely false. There is no military in the world that would go and use these types of weapons.… It's an attempt to demonize certain weapons, and it's disappointing that that's the level of rhetoric that we have here right now.

Q: Do you believe the president's executive orders on gun control have any teeth?

A: Some of them. I'm surprised the media just didn't start laughing when he was saying them. For example, he appointed someone to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He could have done that anytime he wanted to. I mean, he appointed a guy named Andrew Traver back in 2010, but he was well to the left of most Democrats. He supported a ban on handguns (and) most semiautomatic guns. The Democrats refused to move on him, the president refused to put up a new nominee and we've essentially been in that position for almost 2½ years (until the executive order).

Q: If you had to make a guess, would you say this renewed push for gun control will be successful?

A: All I can say is I hope not. I think the things that the president is proposing are either going to make things worse with regard to the crime problems or they are going to have no impact.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or

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