Washington Post Fact Check columnist Glenn Kessler gives Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, “three pinocchios” for claiming, as he did yesterday on Fox News Sunday, that so-called right-to-carry laws reduce crime. So, that’s settled then? There’s no evidence that the laws do that? Err, no … as Kessler’s own column indicates.

When right-to-carry laws had a surge in popularity in the 1990s, a common liberal argument against them was that this would lead to an increase in gun violence. Stands to reason, right? More guns means more gun crime.

Except it didn’t happen. Gun violence overall has declined, horrible incidents like Friday’s notwithstanding. Economist John Lott has argued in his book, More Guns, Less Crime (written with David Mustard) that the concealed carry laws actually reduce crime. It was his work that Gohmert was presumably referencing.

Kessler notes: “Lott’s conclusions are controversial — and other academics have criticized his work as either simplistic or subject to empirical errors.” True, but this is a controversial field and as Kessler himself concedes in the column there is little to conclusively to say that Lott is wrong either. Kessler merely argues that the issue is unresolved. In doing so, he notes (more than once in the column, in fact) that there isn’t any evidence that right-to-carry laws increase crime either.

Here, for example, is the conclusion of a National Research Council of the National Acadamies report Kessler cites:

No link between right-to-carry laws and changes in crime is apparent in the raw data, even in the initial sample; it is only once numerous covariates are included that the negative results in the early data emerge. While the trend models show a reduction in the crime growth rate following the adoption of right-to-carry laws, these trend reductions occur long after law adoption, casting serious doubt on the proposition that the trend models estimated in the literature reflect effects of the law change. Finally, some of the point estimates are imprecise. Thus, the committee concludes that with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates. (Emphasis added.)

Kessler then notes that one committee member dissented from the report, saying the evidence indicated there was a link. This committee member was the late James Q. Wilson, one of the most brilliant social science theorists of the last century. Wilson was co-author of the “broken windows” theory of policing.  Former NYC Mayor Rudy Guiliani used that as the basis of his anti-crime efforts in the 1990s, which proved to be unprecedentedly successful.

The Post column cites another study that also finds it hard to pin down the impact of the laws: “the statistical evidence that these laws have reduced crime is limited, sporadic, and extraordinarily fragile.” An update to the column notes that Lott cites other studies that do back up his research.

So it is at least an arguable point that these right-to-carry laws reduce crime. Kessler nevertheless dings Gohmert for being too “sweeping” in his statement:

Gohmert’s statement was declarative and sweeping: “The facts are every time guns have been allowed, concealed-carry has been allowed, the crime rate has gone down.”

The actual evidence is much murkier — and in dispute. Certainly, it appears such laws have not increased the crime rate, as opponents had feared, but it is equally a stretch to say such laws are a slam-dunk reason for why crimes have decreased. Even those sympathetic to Lott’s research suggest that any decline in the crime rate from right-to-carry laws is more sporadic — as opposed to Gohmert’s claim that crime rate always goes down.

Moreover, even if one could prove a definitive link, other factors certainly play a role in reducing crime and should be acknowledged.

Three Pinocchios

Gohmert should have been more careful in his language, but he was making a legitimate point for which there is serious academic research to back up, as Kessler own column shows. Kessler’s awarding of Three Pinocchios is unfair and it serves to cloud the issue of right-to-carry laws and gun violence. People who only note the rating (a distressingly large number in the argumentative world of the Internet) will think the Post caught Gohmert in a lie.

The Washington Examiner gives this column Two Pinocchios: The research is good, but it doesn’t jibe with the conclusion.

UPDATE: Kessler responds via email:

I wavered between two and three Pinocchios, since I was troubled by the sweeping nature of his statement. I certainly would have welcomed more explanation or comment from the congressman or his staff, since I prefer to work with the evidence they provide in case I miss something. That’s one reason why I included Wilson’s dissent and also noted other support for Lott’s work.

Your point that people only read the Pinocchios is troubling, but I will keep that in mind. In light of that, I am going to link to your column so people can see how someone else looked at the same information and comes to a different conclusion.