Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Lott, Lambert, guns, and the Merced killings

A number of years ago, John Lott gave a talk at my university which included some particularly striking evidence of both the downside of gun control and media bias on the subject, involving the murder of two children in Merced, California. By his account, their sister, an experienced shooter, made it to the room where the family guns were, could not get at them because they were locked up due to the state's safe storage law, instead went for a neighbor--with the result that her brother and sister were killed. These facts appeared in the local paper, but the part relevant to gun control was cut from the stories in the national media.

The account was sufficiently striking that I thought it worth checking. I found the original story in the local paper. There was no mention of the locked family guns. I reported this to John, who I have known for many years, and was disappointed to later hear that he was still using the story.

Recently, the issue resurfaced on a blog, set off by a post by my son, with comments by both Tim Lambert, an online critic of John's work, John, and me. According to John he had sent me the information supporting his account, as well as webbing it on his site; while that may well be true, I never got it. Checking the information on John's site, along with the discussion of the case on Tim Lambert's site, I found:

There are indeed two stories in the Fresno Bee that mention gun control in the context of the killing, both cited and linked to on John Lott's web page. The earlier is on August 26th, three days after it happened, and quotes the children's great-uncle. It says that there was a gun, but it was "locked away and hidden." The later is August 31, and says that "Carpenter also said he had a gun at his house that he kept locked away from his children because he feared government laws." (Carpenter is the children' father)

I believe what I had found and reported to John about was the original story, probably from the day after the killing, which did not have the gun control references. However:

1. Neither later story is consistent with the most striking detail in Lott's version, in which Jessica ran for where the family guns were stored but they were locked up tight. Both refer to one gun, the earlier version says it was hidden, there is no evidence that Jessica either knew where it was or could get to it. A more detailed account by Richard Poe that I found while googling--he interviewed both the great uncle and the children's mother--makes it clear that the gun was at the other end of the house from the room Jessica locked herself into and from which she climbed out a window to get help. According to that version, the gun wasn't locked up, merely kept on a high shelf unloaded. My guess is that that version is correct; the August 31 story, which refers to the gun being locked up, gives only an indirect quote of the father.

2. The first mention of the existence of the gun that Lott cites, by the great-uncle, is in a story published in the local paper on the 26th. The one account of the killing I could find that was based on a wire service version was from the 25th. So when John objected that the national media were cutting out the anti-gun control element of the story in the local paper, he was apparently objecting to the AP not citing a local story that had not yet been published.

Putting it all together, I conclude that the Merced murders provide evidence against gun control laws, but weaker evidence than John Lott (and Vin Suprynowicz, from whom I think John got the original story) claim. Even without safe storage laws, the parents of small children--one of them was nine, I don't know if she was the youngest--would be likely to keep firearms unloaded and on a high shelf or otherwise out of easy reach. Even if the Carpenter gun had been kept loaded and in easy reach, it isn't clear whether Jessica could have gotten to it.

The case does not, contrary to John's claim, provide clear evidence of media bias. The AP story did not remove evidence of the evils of gun control from the local story that was presumably its source, because the evidence wasn't in the local paper until after the AP story went out. That conclusion might change if it turns out that there are later stories in the national media, based on later wire service versions, but I didn't find any and would be mildly surprised to find national stories on a local killing still appearing three or four days after the event.

Interested readers should check out (at least) John's version and Tim Lambert's, both linked to above--and should be glad to live at a time when one can actually get both sides of such a controversy, and a good deal of the relevant evidence, with a few clicks.

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10 Comments:

At 7:29 PM, July 04, 2007, Blogger John Lott said...

1) "Neither later story is consistent with the most striking detail in Lott's version, in which Jessica ran for where the family guns were stored but they were locked up tight. . . . there is no evidence that Jessica either knew where it was or could get to it."

Here is the text the Fox News story as it ran on July 5, 2002 from a Nexis search:

"SPRINGER: One example John Lott could cite is the Merced family, whose guns were put away because of California's safe storage law. John Carpenter believes it cost him the lives of two children after a man broke into his home with a pitchfork."

Carpenter, the father, at least is said to believe in this news story and multiple others (e.g., http://johnrlott.tripod.com/bna.html) that the gun lock rules prevented his daughter getting access to the gun. These stories are at least consistent with the father either knowing or believing that she would have had access to the gun.

You mention Richard Poe's interview, but I both participated on a radio show with the grandfather of the dead girl and talked to him later on the telephone.

2) There was an earlier news story that I haven't been able to find that made the points that I had made about the news coverage. Contrary to the discussion in Patri's piece, I do not believe that I referenced the media discussion on the event after not being able to find that earlier story. What I did reference in my book, The Bias Against Guns, was the claim contained in the Fox News story (which came out six months before my book), a radio appearance with the children's grandfather and a follow up interview to make sure that I had the points correct, and the piece by Vin that there were those (including the father and grandfather) who believed that the safe storage laws prevented the attack from being stopped.

Thanks.

 
At 8:13 AM, July 05, 2007, Anonymous Mark said...

To John Lott:
Maybe the national media didn't report this aspect of the story, but what evidence do you have that this was the result of bias? Accusing someone of bias is a serious charge. Did you talk to the AP reporter or editor before making this claim? This wasn't a story about the politics of gun control, after all. Just an account of a murder. Was the locked up gun anecdote crucial to the narrative of the murder? It could have been cut because the police couldn't verify it. It could have been cut because different sources gave conflicting accounts. It could have been cut because other details of the story were more important and there was limited space. It sounds to me like you're crying "bias" just because the media didn't go out of its way to make your political point.

 
At 3:15 PM, July 06, 2007, Blogger Jonathan said...

As far as I know, you're normally on Lott's side of this issue, so I find it impressive -- and characteristic of you -- that you nevertheless go to the trouble of checking his facts and questioning his evidence.

Gun control is a very difficult subject that deserves to be handled and argued very carefully. Although I'm a libertarian, I'm also a European; and most Europeans, frankly, think it's kind of obvious that people armed with guns are more likely to shoot each other. I think I have some understanding of both sides of the argument, and it bothers me.

 
At 4:22 AM, July 12, 2007, Anonymous Sinclair Davidson said...

I'm a bit embarrassed to push on this issue, but it's not clear to me where we've ended up. Originally, you looked into the story and argued it wasn't true. Now you've looked again and conclude, "the Merced murders provide evidence against gun control laws, but weaker evidence than John Lott (and Vin Suprynowicz, from whom I think John got the original story) claim." Okay. So is the story now true? But not entirely convincing? Overall you seem to have gone from there's nothing to it, to there is something to it. Would you still be disappointed John's still using the story?

 
At 11:41 AM, July 12, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

"Okay. So is the story now true? But not entirely convincing?"

That depends which story.

The telling detail of the daughter going to where the family guns were and being unable to get at them because they were locked up due to the safe storage laws is false; nobody has been able to provide any support for it and it's inconsistent with the accounts that we do have support for. As best I can tell Vin Suprinowycz either invented it out of whole cloth to make a better story or misremembered the news story he had read. John Lott picked it up from him.

Similarly, the claim that the wire services censored out the gun control element of the story appears to be false, although that conclusion could change if either an earlier local story with that element or a later wire service story shows up.

What we are left with is a killing that might have been stopped if there were no safe storage laws--or might not. It appears, from Richard Poe's piece, that the Carpenter handgun was unlocked, unloaded, on a high shelf at the opposite end of the house from the room that Jessica locked herself into.

It's possible that, absent such laws, the gun would have been kept somewhere easier to get at and Jessica would have succeed in getting at it and saving the life of one or both of her siblings.

It's also possible that the gun would have been in the same place without the laws--there were, after all, young children in the house. It's clear that the children's great uncle blames what happened on the gun law. There is one later story with an indirect quote of the father doing so--but the same story also has him blaming big business. My guess is that the father was, understandably, upset enough to blame anyone he plausibly could, and that it was the great uncle who was pushing the gun control point.

So the real story provides evidence against safe storage laws, but not very much evidence. There is no reason John Lott, or anyone else, shouldn't repeat the real story and argue that safe storage laws were at fault. What they cannot honestly do is repeat a version of the story with additional details that didn't happen but that make it into much stronger evidence.

I hope that answers your question.

 
At 3:02 PM, July 12, 2007, Anonymous Sinclair Davidson said...

Yes, thank you.

 
At 9:42 AM, July 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fox News: "John Carpenter believes it cost him the lives of two children after a man broke into his home with a pitchfork."

Summary of Poe: "It appears, from Richard Poe's piece, that the Carpenter handgun was unlocked, unloaded, on a high shelf at the opposite end of the house from the room that Jessica locked herself into."

Could you please put these two things together? What the Fox News is stating that the father is saying seems inconsistent with what Poe is claiming? Why do you think that Fox got this wrong but that the Poe quote is right?

 
At 3:25 PM, August 09, 2007, Blogger Kodjo said...

What is interesting to me about this exchange is that any weight at all is given to the story.

Let's assume the girl, the father and the grandfather all now accurately recollect that the gun was hidden because of gun laws, and the girl would have got the gun if it wasn't hidden. Any of a number of things could have happened. The girl could have disabled the man with the pitchfork and all worked out well, or the girl could have been killed along with her siblings, & the man with the pitchfork may have, using the gun, killed more people, etc.

In short, without any evidence as to what the counterfactual would have been, this is all just speculation, not evidence. And that assumes we don't have a lot of ex post rationalization going on here.

Moreover, even if we knew the counterfactual in this circumstance (or better, if the girl actually got the gun and ...fill in a story), we wouldn't know what would happen in many similar circumstances. But that is the relevant question (conclusions drawn from anecdotes are not telling).

 
At 10:18 AM, September 09, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

I have now, at John's suggestion, checked the version of the story in his book The Bias Against Guns. John is correct in saying that he did not claim media bias there with regard to that story--if I told Patri that he did, and I may have, I was mistaken.

He does repeat the story, quoting the version from Vin Suprinowycz. He says nothing suggesting any scepticism about that version's reliability, and he is using it, along with other incidents, to support his general argument, so I think a reader will reasonably conclude that John believes the story is true.

So far as I can tell the story is not true--the most striking detail, Jessica getting to the family guns and being unable to get at them because they were locked up, appears to be pure invention. It does not appear in either of the local news stories on the killing that John links to on his cite, and it is hard to imagine a reporter leaving out such a dramatic detail if it had actually happened.

That conclusion was confirmed, at least to my satisfaction, by my attempt to get the original author of the story that John quotes to provide support for it.

But while I am convinced that the story that John quoted is in part false, he may have still thought it was true at the point when he wrote the book, so my conclusion that he was ignoring the information I had earlier provided him was unjustified, and I here apologize for it.

 
At 2:14 PM, June 16, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Presumably if Jessica had thought of going for the gun at the time of the attack, that would have been mentioned in her 911 call or in the police report. So far as I can tell from online transcripts of those official interactions, she never mentioned the family's ownership of a gun that she could have used against the attacker.

As Kodjo says, it's not a very plausible counter-factual to assume that Jessica could have gotten from her room -- where the attacker was banging outside her door, telling her to come out -- to where the gun was kept (even if left loaded, unlocked and within a 14-year-old's reach) without having been killed or disabled to the point of being unable to obtain and fire the gun.

In the absence of *contemporaneous* statements by the children that they wished they'd been able to use the gun, I find it more plausible that after the fact, looking for some way to find meaning in the tragedy, some of the family members have taken up opposition to safe storage laws as a cause. Everyone reacts differently to grief and loss, so I'm not going to criticize that. But their later reaction is no reason for me to credit this particular crime as evidence that safe storage laws are killing children.

 

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