If there is one thing John Donohue loves, it's a good academic fight, a Stanford professor with an economics Ph.D. from Yale and a law degree from Harvard, Donohue has spent his career locked in fractious academic debates, sometimes around for decades. The topic of guns is one controversial subject, which is both researched extensively and served frequently as an expert witness. The death penalty is another debate. And then, of course, there's my own joint work with John Darnielle and the impact of legalized abortion and crime.
Welcome to people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt, but you know what's kind of crazy, since we've always lived in different cities, I would guess I've only seen one in person about 10, maybe 15 times.
So talking to John today, it's actually a rare treat for me.
And when we are together, we're always so focused on our joint work on abortion and crime that we've barely spoken about all the thinking he's done on guns and the death penalty. So those two topics are the perfect place to start our conversation today.
I'm glad that we are friends and coauthors because I would not want to be caught in your crosshairs when it comes to an academic fight.
Yeah, I tend to want to get to the bottom of things. Certainly, there have been a lot of battles over the years where I think I've mainly come out on top, so I feel good about that.
Your biggest academic battle, still going strong 20 years later, has been over guns and in particular whether laws that allow citizens to carry concealed weapons lead to more or less crime.
Could you just start at the beginning explaining what these laws are all about and what led people to believe that maybe they led to less crime in the first place?
Essentially, there are laws now on the books in almost all states that allow citizens as a matter of right to carry handguns if they're concealed. Back in 1985, most states either totally banned such concealed carry or restricted it greatly. But as the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby in general tried to find ways to expand gun sales, they pushed for the adoption of these laws. And in 1997, John Lott wrote a very influential paper with David Mustard, in which he claimed that right to carry laws led to large decreases in crime.
And this paper has had quite a lot of influence as the power of the NRA grew and the Republican Party really made this an important part of their platform to expand gun rights. John Lott's conclusion was that when you allowed citizens to carry concealed weapons, they could thwart or scare off criminals and that this would reduce crime.
But even in areas, wrote a paper in 1999 that suggested that the data analysis that had been done by Lott Mustard wasn't really very high quality. Is that fair to say?
Lott was one of the early people doing a particular type of statistical analysis, and I suspect that he was doing the best job that he could at the time. But as you know, with statistical studies, there are certain requirements if you're going to get sensible results. And in a number of ways, his analysis fell into some of these pitfalls.
So you wrote this paper in 1999 where you pointed out these pitfalls that he had run into, I suppose that convinced him you were right and that ended the debate right there.
Yeah. Now, John is very tenacious. I will give him credit for that. And he tried to emphasize that he was right a lot. Ended up writing a book called More Guns, Less Crime. It was quite a big seller. And he got a lot of praise in certain circles for it became sort of the hero of the NRA crowd. Once you've gone down that path, it can be hard to sort of reverse positions. Sometimes the saying is in the academic world, progress comes one death at a time because it's hard to change people's minds.
Can you give me a simple example of how you changed the methodology when you're looking at the more guns, less crime analysis to come up with an answer that made more sense?
One problem is that in doing these sorts of analyzes, you need to have good ways to control for factors that are correlated with things like the right to carry law, but perhaps influence crime in a way that would obscure our ability to figure out what the impact of the right to carry law is. And one of those things was the crack cocaine problem. Remember, a lot was writing in 1997 and his data went from 1977 to 1992. And so the last five or six years of his data was very heavily influenced by the enormous increase in crime that surrounded the crack cocaine problem.
And since he didn't control for that in any effective way, states that refused to adopt right to carry laws had big run up in crimes because of the crack cocaine problem. Other states that did not have the crack cocaine problem adopted the right to carry law. And it was really this factor that appeared to suggest that the right to carry law was suppressing crime. But it was really the differential enactment of the right to carry laws and states with crack problems and without crack problems.
So what you're saying is that there are a bunch of states that passed this law that gave people the right to carry guns. And this happened to be a bunch of maybe Republican states or Western states that weren't really affected very much by crack cocaine, which was very much an urban phenomenon that hit California and New York, in particular in the Midwest. And so what you're saying is what happened was the states that got hit by crack, their crime skyrocketed. They just by chance happen not to be the same states that had passed these laws that.
John Lott was looking at and so by accident, really, he found a correlation between crime and his laws, which you're saying is really driven by crack, not by the law change.
Yeah, that's a great way to say it. And another thing you could look to is the fact that Lott's article was referring to more guns leading to less crime. And we didn't see any drop in crime in these jurisdictions that pass these laws. We just saw big increases in crime in the jurisdictions that had the crack problem. And was that differential that made him procure these results, that suggested these right to carry laws made a difference, even though it was a spurious correlation.
So in the spirit of your bulldog nature, you kept on writing on the subject. And one thing I love is the title to the Forth paper you've now written on the subject, which makes clear that you think the debate is over because that paper was entitled, quote, The final bullet in the body of the more guns, less crime hypothesis. But I have to laugh out loud because looking at your curriculum vitae that lists all the papers you've written since you fired that last bullet, I can see you've written 13 more papers on concealed weapons.
So obviously this debate has a really long left.
And some of those articles I've written are responding to criticisms from Lott or some of his coauthors. I usually don't want them to have the last say if they're saying something that's clearly erroneous.
How important you think ideology is to this debate? Maybe you hate guns. And John Lott and the other defenders of this hypothesis, they love guns. Is it those deeply held views that are dictating the conclusions?
Certainly there are ideologues who have a strong position either way and want to push that agenda, but they're also very powerful economic interests. And that drives a lot of the work in this area. And what's made the NRA so powerful, of course, is that they've been able to wed the ideologues who love guns with those powerful political or economic interests.
I'm sure you're accused of being anti-gun. Is that a fair assessment of you?
Oh, yeah. I'm frequently called a treasonous enemy of the Constitution to ever shoot guns. I have in the past, I'm not a particular fan, although when I was a young kid, I had a BB gun.
I teach a class on the economics of crime and every year I take my students to a gun range in Indiana. And it's interesting because none of my students typically have been exposed to guns, maybe only one or two out of a hundred.
And they're very afraid of guns and they hate gun culture. And I have to say, after one day of shooting guns at that range, they're often quite enthusiastic about guns. It's one of the things I do that I think has the biggest impact on my students in terms of changing their perspectives, for better or for worse.
I do think it's good for people to be exposed to a wide range of experiences and make their own choices.
People who go to target ranges usually are not the big problem in the gun world. Most of the problem comes from people who want them for protection as opposed to hunters or target shooters who really know what they're doing. And it turns out that a lot of things can go wrong when you're relying on guns for protection and you really are not adept at using them.
I feel like they're remarkably poor mechanisms in the social science for determining the truth when people disagree.
When I think about science, I somehow have this image that truth prevails and someone does a particular experiment that proves that the theory of general relativity holds and that Newtonian mechanics aren't exactly right.
But there doesn't seem to be anything like that in social sciences, which strikes me as a problem.
Certainly in the physical sciences, you can do experiments that will validate a theory or disconfirm the theory much more precisely and concretely than one can doing these empirical studies. Some of the things I've worked on, such as guns and the death penalty, are areas where randomized experiments are not easily done.
Before I became an academic, I had this view that there were a lot of erudite people who were reading over literatures and making decisions about who was right and wrong and that the journals were the answer, that if you got published in a good journal, then it was, quote, right.
And if it didn't get published, who is wrong?
And I have to say, my experience over the last 30 years doesn't really bear that out very well. Things that are really wrong can have long legs and survive. And really everyone's so distracted that there's not a lot of attention given. And people like me who probably should be reading these papers aren't reading them. And so we can't really weigh in very intelligently about who's right or wrong.
The National Academy of Sciences put together a panel of a number of years ago looking at exactly this issue. And at that point, they said that the evidence was not clear enough to establish what the true answer was, but they were convinced that lots of work was too weak a body of science to generate the conclusion that he did. But I think now in the last five years, my paper and those of a number of other individuals has pretty much established that when you go into these state laws, expanding access to concealed carry, you're going to get increases in violent crime.
The academic literature, you're saying, has really come to the conclusion that not only do these laws not reduce crime, but they increase crime. Has public policy followed suit?
I think you correctly note that a lot of the academic world is just going about their business and not focused on this particular question. But in certain settings, people like Lott and me are showing up to present evidence. For example, the University of Missouri had a ban of guns on campus and the attorney general of Missouri sued the university to say it's now the public policy to allow guns throughout the state. And we actually had a trial and the judge heard the evidence and decided that it was more likely than not that this would elevate crime.
So there are settings where the debate is being focused very acutely. But so much of this is politics at this point because guns have become a very important way for the Republican Party to expand its influence. And once that becomes part of the discourse, the niceties about what the impact is or not recede into the background, I think because of things like the growth in mass shootings in America, the public, I think, is getting to the point where they would like to see more restrictions on guns.
The Supreme Court has moved in exactly the opposite way, with Trump getting three NRA approved nominees that are going to try to cut back as much as possible on gun regulation in America. We could see the public leaning in one direction and the court taking away gun regulations.
So even putting politics aside for a moment, do you think there are actually approaches to gun control that could work? I'm skeptical of gun control in general. We have a basic problem, which is that there are 200 million guns out there and guns last basically forever if you take care of them. So you have this stock of guns that will be there forever. And I don't really understand how you legislate around that. What is gun control even mean in a world where you already have 200 million guns on the streets?
The most dramatic illustration of a problem, of course, are the mass shootings, but they're a small part of the overall gun problem. We also have big problems with suicides. One thing that the law can try to do is keep guns away from people that seem to be at higher risk. And, for example, the public by a very large majority endorses the notion of universal background checks. But that is something that would cut into gun sales quite a bit.
So there hasn't been any political enthusiasm. What are the big problems that we have experienced since the end of the federal assault weapons ban, which had been in place at a federal level from 1994 to 2004, is that we've gotten a big increase in the number and deaths from mass shootings. Again, it's a relatively small portion of the overall gun crime, but it has a very big impact on the public psyche. And it's a growing problem because the weaponry is getting much more sophisticated.
You made the point earlier that guns will last forever. And it used to be that you had the gun. That was the family gun. Now, guns have become a lot like cell phones. Every year there's a new tweak on them and you want to make them faster and more powerful. We do live in a world now where at some point I think you're going to see a thousand people killed in a single shooting incident. And so the question is, should we be trying to prevent that or is it really just too hard with all of the guns already in circulation?
Your point is sure. There are a lot of guns out there, but not the kind of guns that can kill hundreds of people at a time. Keeping those guns out of the hands of potential killers would be really valuable, which I think makes a lot of sense, because my reaction to gun control is typically anchored in the idea that if you have 200 million guns and you have an active resale and black market and theft market in those guns, people who want guns the most are going to find ways to get them.
But I see your point. If you have universal background checks, it just makes it a little bit harder for people to get access to new guns. And these limits on assault weapons could also be useful.
And another interesting problem is that when people start. Carrying guns on their person, they expose them to theft a lot more, and of course, every time a gun is stolen, then it's immediately in the hands of a criminal. Reasonable estimates of the number of guns stolen simply by virtue of the adoption of right to carry laws is in the neighborhood of, you know, 100 to 150000 per year. So it's not a trivial impact on criminal activity. You're listening to people I mostly admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with economist and law professor John Donoghue, after this short break, they'll return to talk about their academic work on abortion and crime.
So in economics, we have this concept called an externality. It's when one person's actions end up impacting the welfare of a bystander. Almost always in the real world, externalities are negative.
For instance, when I drive my car, the pollution I emit negatively impacts. Other examples of positive externalities, in contrast, are exceedingly rare. The textbook example is a bee farm that happens to be located next to an apple orchard. Having the bees nearby helps pollinate the apples, which is good for the orchard owner and having the apple blossoms close. That's good for the bee farmer. But John Donoghue's research on guns. Well, that actually happens to be one of those rare examples of a positive externality.
And here's why. It turns out that John Lott, the academic who John Donohue has been fighting with for so many years, what would John Lott isn't fighting with Donohue. He fights with me.
He sued me in federal court because he didn't like what we wrote in Freakonomics. And after we published Freakonomics, he responded by writing a book entitled Freedom Nomics, which had the subtitle Why the Free Market Works and Other Half Baked Theories Don't. And you can guess whose theories were supposedly the half baked ones. So why does John Donoghue's research on guns have a positive externality? Because every minute that John not is busy fighting John Donahue on guns is one minute less that John Lott has available to try to make my life difficult.
In the second half of this interview, I want to first talk a little about the death penalty. I think it's fair to say that John Donahue and his coauthors have done some of the most careful empirical studies of whether the death penalty leads to less crime through a deterrent effect. And finally, I'm looking forward to reflecting a bit on the research that Donohue and I did together, both our original study on abortion and crime and our latest paper just published, which takes as a starting point, a series of predictions that we made in that first abortion paper regarding the patterns of crime we expect to see over the next 20 years and those 20 years from now past.
Another academic debate you've been in the middle of is over the death penalty. Can you lay out the question that's being debated and what makes it so hard to arrive at a definitive conclusion on that question?
The question for the death penalty is, does the additional deterrence beyond the harsh penalties that homicide generates give you additional deterrent value? And that's where the evidence is almost nonexistent, that there is any deterrence. The work of Isaac, like we had originally claimed that every execution would lead to eight fewer homicides. And that paper actually came out when I was in law school. And it was only years later when I had a Ph.D. in economics that I realized it was really bogus claim.
Some of the early work in the 70s really was about how do I come out with a conclusion by manipulating data that I think is the right answer to a problem. And we're trying to get away from that over the last 20 years or so using better techniques.
I got to graduate school in the early 1990s, and when I would read the papers from the 1970s, in the 1960s, it was amazing how poor the data skills were among the academic elites in those years.
It's really hard to imagine that data didn't really exist prior to the 1970s and consequently there wasn't a scientific method around really analyzing it in the social sciences. And so the kind of papers you're talking about, the early papers on the death penalty in 1970s really use a set of methods which if my undergrads were to present that as their thesis, I would reject it. I would say that's not good enough to do it.
When you think about this issue, you have to think about two things.
First is there's the harshness of the death penalty. The second thing is how often do we actually implement it?
Because executions don't happen in this country, often without a 20 or 25 year delay. The results suggest that there's no way the death penalty could actually deter anyone.
Yeah, absolutely. And there's one additional factor, which is the death penalty, at least as administered in the United States, is incredibly expensive because you've got litigation, which means lawyers and judges going on for extended periods of time. And if you actually took all of the resources that are used to run your capital regime and put it into the effect of crime fighting measures, even if there happened to be some deterrent value of the death penalty, you'd get a much bigger bang for your buck in expending resources in a different way when I think about the death penalty honestly and openly.
It strikes me that the death penalty ultimately is a political tool through which politicians are able to signal that they're tough on crime and in particular, conservative Democrats. There's some evidence that when conservative Democrat governors are up for reelection, they use the death penalty extensively to try to win the next election, which I think it's a really interesting way to use scholarship to understand what the actual purpose of the death penalty is rather than to reduce crime.
And that's one of the unfortunate things about the death penalty, because it probably is one of the easiest things that you can do to garner some political support. Just say I'm going to kill the murderers and that can generate an enthusiastic political response, but it really doesn't solve any of the serious crime problems.
So you've been engaged in this fight over the death penalty again for 20 years.
And I think, again, you think you've really won, but there's always people on the other side.
Your opinion is just that our profession is populated with a bunch of dumbo's who are ideologically motivated and can analyze data and we'll just persist at making mistakes for 20 years at a time.
Obviously, the deterrence question is one issue and there is a lot of ideological fervor in certain sectors for the death penalty. And the one problem, of course, with the statistical models is that there are often so many ways to cut the data and different choices that you can make that if you're really trying to come up with a certain conclusion, you may stumble into it or find it and then rush off and try and get that paper published. So it is a hard thing to finally put to rest.
Pretend I'm a listener who's not an academic, who's just hearing what we're saying. I would think it's incredibly discouraging because there's no real sense of truth.
We're talking about ideology, about mistakes with data and statistics. Would it be sensible for the average person to dismiss social sciences based on this?
When I started in this academic path, I had some. Much higher aspirations for what we would be able to accomplish, but I think the country in many ways is moving in almost the opposite direction, that the ability of falsehood to be trumpeted and then believed is growing over time rather than diminishing. I still think that the academy can play a role, but it's like the firefighter role in California. The forests are burning and we're trying to spray water on them.
Do you remember the first time that you and I talked about abortion and crime?
Let's see. I'll save you. I remember it. So you obviously were not nearly as affected by this conversation as I was, because I remember this conversation like it happened yesterday in my office and the National Bureau of Economic Research.
And you said, Steve, I've got the craziest, wackiest idea.
I think that maybe the legalization of abortion led to the decline in crime that we've seen in the US. And I looked at you in a very smugly said, well, you know what? I've already looked at that.
And I turned around and I went to the bottom of my desk and I pulled out a huge stack of papers because I had spent maybe three weeks nonstop researching this idea. And I had found nothing.
And I said, look, it's an interesting idea, but it's not right. And you said, I think you're missing a piece, which is that the real mechanism through which abortion works is in reducing the number of unwanted children. And I hadn't ever heard anything about this before. And you explained what you meant. And it was like a lightning bolt went off in my head because it was a case where I had thought about a problem completely wrong and by thinking about it wrong, had come to the exact wrong answer.
And so in the end, we started a project together.
And really, honestly, 100 percent of the credit should go to you, because if you hadn't had that insight, I never would have gone back to the project.
How do you explain our abortion crime hypothesis to laypeople?
It turns out that unwanted children have much higher risks for all sorts of bad outcomes in life, and one of them is involvement in criminal activity. Even before we did work, there was some work done in Europe where jurisdictions had regimes in which you actually had to go to some magistrate to ask if you could have an abortion. They actually could do studies that looked to see what happened to the children who were born when an abortion was denied and they could compare that to earlier children in the family.
The studies showed fairly conclusively that the outcomes for the unwanted children were statistically less optimal across an array of factors psychological health, discipline at school, mental illness, etc..
If your mother doesn't love you, that's like basically the worst thing that can happen to you. It's worse than being poor, it's worse than maybe having a low IQ. One thing you want to have is a mom that loves you.
It's a crushing psychological burden. And the evidence really is quite overwhelming on the negative consequences of early trauma or early problems manifesting itself down the road.
But that's only half of the puzzle, right, because there has to be a link between being unwanted and legalized abortion.
The one thing that we know is that a lot of people get pregnant under circumstances that are not ideal. And if they don't want the pregnancy for one reason or another, the likelihood that they will have an abortion is dramatically higher if it's legal. There were illegal abortions before Roe vs. Wade made it legal for the country as a whole, but the number of percentage of unwanted pregnancies that is terminated grew very substantially. So the number of unwanted births fell very dramatically.
We had this hypothesis unwanted children are at risk for crime and legalized abortion reduced the amount of unwanted and therefore you think that legalized abortion should have reduced crime. So we went to the data. We didn't have perfect data. Right. Obviously, it's a difficult hypothesis to test and we had to use a whole array of imperfect approaches of trying to look, for instance, that the states that had legalized abortion in the years in advance of Roe versus Wade because there were a handful of states that had legalized abortion early.
Or it was also true that after abortion became legal, it was really hard to get an abortion in many states because there weren't any providers. So we could compare those states to the states where it was easier to get an abortion, or even we could look at the kids who were born just before or after Roe vs. Wade.
One group of them was exposed to legalized abortion and the other wasn't in. All of that led us to find really big results suggesting that this was really, really important.
But I think you and I just took this is. Being a regular old academic paper and honestly, the academics that I talked to about it weren't very excited about it, but I don't think anything could have prepared us for the media firestorm that followed.
It was unbelievable. The first newspaper that wrote about this was the Chicago Tribune. And as soon as the Chicago Tribune had put it on its Web page the night before the paper hit the street, it went all around the world and people from China to Europe and South America were contacting us in an unbelievable media frenzy.
It was really amazing how everybody found something to hate in our theory. Some of that was people have very strong ideological commitments. And what I tried to say and of course, we tried to say was there has been a really profound change in crime in America that started in the early 1990s. And no criminologist or other economist had any explanation that could explain a drop in crime of that magnitude at that time. And that's what we were trying to do. We weren't necessarily trying to make a statement about abortion, but we were trying to identify one of the most profound and consequential social events in American history, the drop in crime that started in 1991.
And to this day, no one has come up with an explanation other than abortion or to explain the magnitude of the drop.
There was this firestorm of real hatred that came towards us.
And a lot of that, I believe, was just because the way in which the media reported our results fueled people's dislike of what we were saying.
And I think was also very odd that we were talking about abortion. And yet we didn't have an opinion on whether abortion was good or bad, should be legal or illegal.
I was surprised years later when Dubner and I wrote about in Freakonomics, where we had the time and the space to really describe our hypothesis and our approaches. We didn't get any of the negative feedback that you and I got.
I'm not surprised that there's a lot of skepticism towards our results generally. But I have to say that the hostility and the disbelief of our findings within the academy surprises me. Does it surprise you that there's been very little acceptance of our results among other academics?
That is an interesting phenomenon. And we'll have to see whether the latest paper that we just published alters that view, because we do now have 17 years of additional data. And I think it puts us in a different position.
I really thought the skepticism towards our hypothesis might change in 2019 when we released a new abortion crime working paper where we did something really unlike anything I've seen in academic economics in my career.
Because abortion affects crime with roughly a 20 year lag, the cohort has to grow up before they start committing crimes.
We were able in our initial paper to make predictions about what would happen over the next 20 years to crime patterns in the United States.
And we waited and then we went back to the data and every single prediction that we made was borne out.
But what's most amazing to me was that nobody seemed to care when we put out that new paper, unlike the first time where everybody got educated, people just ignored it.
I just looked in Google Scholar and we have a total of seven citations on this new paper.
It's interesting that what was once such a heated topic now, I think everyone's just kind of decided it's not right.
I'm not sure if that's right, Steve, because I think a lot of people in the public, in part because of Freakonomics, have come to The View, hey, this is right. I think there's a broad swath of the public that now has accepted this as true. Or do you disagree with that?
I think there are a lot of people who read Freakonomics who might say, hey, that makes some sense.
But I think within academics, I would say almost uniformly among the people who study crime, people just ignore the fact that we have this argument. I have to say that even if no one else cares, I am proud of the fact that we made a prediction 20 years ago and that it turned out to be true for an academic that is among the most enjoyable and fun things I've ever been able to do.
And it wasn't only that it was true, but it was like amazingly true in many different patterns of evidence. Just on that fact alone, the paper is really worth looking at, because even if you are somehow convinced that the statistical analysis can lead you astray, which we know it certainly can in some instances, the fact that the pieces of the puzzle fall into the same place so consistently with different types of data really is a remarkable finding. What better place to stop them with a big old dose of self-congratulation, but in all seriousness, of all the things I've learned from the research we did on abortion and crime, the most fundamental is that science or at least social science, doesn't work the way I expected.
We put forth a theory and that theory fundamentally challenged the existing explanations for the observed patterns of crime. And while there have been a few attempts to challenge our results, I believe an unbiased reader would say those attempts haven't been very successful. So in my naïve version of how social science works, I'd expect either that other researchers should try really hard to debunk our results or they should embrace what we found and offer their own research accordingly. But that's not what happened.
Instead, criminologists and economists working in this area, they just decided more or less to ignore everything we did to keep on doing exactly what they were doing, which to me just doesn't make any sense.
When I was much younger, I complained one day to my senior colleague, Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker. I was exhausted because I was spending all day, every day fighting with all the people who are attacking me. He responded by saying, I love it when people attack me.
It means to paying attention. What I hate is being ignored. Now, I would certainly take being loved over being hated, but Gary was right. The absolute worst is to be ignored. People I mostly admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions and coming soon, Sadir breaks the Internet. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levy is our producer and Dan Dessler is the engineer. Our staff also includes Allison Craig Lowe, Mark McCluskey, Greg Rippin and Emma Terrell.
All of the music you heard on the show was composed by Louis Scarra to listen ad free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at Tima at Freakonomics Dotcom. That's P. I am a at Freakonomics Dotcom. Thanks for listening.
Did you play in the NBA? No, people asked me, did you play basketball at college? I usually will say UCLA, but the truth is Hamilton College, which is not quite the UCLA of basketball.
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