When Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s office estimated how much it would cost the state if Kansas City and St. Louis adopted stricter gun laws, it relied on one, nearly 30-year-old report that researchers say is flawed.
The estimate — that more restrictive gun laws in the two cities would cost the state more than $700 million because of increased crime — comes as advocates are pushing to get a measure to allow such a change on the 2024 ballot and is now featured in a lawsuit aiming to block the initiative.
But experts who study gun violence say the logic behind Bailey’s estimate doesn’t hold up to scientific rigor. They say looser gun laws increase violent crime.
It’s the second time Bailey, a Republican, has sought to place a larger price tag on a petition for a ballot measure he’s ideologically opposed to. In July, the Missouri Supreme Court scolded Bailey for trying to inflate the estimated cost on a ballot measure that would overturn the state’s abortion ban.
“It appears to me that the attorney general is willing to make it up when he’s looking at an initiative with which he disagrees,” said Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City-based attorney who has worked for prominent Missouri Democrats. “It appears that he did it on the abortion petition and it appears that he’s doing that again on guns.”
‘No statistical support’
To make the estimate, Bailey’s office relied on a 1997 paper published by John Lott, who wrote the book “More Guns, Less Crime.” In the paper, which was published two years before the Columbine High School shooting, Lott says violent crimes decrease when citizens are free to arm themselves.
He offers percentages that Bailey’s office then applied to current crime statistics in Kansas City and St. Louis to calculate its financial estimate. Lott says that when citizens are free to arm themselves, murders decrease by 8%, rapes decrease by 5%, aggravated assaults decrease by 7% and robbery decreases by 3%.
By Bailey’s estimate, tightening gun laws would mean 32 more murders a year, 726 more rapes a year, 646 more aggravated assaults and 3,088 additional robberies, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even if the initiative gets on the ballot, passes and the cities passed stricter gun laws, they would not be able to ban access to guns because it is protected in the constitution.
Several gun violence researchers who read the fiscal note at the request of The Star were quick to dismiss it as a political document instead of an honest estimate. They said the scientific consensus is that concealed carry and stand your ground laws increase gun violence instead of reduce it.
David Hemenway, a public health professor at Harvard University who has studied firearms and violence, said he surveyed 140 gun researchers who had been published in peer reviewed journals to find the consensus of what they believe is known about gun policy.
He said only 9% of the researchers agreed that looser gun laws reduce crime rates. He said 72% agreed with the statement that strong gun laws reduce homicide while 12% disagreed. He also found that 84% agreed with the statement that more permissive gun laws have created a serious public health problem.
“I think almost all good scientists believe that stronger gun laws have typically reduced gun violence,” Hemenway said. “It’s harder to say which ones exactly matter.”
The researchers also raised concern over the rape claims. Studies have shown that it’s rare for someone to fend off attempted rape with a gun. In the National Crime Victimization Study between 2007-2011 not one of the respondents used a gun to defend themselves against sexual assault.
Lott, who wrote the study Bailey’s office used to come up with their estimate, is an economist and runs the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is frequently cited by gun rights advocates. He received his PhD from UCLA, has taught at several universities and served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the 1980s. He’s cited by prominent conservative politicians and his testimony was featured in a 2021 case that temporarily struck down California’s ban on assault weapons.
But researchers have raised issues with his studies. One review found the claim that right to carry laws reduce murder has “no statistical support.”
Jeffrey Butts, who directs the Research and Evaluation Center for the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, said he didn’t believe the estimate by Bailey’s office was a “serious analysis,” starting with the fact that they built their argument around Lott’s claims.
“If a politician tells someone with basic math skills to go through advocacy materials and extrapolate from those numbers to make an argument, you can do that,” Butts said. “Of course you end up saying things that are ridiculous.”
Lott defended his study, by sending a link to his blog showing studies he said were peer reviewed, some of which were written by him. The blog post found that there were errors in the study criticizing his original report.
“The views of economists and criminologist are very different on gun control than public health researchers,” Lott said in an email. “Many researchers are worried about speaking out on these issues.”
Part of a polarizing trend
Hatfield, the Democratic attorney, said the fiscal note is more focused on providing a political argument against the petition than it is about an actual estimate of the cost. He said opponents of the ballot measure will now be able to cite an official government document that says the change would cost the state hundreds of millions, even if the estimate’s methodology was flawed.
“What they’ve got now, is they’ve got a campaign ad that says the Missouri Attorney General says rapes are gonna go up,” Hatfield said.
Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University who studies attorneys general, said he wasn’t surprised that Bailey’s office would publish a fiscal note relying on a controversial academic who agrees with him politically.
“I think it fits right in with the increasing polarization, kind of ideological policy-making that AGs have gotten involved in much more in the last several years, as the entire American political system has gotten more polarized,” Nolette said. “And we’ve really seen that with AGs.”
Hemenway, the Harvard professor, said that if the evidence showed that more guns helped reduce gun violence, he’d support those policies because his priority is public health. But in the fiscal note he saw a politician attempting to confirm their political view with a cherry-picked study.
“It’s so sad to see,” he said. “This has just become part of the culture wars instead of trying to save people’s lives.”
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas’ office, which has appeared open to the initiative because it would provide an additional tool to combat the city’s gun violence crisis, said fiscal notes on ballot measures should be fair.
“Mayor Lucas has long been a proponent of fair and accurate ballot-measure summaries that inform citizens of the true fiscal impact of proposed constitutional amendments, while some state leaders undermine fair elections and fair ballot language,” said Jazzlyn Johnson, a spokesperson for Lucas.
Already, the fiscal note has factored into an effort to block the petition. Paul Berry III, a St. Louis Republican who has unsuccessfully run for office several times, cited Bailey’s estimate in his lawsuit alleging the fiscal note in the summary of the ballot measure is “inaccurate and unfair.”