Straight Shooting

The hard facts collected by “a numbers man” over the course of his career yield an irrefutable conclusion: More guns equals more dead people.
May 15, 2013

On a Friday in December, Philip J. Cook received an email message alerting him to a mass shooting at a small school in Newtown, Connecticut. The details were startling: The perpetrator, a twenty-year-old later identified as Adam Lanza, had murdered his mother with one of her own handguns, before making his way to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed twenty children and six staff members, including the principal and the school psychologist. Just before 10 a.m., with police closing in, Lanza shot himself in the head. He was pronounced dead on the scene.

Two things quickly occurred to Cook, a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy. The first was that the magnitude and specifics of the crime, even in the era of mass shootings like Columbine (fifteen dead, twenty-one injured) and Virginia Tech (thirty-three dead, seventeen wounded), were unprecedented. “I think I’m pretty human when it comes to this kind of thing,” Cook says. “It was completely devastating. And the more we learned about it, the more horrific it became.”

The second was that his phone would be ringing off the hook soon. Cook, who is lanky and tall, with a head of formidable silver hair, has been researching U.S. firearms policy for almost forty years. He has racked up a reputation—to quote one of his colleagues—as the single “most important person working on the problem of gun violence in the U.S.” When a mass shooting happens, Cook is frequently the first person reporters call.

Sure enough, by the next day, the queries had begun to pour in. The New York Times got in touch, as did National Public Radio, and Al Jazeera. There was even an e-mail request from a producer for a television network in Turkey, which was interested in creating an hour-long special on Newtown. Most reporters offered variants of the same question: How can we stop this from happening again?

The NRA has disseminated a series of arguments that Cook and many of his colleagues believe are contradicted by the best science on the subject.

Cook answered as best he could. Targeted law-enforcement tactics—like the “stop and frisk” approach—have been proven to work, he explained, and a more comprehensive registration system for guns could help, too. Above all, he suggested a common-sense, middle-ground approach. “If you want legislation that doesn’t impair legitimate uses but has the potential for reducing the body count, limiting the size of magazines is the way to go,” he told a reporter for an NBC affiliate in California.

Professional reckoning: Cook now questions the effectiveness of policymakers - including himself - who have spent decades trying to reduce gun violence. Credit: Chris Hildreth.

But truth be told, he had reason to believe no one would heed his recommendations. He’d fielded plenty of these kinds of requests before—after Virginia Tech; after the Fort Hood attacks of 2009, when an Army major gunned down nineteen at a base in Texas; after the 2012 murder of twelve people during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, in Aurora, Colorado. In each case, there was a media furor, some thundering pronouncements from politicians— followed quickly by counterattacks from the National Rifle Association—and resounding calls for a “national conversation.” And in each case, the issue eventually disappeared from the front pages and the TV screens.

All academics, of course, occasionally experience a similar frustration—the inability to directly influence the course of contemporary events, no matter how nonsensical or even backward the decisions of professional policymakers might appear. For Cook, this frustration is particularly acute. He prides himself on being a true economist, a numbers man, a man who trusts in the power of empirical evidence and hard facts. And the hard facts collected by Cook over the course of his career yield an irrefutable conclusion: More guns equals more dead people.

Yet public-opinion polls consistently show that even as the number of gun deaths in the country soars—the number hovers around 30,000 a year, and could reach 35,000 annually by 2015—Americans have comparably little interest in gun-law reform. A recent and much-discussed Pew study, for instance, found that on the list of the American public’s priorities for 2013, “strengthening the economy” was number one, “dealing with moral breakdown” was number sixteen, and “strengthening gun laws” was near the very bottom of the list, at number eighteen, just above “dealing with global trade.” That study was conducted in January—a month after the Newtown shootings.

More distressingly for Cook, the NRA, armed with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue from members, has succeeded in disseminating a series of arguments that Cook and many of his colleagues believe are contradicted by the best science on the subject. The most prominent of those arguments, put forward by economist John R. Lott Jr. in More Guns Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws, is that one of the only things that halts gun violence is a heavily armed public.

This is a dismaying inverse of what Cook has found. As a result, he says, “Much of the effort by people I respect has been spent playing defense against big flashy claims that are being made on the other side.” He props one long leg on a nearby chair and stares into the middle distance. “It’s been hard to kind of take charge of the agenda because the stuff that’s getting the headlines is coming from people that I don’t respect but who have access to the media,” he continues. “They have a big machine behind them. So it seems like it’s important to have somebody take them to account, and there’s a group of us who try to do that. It isn’t as uplifting as it might be.”

Which means Cook isn’t done fighting yet. Far from it.

Read enough online critiques of Phil Cook’s work, or Twitter messages about him, or the comments under online articles in which he has been featured, and you might reasonably conclude that he is a French-born Communo-Fascist, dispatched to the U.S., like some gun-stealing Terminator, with the express purpose of ripping up the Second Amendment and making a ten-acre wide bonfire of semiautomatic assault rifles. In fact, Cook grew up with guns, and still owns one today. He was raised in Clarence, New York, not far from Buffalo, on a large tract of land that his family rented out to local farmers. Cook’s parents tried out a few agricultural “experiments” themselves—three pigs and then some goats—before finally settling on dairy cows. Growing up, Cook saw guns as a part of life. Cook’s father kept a .22 rifle, mostly to help clear out animal intruders, and Cook and his three older brothers learned how to use it. There was no fetishism associated with the gun, no speeches on the importance of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” It was just a tool, one of many on the farm.

Cook was a skilled high-school athlete—he continued to run marathons until 2008, when worries about his heart made it impossible—but from an early age, he sensed his future was in academia, and he went from an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan straight on to graduate work at Berkley, where he earned his Ph.D. in economics in 1973. Notably, for a man whose name eventually would become so deeply associated with firearms policy, Cook did not immediately gravitate toward the topic. There was no “Road to Damascus moment,” he likes to say.

In 1973, a newly minted assistant professor at Duke, Cook was asked to teach a seminar on criminal-justice policy; at the same time, in his research, he was delving into the efficacy of the correctional system, from job opportunity rates for ex-cons to prosecutorial clearance rates. All of it provided a natural segue to gun policy. One of his first studies on the subject, published in 1976, was titled “The Effect of Gun Availability on Robbery and Robbery Murder: A Cross-Section Study of Fifty Cities.”

In that paper, Cook concluded that although “an increase in the density of guns in a city has no effect on the overall robbery rate,” robberies involving guns were three times as likely to result in the death of the victim. Furthermore, the data indicated that the “per capita rate of robbery murders increases with the density of guns in a city.” His closing note was almost plaintive: “My results,” he wrote, “do suggest the prediction that, if a way could be found to reduce the density of handguns in a city, then this reduction would ameliorate the seriousness of the robbery problem.”

Before tackling gun violence, Cook had never received much press for his work. But now the media were suddenly paying attention. It began with a commuter paper in Delaware that harped on Cook’s finding that gun robberies were less likely to injure the victims than knife robberies. “It was clearly cherry-picking,” says Cook, because it focused on injuries and not death. “And it was being presented as being an example of how ridiculous academic research is. So my introduction to this intellectual marketplace of ideas was a sneering response.”

Rather than discouraging him, that sneer inspired Cook. In subsequent years, he approached the gun question from a kaleidoscopic variety of angles. He has explored the effects of gun violence on children (dire) and the effect of gun violence on society at large (the poor bear the brunt of the impact, but every part of the socioeconomic spectrum is affected adversely). He helped demonstrate that a net increase in household gun ownership leads to more homicides and, more generally, an increase in gun use in the course of a crime.

And he worked to show that, contrary to the assertions of the NRA, guns actually are used rather infrequently for self-defense. To that end, mining data from a National Crime Victimization Survey published in the mid-1980s, Cook found that only 3 percent of all victims were able to use a gun against a potential burglar. “Since about 45 percent of all households possessed a gun during that period,” he later wrote, “I concluded that it is relatively unusual for victims to be able to deploy a gun against intruders when they have one nearby.”

In fact, he discovered, residential burglary rates and home invasion rates are not reduced at all by a high prevalence of guns. “The reverse is true,” he says. “More guns results in more residential burglaries, presumably because guns are profitable loot.”

According to public-opinion polls, even as the number of gun deaths soars, Americans have comparably little interest in gun-law reform.

Perhaps most famously, in a 2000 book called Gun Violence: The Real Costs, Cook and Jens Ludwig A.M. ’92, Ph.D. ’94, a former graduate student of Cook’s, estimated that the annual cost of gun violence approaches $100 billion a year—a sum that includes medical and legal fees, lost earnings, and insurance expenditures. In straightforward prose, they laid out some possible solutions to the national gun-violence epidemic: harsher sentencing for using a gun in a crime; the closure of the loophole that allows consumers to purchase rifles and pistols at a gun show without a background check; more aggressive policing; and further research into “personalized guns”—weapons that recognize the grip or fingerprints of an authorized user.

“There are a variety of programs to reduce gun violence that enjoy widespread popular support, have little effect on the ability of most private citizens to keep guns for personal use, and have benefits that exceed costs,” Cook and Ludwig wrote. Gun Violence ignited a robust debate in the mainstream media, which covered the book extensively—the conservative National Review chided Cook and Ludwig for disseminating a “sensational hundred-billion-dollar factoid,” while The New York Times praised the book, calling it “the first effort to make a comprehensive estimate of the price the nation pays for criminal shootings, gun accidents, and suicides committed with guns.”

Ludwig, now a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, says that some of Cook’s contributions “are so foundational that they have become deeply infused into the policy and research discussion in ways that make you forget that the ideas were ever not with us.” He offers a couple of examples: Cook coined the phrase “secondary market” to describe all of the unregulated gun transactions that occur in the U.S. every day. Cook also is responsible for the estimate that 40 percent of all gun transactions are conducted on that secondary market. As Ludwig points out, the figure is used frequently by politicians such as President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden.

Anthony Braga, another frequent co-collaborator, and a senior research fellow at Harvard, says one of Cook’s signal achievements was in his rigorous insistence on “scientific data collection,” rather than becoming tangled in the messy and subjective political web that surrounds the contemporary gun-control debate.

Cook uses “analysis to reveal the underlying conditions that cause social problems to persist,” says Braga. “Other academics seem content with describing problems without offering any concrete policy recommendations based on their research. Phil wants to make a difference now.” 

Phil Cook is sixty-six. In four years, he says, he will resign his tenure and aim for emeritus status. As a kind of summing up of his career, he recently began working on a long document he fondly refers to as his “memoir.” (Working title: “The Great American Gun War: Notes From Four Decades in the Trenches.”) The essay is less academic paper—lay readers will find it blessedly free of dense jargon—than emotional self-reckoning.

“Criminologists, economists, public-health scholars, and policy scientists have all made substantive contributions” to the field of gun research, Cook writes at one point in the essay. “Unfortunately, it is not clear that this research has improved the quality of the debate or the policymaking... In short, gun violence serves as a challenge to the very possibility of evidence-based policymaking in a contentious area.”

It’s an extraordinary statement—one that gets at the deep frustrations and feelings of impotence that can plague academics who dare wade into contemporary politics.

But Cook is not wholly nihilistic on the topic of his life’s research: He points out in “The Great American Gun War” that he has never second-guessed his “decision to spend so much of [his] career studying gun violence.” There remain flickers of hope and plenty of terrain left to cover. Beginning this year, Cook will work with a range of scholars, including Jens Ludwig and Columbia professor Sudhir Venkatesh, of Gang Leader for a Day fame, to establish something called the Multi-City Program, which will examine how gang members in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and Oakland obtain guns. “The hope is to find out the [business] activities of the gangs, and how the gang itself sources guns, and what do they do with them,” Cook says. “How do they distribute them within the gang?”

Cook is also in discussions with Oxford University Press to write a new book on the topic of gun policy and research. The book, which would be coauthored by his protégé and Duke associate professor Kristin A. Goss M.P.P. ’96, will be targeted at general audiences, with the purpose, Cook says, of “providing some antidote to the miseducation that’s going on all the time.”

In late April, the focus wasn’t on general audiences but rather on the U.S. Senate. Senators were gathered to vote on a series of gun-control measures, including the so-called Manchin-Toomey amendment, which would have closed the gun-show loophole and made background checks mandatory for all gun buyers. Despite pressure from the White House, and the support of several Republican lawmakers, the amendment failed to gain the sixty votes necessary to proceed to full consideration. “The most ambitious gun-control push in two decades,” Reuters noted at the time, had gone down to conspicuous defeat.

For Phil Cook, it was all depressingly familiar stuff. The stunning incident of gun violence, the promises from politicians to do more, the outcries from the public—and then nothing. “The proposal for universal background checks enjoyed support of nine out of ten Americans, and the president and vice president took leadership of the effort,” Cook says. “But now it appears that it has all come to nothing. As a citizen, I found it disheartening to have the cynics proven correct.”