The panel appointed by President Bill Clinton to study existing research and data on firearms met for the first time Thursday and was immediately shot at for allegedly being stacked with pro-gun control academics and funded by advocates for tighter gun control laws.

The panel, called the Committee to Improve Research Information and Data on Firearms, will operate under the supervision of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, with a final paper due in May 2003.

But John Lott, a criminal researcher who is skeptical of gun control laws, says the panel is like "a parting present from President Clinton," that will be delivered just in time to boost pro-gun control candidates in the 2004 elections.

"It's not a balanced panel," Lott, a Yale University law professor, said Thursday after the committee held its inaugural meeting in Washington, D.C.

The panel has "selectively picked the questions which focus on all of the bad aspects of guns and not the benefits," said Lott. "And, they've been selective in who they have put on the panel and they are making sure the report comes out just before a major election."

According to its mission statement, the committee is supposed to study current firearms research and data, including methodologies and prevention, intervention and control strategies," illegal firearms markets and the "complex ways in which firearms may become embedded in the community."

The panel has 16 members, including former Carter administration Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, a gun control advocate.

"The nation can no longer afford to let the gun lobby's distortion of the Constitution cripple every reasonable attempt to implement an effective national policy towards guns and crime," Civiletti said in The Washington Post in 1992.

The panel also includes Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago professor who has written extensively on guns and crime and authored a controversial study that said the legalization of abortion in the United States in the early 1970s may explain in part the drop in crime in the last several years.

And the committee is funded in part by Joyce Foundation and the David & Lucille Packard Foundation, both generous supporters of anti-gun groups in the past.

But the committee also includes James Q. Wilson, who has supported gun ownership rights in his writings. Wilson, a professor of political science at Pepperdine University, said Thursday that he does not believe the committee's mission is to direct policy, rather to take a tough look at existing data in hopes of improving resources for policymakers, researchers and social scientists in the future.

He said this is the fourth time he has sat on a National Academy of Sciences panel and each time he has found it to be balanced and apolitical. "My hope and belief is this panel will do the same thing," he said. "I could be wrong, but I've been on this loop before and I expect it will be the same."

Carol Petrie of the National Research Council says those in charge of the selection process took recommendations from the varying Academy of Science departments and tried to avoid choosing persons with "extreme views" either way.

"It's not that the people may not have personal biases," she said, but they all have "credible, objective views of research." If the committee finds that it does not have a balance, she added, they are not averse to adding one or two new members.

"We wanted people who would be open-minded to the facts," she said. "It's a consensus process."

Lott did not make the cut. His research of 3,054 U.S. counties over a 17-year period resulted in a conclusion that tough gun control laws do not deter crime, but in those states and counties that have adapted concealed-carry laws allowing citizens to carry firearms in public, crime has dropped.

His work has been criticized by gun control groups before and today was no exception.

"Are all his findings believable?" challenged Douglas Weil of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "Why do we need to know this stuff?"

Dave Kopel, research director for the Independence Institute and a vocal advocate for Second Amendment rights, charged that the real intent of the committee was to debunk research that supports the right to own guns, including Lott's work, which has added scholarly heft to the arguments made by gun rights groups in the last two years.

"I don't think they can say they have no predisposed outcome," Kopel said. "I think it's a group of people who are first class, respectable folks … but who are inclined to be on the control side."