The onslaught against Sen. Kelly Ayotte continues. Since she dared to vote against the Senate gun control bill in April she has endured inaccurate ads from out-of-state opponents such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg condemning her vote.
Former Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, are now taking their turn to stir up opposition when they visit New Hampshire today.
While deserving our greatest sympathy for the tragedy they have personally suffered, Giffords and Kelly are plain wrong about the “common-sense gun control proposals” they advocate.
Consider “background checks.” According to Kelly: “40 percent of all Americans who buy a gun buy it without a background check.” That is simply false. You can only get a number even close by counting within-family gifts and inheritances as sales.
How we buy guns is already quite different than it was during the early 1990s. Prior to the Brady Act going into effect on Feb. 28, 1994, half the states required background checks, but federal law only required that people sign a statement saying under threat of perjury that they did not have a criminal record or a history of mental problems. Today, federally licensed dealers check whether potential gun buyers have not committed a felony or many types of misdemeanor convictions, have not been dishonorably discharged from the military, and have not been involuntarily committed for mental illness.
The 40 percent figure rounds up a claim that 36 percent of transfers were done without a background check, and that number came from a small, 251-person survey conducted two decades ago, from November 1991 to December 1994. That is the only study done, and most of the survey covered sales before the Brady Act instituted mandatory federal background checks, telling us nothing about background checks after the law.
More importantly, the 36 percent figure comes from including such transactions as inheritances or gifts from family members. If you look at guns that were bought or traded, just 12 percent would have been transferred without a background check.
By the way, if Kelly really trusts this survey, it found that all gun-show sales went through federally licensed dealers.
We don’t know the precise number today of transfers without background checks, but it is hard to believe that the percent of sales without background checks is above single digits. Nevertheless, even if few purchases avoid background checks, should we further expand background checks? It really depends on how the system would be implemented.
The current system of background checks is severely flawed, some causing dangerous delays for people who suddenly need a gun for self-defense, such as a woman being stalked by an ex. Beyond the crashes in the computers doing the checks, 7 percent of background checks are not accomplished within two hours, with most of these delays taking three days or longer.
Kelly gets another basic fact wrong. He claims: “roughly 1.7 million criminals and mentally ill people have been stopped from buying a gun by a background check since 1999.” But these were only “initial denials,” not people prevented from buying guns. Remember the five times that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy missed flights because his name was on the “no fly” list? This method of counting would be the equivalent of saying that the “no fly” list stopped five flights by terrorists.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms dropped more than 94 percent of those “initial denials” after just preliminary reviews. Even after those cases were dropped, at least 22 percent of the remaining cases were still incorrectly stopping law-abiding citizens from buying guns, bringing the total false positive rate to more than 95 percent.
Delays are undoubtedly just an inconvenience for most people buying guns. But for a few, it makes a huge difference in being able to defend themselves against assailants. Indeed, my own research suggests these delays might actually contribute to a slight net increase in violent crime, particularly rapes.
Unfortunately, despite Kelly’s claims, a background check would not have stopped the man who shot his wife from getting a gun. Jared Loughner had never been legally found to have suffered mental illness, nor had he ever been convicted of a crime.
Nor would any background checks on private transfers have stopped the Connecticut, Wisconsin, Colorado or other attacks. In addition, the system couldn’t work without government registering all guns. And even complete gun bans in Washington, D.C., and Chicago or even various island nations have not stopped criminals from getting guns.
Expanded background checks might well be reasonable, but only if the current system is fixed. Despite the pressure on Sen. Ayotte, she understands that we shouldn’t pass laws just to feel that we must do something.
John Lott is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission and the author of “More Guns, Less Crime.”