Within a few hours of the tragic shooting Wednesday that killed journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward, politicians and gun control advocates were calling for more gun control. Hillary Clinton, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, the White House, the Brady Campaign, and others claimed that the shooting showed the need for so-called “expanded background checks.”
Even the reporter’s grieving father, Andrew Parker, got drawn into the gun control debate. Mr. Parker told Megyn Kelly on Fox News on Wednesday: “My mission in life, and I talked to the governor [McAuliffe] today, he called me, I told him I am going to do something whatever it takes to get gun legislation, to shame people, to legislators, into doing something about closing loopholes in background checks.” McAuliffe apparently encouraged Parker to speak out on the issue.
But when reporters asked McAuliffe whether the killer was prohibited from legally buying a gun, he replied: “I don’t know anything.” By late Wednesday night, it turned out that all their assumptions were wrong. Vester Lee Flanagan, the killer, had legally bought the gun from a registered firearms dealer. The so-called expanded background checks, which would have mandated background checks on private transfers, would have done nothing to stop this attack. Indeed, such expanded background checks would not have stopped any of the mass public shootings that President Obama has frequently pointed to in justifying such a law.
Even if Flanagan had been prohibited from legally buying a gun, he still would have had two-and-a-half months between when we know he wanted to obtain one and now. For the larger mass public shootings during the Obama administration you are talking about people who have planned their attacks anywhere from six months to over two years in advance. That is plenty of time to figure out how to illegally obtain a gun.
The background checks system is a mess. Virtually everyone who is stopped — probably over 99 percent of the denials — represents a mistake. Stopping someone who has a name and birthdate similar to someone with a criminal history or mental illness is not the same thing as stopping the actual prohibited person.
Furthermore, it’s exceedingly difficult for psychologists and psychiatrists to identify who is a threat to others. Slightly more than half of mass public shooters (52 percent from January 2009 to July 2014) were seeing mental health professionals before their attacks. Nevertheless, in not single was the killer identified as a potential threat to others.
If someone’s mental illness really does pose a danger to others, why only ban them from legally purchasing a gun? Why leave them wandering around for months or years with the chance that they will figure out how to get a weapon? Confine them to a mental health facility.
Furthermore, there is no real scientific evidence among criminologists and economists that the states that already have these expanded background checks actually reduce crime. In fact, a 2005 National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that there was no evidence that any type of background checks reduced any type of violent crime. Later research has confirmed that conclusion.
So if the laws aren’t going to do what gun control advocates are claiming, why use such tragic events to push for them? They are pushing the laws to raise the cost of obtaining guns, thus reducing gun ownership, particularly ownership by those who need them most – poor blacks who live in high crime urban areas. Depending on where the rules have been implemented, the cost of transferring guns has been raised by anywhere from $60 to over $200.
If these expanded background checks did reduce crime rates, they would reduce the crime rate for all Americans, not just people who are buying guns. Thus, everyone should bear these costs, not just law-abiding gun owners. But gun control advocates fiercely oppose paying for these checks out of general revenue. Making only gun owners liable for these costs seems aimed at reducing gun ownership.
Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President Obama, claimed on Wednesday that 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks. That is incorrect, as the polls generally asked about keeping criminals from getting guns, rather than about a particular piece of legislation. Surveys on the actual proposed Senate legislation, which President Obama has pushed, have shown the opposite — that both Republicans and Independents clearly opposed it.
Every shooting tragedy is exploited by gun control advocates as another case for increase background checks. But they keep pushing this proposal even though it wouldn’t have stopped these cases. The only thing that we know that these rules would do is raise the price guns and reduce gun ownership. Reducing gun ownership will in turn make it harder for people to defend themselves and increase crime.
John Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of “More Guns, Less Crime” (University of Chicago Press, 2010).