The FBI says that the federal background check system for guns should have stopped Dylann Roof, the racist who killed nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston.
“This rips all of our hearts out,” says FBI Director James Comey, who blamed the mistake at least partially on improperly labeled paperwork.
But the truth is more complicated. First, even a perfectly functioning background check system very likely wouldn’t have stopped Roof from getting a gun. Second, the current background check system is a much worse mess than Comey recognizes.
The truth is, the databases the government uses to determine eligibility for gun purchases are rife with errors. Comey’s comments focus on one type of error, where someone who should have been prohibited from getting a gun wasn’t stopped. But a much more common error involves people who should have been able to buy guns but are stopped.
This is the same problem experienced with the “No Fly” list. Remember the five times that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was “initially denied” flights because his name was on the anti-terror “no fly” list? His name was just too similar to someone that we really did want to keep from flying. By Obama’s method of counting, that means the “no fly” list stopped five flights by terrorists.
For gun purchases, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives dropped over 94 percent of “initial denials” after just the first preliminary review. The annual National Instant Criminal Background Check System report explains that these cases were dropped either because the additional information showed that the wrong people had been stopped or because the covered offenses were so many decades old that the government decided not to prosecute. At least a fifth of the remaining 6 percent were still false positives.
All these denials mean delays for many law-abiding gun buyers. Although this is merely an inconvenience for most, initial denials cause dangerous delays for people who suddenly, legitimately need a gun for self-defense, such as a woman being stalked by an ex-boyfriend or spouse.
Beyond the crashes in the computers doing the checks and the initial denials, another 6 percent of checks fail to be completed within two hours, with most delays winding up taking three days.
Indeed, my own research suggests these delays from the background check system likely increase violent crime, even if ever so slightly. Perhaps not too surprisingly, rape appears to be the crime most sensitive to these delays.
Furthermore, there is no real scientific evidence among criminologists and economists that background checks actually reduce crime. In fact, a 2004 National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that the Brady background checks didn’t reduce any type of violent crime. Nor have other later studies found a beneficial effect.
The number of criminals stopped by the checks is also quite small. In 2010, there were over 76,000 initial denials, but only 44 of those were deemed worthy for prosecution by the federal government and only 13 individuals were convicted. Even those 13 cases don’t tend to be the “dangerous” criminals Obama claims are being stopped. There are additional state prosecutions, but those are rare as well.
It is common for Republicans to blame President Obama for not enforcing gun laws, but there is a simple reason that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have rarely prosecuted these cases. And it isn’t because they don’t care about stopping criminals getting guns. It is because they aren’t real cases. It is one thing to prosecutor a felon who illegally tried to obtain a gun. It is quite another to prosecute someone who simply has a name similar to the felon that you are trying to stop.
The delays have other consequences. States that have applied background checks to sales by private individuals have seen around a 20 percent drop in the number of gun shows, eliminating for many poorer people a relatively inexpensive source of buying guns. For gun shows, which usually only last two days, even a three-day delay means that no sale will be made.
The irony is that with all these errors in the background check system the solution is supposedly to expand them further. Unless the databases are dramatically improved, expanded background checks are likely to do more harm than good.
John Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of “More Guns, Less Crime.”