Does George Stephanopoulos Even Know What Gun Laws We Have Now?

John Lott President, Crime Prevention Research Center
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Do gun control advocates even read what gun laws are on the books?  The hot new claim is that there’s nothing to stop identified terrorists from buying guns in this country.

On Sunday, on ABC’s “The Week,” George Stephanopoulos asserted that, “Under current law, individuals on the terror watch list and the no-fly list have been allowed to buy guns and explosives.”  That same day, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton got on “Meet the Press” and asked Congress to “help us out with that Terrorist Watch List, those thousands of people that can purchase firearms in this country.” Chuck Todd then pressed Ohio Governor John Kasich on whether he would protect Americans by following Bratton’s advice.

It sure sounds scary.  

But Bratton surely knows better. Law enforcement is notified every time that a person on the terror watch list attempts to buy gun. If it raises other flags, that case may be further scrutinized.

Being on the watch list doesn’t mean that you are guilty of anything. You can be on the list simply because the FBI wants to interview you about someone you might know. About 300,000 people on the watch list are under “reasonable suspicion” even though they have “no affiliation with known terrorist groups.”

Being on the watch list doesn’t mean that you have been arrested, prosecuted, or convicted of a crime. Of over 2,000 people on the watch list that bought guns between February 2004 and December 2014, not a single one has been identified as using a gun in a crime.

It is pretty easy to get on the terrorist watch list even if you haven’t done anything wrong. About 700,000 people were on the watch list last year, and this number has grown dramatically during the Obama administration. In 2014, about 50,000 people were on the “no-fly” list. This is a 10-fold increase since the beginning of 2009.

Should the government be able to deny people the right to protect themselves simply because it wants to ask about someone you might know?

Not only does the list target people who aren’t really threats, it stops a lot of people who aren’t even on the list. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was stopped from flying five times because someone with the same name was on the anti-terror “no-fly” list.

The error rate for identifying potential terror threats is probably similar to the error rate for background checks on gun purchases. Over 94 percent of “initial denials” for gun purchases are dropped after just the first, preliminary review. These cases were dropped either because the wrong people had been stopped or because the covered offenses were decades old and the government decided not to prosecute. The total error rate comes to about 99 percent.

Even if we put people on a list and prohibited them from legally purchasing guns, it’s not really that hard to get a gun. Just because illegal drugs are illegal doesn’t mean people can’t get them. It’s the same with guns. And, incidentally, illegal guns and illegal drugs often go together.

All the AK-47s and explosive belts used in the Paris attacks were of course illegal. The gun laws in France are even much more extensive than anything that President Obama or Hillary Clinton have yet proposed. Nor would background checks on private gun transfers have stopped aany of the mass public shootings that we have seen in recent years.

Strangely, the Paris attacks are being used to push for gun control laws that failed to stop those attacks.
John Lott is president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of “More Guns, Less Crime” (University of Chicago Press, 2010, 3rd edition).