Obama’s Gun Control Measures Won’t Solve Anything

John Lott President, Crime Prevention Research Center
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On Sunday night, President Obama offered Americans his strategy for protecting them from terrorism. No, he didn’t announce new measures to track down terrorists. Instead, he wants to track down our guns.

This is nothing new. Obama has pushed for more gun control after every mass public shooting. The proposal is the same: more background checks. In reality, the shootings would still have happened.

The first proposal is to keep people on the “no-fly” list from getting guns. However, none of the mass public shooters have been on the “no-fly” list. Even the San Bernardino killers, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were not on the list. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security had recently cleared Malik to enter the country.

The president’s vague, second proposal is to “make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons.” The AR-15s used in the San Bernardino massacre are actually just semi-automatics that fire one bullet at a time. This gun uses the same bullets and fires them in just the same way that a normal hunting rifle does. The AR-15 just happens to look more like an “assault weapon.”

Appearances can be deceiving. It sure sounds scary to let guns fall into the hands of people on the terror watch list or no-fly list. However, many people on these lists haven’t been convicted of anything and aren’t even suspected of being terrorists.

It is actually pretty easy to get on the terror watch list. The FBI may simply want to interview you about someone you might know. According to the website “TechDirt,” about 40 percent of the people on the watch list are considered to be under “reasonable suspicion” even though they have absolutely “no affiliation with known terrorist groups.”

The number of people on the terror watch list has grown dramatically during the Obama administration. As of 2013, there were about 700,000 people on the list. As of 2014, about 50,000 people were on the no-fly list, which is a ten-fold increase since Obama became president.

Of the 2,000-plus people from these lists who have bought guns between February 2004 and December 2014, not one has been identified as using a gun in a crime.

Some people are on the no-fly list because they are suspected in a criminal case, made controversial statements or tweets unrelated to terrorism, or refused to become a government informant. Still others are there simply on account of clerical error.

Not only do the terror watch and no-fly lists target many people who aren’t really threats. They also stop a lot of people who aren’t even on the lists. On five occasions, the late Senator Ted Kennedy was stopped from flying because someone with a similar name was on the 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 a preliminary review. These cases were dropped either because the wrong person 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.

Should you be at risk of losing the right to protect yourself simply because the government wants to ask you about someone you might know? That would be a consequence of the proposed background check expansions.

Another consequence would be an increase in the price of guns. In New York, today’s background checks add about $80 to the cost of selling a gun. In Washington State, they add about $60. In Washington, D.C., they add $200. These costs are passed on to gun sellers to gun buyers. In effect, these laws put a tax on guns and can make it very difficult for less affluent Americans to protect themselves. This disproportionately affects poor minorities who live in high-crime urban areas.

We’re not really going to solve much by putting people on a list and telling them they can’t buy guns. Just as people find ways of obtaining illegal drugs, they will find ways of getting guns. Where there are illegal drugs, there are often also illegal guns.

France’s strict background checks and weapons bans didn’t stop the terrorists from getting the AK-47s and explosive belts. There’s no reason to think that things will be any different here in America.

John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010).