Op-Ed: The truth on background checks

by John Lott

Gun control "deserves a vote," President Obama said time and again in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. Sadly, the measure Congress is most likely to pass — beefed-up background checks — may cause more harm than good.

First, checks obviously won't do anything about gun crime in cities like Chicago or New York, which revolves almost exclusively around illegal guns.

But they also wouldn't stop the mass killings Obama mentioned. The Newtown, Conn., shooter stole his mother's guns, while the Tucson, Ariz., and other killers didn't have records that a check would've spotted.

You can see the fundamental unseriousness of this proposal just by looking at the numbers cited by its advocates, such as New York's own Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Schumer tells us that "48 percent of gun sales are made without a background check" and that background checks have "blocked 1.7 million prohibited individuals from buying a gun." Both stats are just false.

On sales without a check, even the 40 percent figure that President Obama and others use is off. It's obtained by rounding up of a 36 percent statistic that comes from the only study on this issue.

And that (small) study covered a 1991-94 period, most of which came before the Brady Act took effect on Feb. 28 1994, and for the first time required that all federally-licensed dealers perform checks.

There's more: The researchers gave this number for all transactions, including family inheritances and gifts, not just "sales." Count only guns that were bought, traded, borrowed, rented, issued as a job requirement or won through raffles, and 85 percent went through federally licensed gun dealers; just 15 percent would've been transferred without a background check.

(By the way, that survey also found that all gun-show sales went through federally licensed dealers. If Schumer et al. really trust the study, they should stop raging about the "gun show loophole.")

Bottom line: It's hard to believe that the percentage of sales without background checks is above single digits today.

On to Schumer's second falsehood — the claim that checks have stopped 1.7 million prohibited sales. In fact, these were only "initial denials," not people prevented from buying guns.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives dropped over 94 percent of those "initial denials" after preliminary reviews. Further review cleared at least a fifth of the other 6 percent.

Truth is, these government databases are rife with flaws. Remember the five times that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy missed flights because his name was on the anti-terror "no fly" list? By Sen. Schumer's method of counting, that means the “no fly” list stopped five flights by terrorists.

The flaws in the background-check system carry another price: They cause dangerous delays for people who suddenly, legitimately 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 checks aren't finished within two hours, with most these delays taking three days or longer.

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.

Expanded background checks might well be reasonable, but only if the current system is fixed. But our politicians are more interested in symbolic action — being seen to "do something" — than in actually saving lives.

John Lott is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission; his new book, "At the Brink," is due out this week. Click here to read the entire op-ed at NYPost.com

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