A Lott of Lies about guns in the New York Times
Devin Hughes and Jen Pauliukonis
In a February 12, 2018 NYTimes op-ed article, “Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence,” John Lott, a pro-gun commentator, condemned the firearm purchase background check system with the specious claim that the system prevents “millions of law-abiding citizens from buying guns for protection” due to false denials. Lott has been peddling this falsehood for years. In a 2017 article, he asserted: “More than 2.4 million people have been denied gun purchases because of checks, but about 99 percent of those people are actually law-abiding citizens who happen to have similar names to the individuals we actually want to stop. More than 99 percent of the denials are mistakes!”
Lott’s claim is categorically false. According to the September 2017 audit of the NICS Background Check system conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), 99.8% of background check denials were accurate. This was in line with the FBI’s own quality control estimate of a 99.3–99.8% accuracy rate for 556,496 denied transactions from 2008 to 2014. This high accuracy rate is the complete opposite of Lott’s contention.
In addition, Lott’s lackluster analysis fails to recognize that the root of the low prosecution rate of NICS perjury cases he describes is due to a critical lack of funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and an overcrowded federal court system, which severely limits prosecutions of criminals who lie on the background check form. David Chipman, a former ATF agent, explains that the reason for the low prosecution rate is because the ATF has very limited resources and must triage cases. Law enforcement focuses on cases where a criminal was mistakenly allowed to obtain a firearm. Even then, pressing charges is rare if the firearm is retrieved without further incident.
To make matters worse, current law allows a prohibited purchaser to simply claim that lying on the background check form was not intentional, making successful prosecution nearly impossible. Due to these limitations, Chipman describes the current background check system as a shield rather than a sword: extremely effective at blocking dangerous individuals from obtaining guns but with little power to punish them for lying on the forms.
Even though the background check system is accurate, the OIG audit does reveal that some prohibited buyers are able to slip through the system and purchase a firearm at a licensed dealer. These errors mostly stem from incomplete and byzantine record keeping at the local level. Although still relatively rare, as the report notes, even a single error of this type can have catastrophic consequences, such as allowing the 2015 Charleston shooter to purchase his firearm.
Further compounding the gun violence problem is the lack of universal background checks for private gun sales. The current federal system only requires background checks when a firearm is purchased at a federally licensed firearm dealer (FFL). While some states have universal background check laws, many states still provide criminals with the opportunity to purchase firearms without a background check through the private sales loophole. The authors of one study which critically evaluated the effectiveness of the Brady Act, included a note to contextualize their findings: “Some may argue that the regulation of gun acquisitions is futile. A more likely explanation for why the Brady Act did not do more to reduce gun homicide is that the act exempts the 30 percent to 40 percent of all gun sales each year that do not involve a licensed dealer.”
These weaknesses in the background check system and the prosecution rate are further compounded by the NRA’s continued war against the ATF, depriving it of critical resources to properly regulate firearms. Over the past decades, the NRA and its allies have fought to keep the ATF budget much lower than other national law enforcement agencies, made it nearly impossible for the ATF to pursue corrupt gun dealers with the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, and prohibited the agency from computerizing records. As Alan Berlow reported for The Center for Public Integrity, one rider in the appropriation statue “literally bars the oft-suggested transfer of ATF functions to any other agency such as the FBI or Secret Service, which have stronger reputations and more public support.” Berlow quotes Adam Winkler, the author of Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, “These riders are designed to keep the functions of ATF within that agency so they can be targeted for criticism.”
The gun lobby has done everything in its power to make the ATF as impotent as possible, preventing the ATF from being merged with a non-hobbled agency, and then uses the ATF’s weaknesses as a poster child for why government regulation of firearms is doomed to fail.
John Lott has a long and well-documented history of peddling alternative facts, fabricating data, and even adopting the persona Mary Rosh to defend his own work. In order to progress with proven measures to reduce gun violence such as Permit-to-Purchase laws and closing numerous NRA-sponsored loopholes in our current laws, we must dispel dangerous fictions such as Lott’s which degrade public safety.
Devin Hughes, CFA is the President of GVPedia.
Jen Pauliukonis is the Executive Director of both GVPedia and Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence