The dirty secret about the four Senate gun control bills

In Orlando on Thursday, President Obama again called on Congress to do something about these mass public shootings.  But the dirty secret about the four different bills that the Senate will vote on Monday is that everyone knows that none of them would have stopped the Orlando massacre.  Indeed, none of the bills would have stopped any of the mass public shootings since at least 2000.

Everyone wants to do something to stop these attacks, but the one thing that we know does matter — ending gun-free zones – are being completely ignored in the legislation.  Since at least as far back as 1950, all but three U.S. mass public shootings (with three or more fatalities) have occurred in places where citizens are not allowed to carry their own firearms.  Time after time these killers explicitly pick targets where victims can’t defend themselves.

Democrats use recent attacks to justify passing new gun control, but their proposals have nothing to do with these attacks.  Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) bill would ban people on the No Fly list from buying guns.  But neither Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter, nor any of the other Islamic terrorists from Fort Hood to San Bernardino were on the terror watch or No Fly lists.  While Senator Chris Murphy’s (D-Conn.) bill would require background checks on transfer of guns between private parties, this is also completely unrelated to past mass public shootings.

The American background check system prevents people from purchasing guns if they have been convicted of felonies or certain kinds of misdemeanors. Though being on the FBI’s terror watch or No Fly lists sure sounds bad, it doesn’t mean that the person has been convicted of anything.  You can be on the list simply because the FBI wants to interview you about someone you might know.  About 40 percent of people on the watch list are under “reasonable suspicion” even though they have absolutely “no affiliation with known terrorist groups.”

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 two years ago, 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 Obama took office.

Between February 2004 and December 2014, over 2,000 people on the watch list bought one or more guns. The government has not identified a single one of these people as using a gun in a crime.

Should the government be able to deny you the right to protect yourself simply because it wants to ask about someone you might know?  Should it be able to do that without having to seek a court decision?

Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) is offering an alternative to Feinstein’s bill that solves this problem.  Instead of banning purchases, the FBI will be alerted to any gun purchases by those on these lists.  It also helps overcome FBI Director James Comey’s warning: “denying sales could “blow” his agents’ investigations into potential terrorists.”

While some people on the No Fly List are there because they are suspected of terrorist activity, others get added because they are suspects in criminal cases, made controversial statements or tweets unrelated to terrorism, are victims of clerical error, or refused to be an informant.

But not only do the terror watch list and No Fly List target many people who aren’t really threats, they stop a lot of people who weren’t meant to be targeted.  The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was stopped from flying five times because someone with a similar name was on the No Fly List.  Other prominent individuals such as the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes have also run into this problem.

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.  Another 2 percent were dropped after the second stage of review. The total error rate comes to about 99 percent.  It is one thing to stop a felon, it is another thing to stop someone who as a similar name to a felon.

This problem could be fixed if the federal government did background checks the same way that private companies do background checks.  Private companies that had a tiny fraction of the error rate that the government has would be sued out of existence.

Even if we are putting real terrorists on a list and legally prohibiting them from purchasing guns doesn’t really stop them from getting weapons.  Just because illegal drugs are illegal doesn’t mean that people can’t get them.  It’s the same with guns.  And, incidentally, drug gangs supply both drugs and guns.

France’s strict weapon bans didn’t stop terrorists in any of the four terrorist attacks from getting all the AK-47s and explosive belts that they needed for their devastating attacks on Paris.

A large academic literature has failed to find any crime-reducing benefit from criminal background checks on gun purchases.

If you really believe that someone is a danger to others, you might want to seriously consider locking them up.

The system is costly. While President Obama has assured people in town halls carried on CNN and PBS this year that he doesn’t want to make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to get guns, the background checks on private gun transfers that he keeps pushing cost $125 in DC and about $60 in Washington State.  The very people that who get priced out of owning a gun – poor individuals living in high crime urban areas – are also the ones who most benefit from using a gun for self-defense.

After every major mass public shooting, President Obama has argued for background checks on private transfers of guns.  Someone should ask Obama if any of the attacks during his administration would have been stopped by such a law.  The answer, unfortunately, is no.

The current background check system is a mess. Just adding more names to the mix is neither useful nor fair.

John R. Lott, Jr. is a columnist for He is an economist and was formerly chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. Lott is also a leading expert on guns and op-eds on that issue are done in conjunction with the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is the author of eight books including “More Guns, Less Crime.” His latest book is “Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges Off the Bench” Bascom Hill Publishing Group (September 17, 2013). Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.

comments powered by Disqus