Jacob Sullum

After the Senate rejected a bill expanding background checks for gun buyers on Wednesday, President Obama claimed "there were no coherent arguments" against it. But in fact, the bill's opponents argued, coherently and persuasively, that background checks are not an effective way to stop criminals from obtaining weapons.

Obama misleadingly asserts that background checks have "kept more than 2 million dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun" during the last two decades. It's true that more than 2 million gun sales have been blocked since 1994 as a result of the background checks mandated by the Brady Act. But judging from the way law enforcement officials treat them, these people typically are not dangerous.

Anyone who buys a firearm from a federally licensed dealer has to fill out a form attesting that the transaction is permitted by federal law, which bars gun ownership by felons, fugitives, illegal drug users, illegal immigrants and people who have been involuntarily committed to mental hospitals, among other prohibited categories. Although lying on this form is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, sales blocked by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System rarely result in a federal investigation.

According to a 2004 report by the Justice Department's inspector general, the most common reason the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives chooses not to pursue these cases is that the buyer does not seem to pose a threat. "The special agents we spoke with generally commented that they do not consider the vast majority of NICS referral subjects a danger to the public," the report said, "because the prohibiting factors are often minor or based on incidents that occurred many years in the past."

The ATF's handling of NICS referrals reflects two facts commonly ignored by background-check enthusiasts. First, the criteria for stripping people of their Second Amendment rights are absurdly (and unfairly) broad, sweeping pot growers, hubcap thieves and guys who got into a bar fight 20 years ago together with violent predators. Second, criminals generally do not buy their weapons in gun stores.

Even in surveys conducted before the Brady Act, only a fifth of state prisoners who had used guns to commit crimes said they bought them from licensed dealers. In a 2004 survey, the share was just one-tenth.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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