Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Andrew Pollack.
When it comes to gun control, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: criminals and psychopaths shouldn’t be allowed to get guns. The real question is how to stop them.
For Democrats, the answer is “universal background checks.” Their argument is that private sales, the so-called “gun-show loophole,” must be closed to keep would-be killers from getting their hands on firearms.
There’s just one problem with this prescription: it would not have stopped any of the mass shootings we have seen in this century.
Background checks have no chance of working unless criminals are arrested and prosecuted. If you seriously threaten someone’s life, you shouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun. One of us, Andrew Pollack, saw the disconnect first-hand between the rhetoric of gun control and the reality of mass murder.
The police came to the Parkland school shooter’s house forty-five times, but he was never arrested. He committed multiple crimes in school, but he was never arrested. The mental health authorities evaluated him three times on his eighteenth birthday, with knowledge of his history and the fact that he wanted to buy a gun. But he was never committed.
The divide between the reality of what happened and the rhetoric from anti-gun activists could not have been starker. A background check would have done nothing because, despite the shooter’s extreme efforts, Democratic policies in Broward ensured that he never got a background that would have prohibited from buying a gun.
The recent rash of shootings, followed by a similar chorus of logically disconnected activist campaigns, have pressured politicians to “do something” this September. If gun control activists are acting in good faith, and Second Amendment stalwarts are willing to give some ground, there is room for productive compromise.
The details of a law requiring background checks for private gun sales could be constructed carefully and respectfully, to avoid a rash of false alarms and deeply inconveniencing urban and rural Americans alike.
One talking point we’ll likely hear many times in the next few weeks: Background checks have stopped 3.5 million dangerous or prohibited people from buying guns. That is simply false.
There have been 3.5 million initial denials, but at least 96% and probably over 99%, of those denials are mistakes. The system relies largely on identifying phonetically similar names, causing false positives that overwhelmingly discriminate against poor and middle-income blacks and Hispanics. It’s one thing to stop a felon from buying a gun. But it’s quite another to stop someone from getting a gun because their name resembles a felon’s.
If politicians want background checks to stop criminals from getting guns, rather than create headline-driving, racially-biased false-positives, there is a simple fix: require that the government does background checks in the same way that the government forces private companies to do background checks on employees – make them use all the information available, including exact names and birthdates.
In New York City and Washington, D.C., background checks on private gun transfers cost at least $125. These costs present a genuine obstacle to poor people living in high-crime, urban areas. The law-abiding potential victims of violent crimes are the least able to afford these costs. Gang members won’t pay them. Democrats who think that voter ID laws are unfairly onerous for poor minorities ought to appreciate the obstacles presented by background check fees.
Besides, if we sincerely believe that background checks reduce crime and save lives, we shouldn’t effectively tax Americans for going through the process. If everyone benefits from background checks, everyone should pay for them. They ought to be funded out of general revenue.
Under the Democratic House bill, actions that would be entirely reasonable could become criminal. Imagine a stalker threatens a female friend of yours, and she asks to borrow your gun. She is trained and has no criminal record. Should you let her protect herself? If House has its way, you could land in prison for doing so. The only exception is “imminent danger,” i.e., if she asks to borrow your gun while her stalker is charging at her.
The Trump administration has floated the idea of an App that could be used to check whether people are eligible to buy guns. People would be required to check the app or else face criminal consequences. That’s one potential solution. Another: simply requiring a reasonable person standard: would a reasonable person believe that the woman being stalked is in danger?
An App would cut the costs of background checks and also solve problems for rural Americans. One of us lives in a rural area. Private transfer background checks would require some Americans to travel for miles to do what could be accomplished instantly with a smartphone.
Many on the right are worried that universal background checks will be used to create a national registry. Ever since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System was set up in 1998, the federal government has been prevented from creating a national registry because background check information must be destroyed within 24 hours after the completing the check.
Universal background checks can be a slippery slope, if, say, five years from now a Democratic president requires licensed dealers turn over all that information to the federal government, thus creating an instant national registry on all legally owned guns.
But again, there is a simple solution: just as with the Federal government now, put a time limit on how long the licensed dealers must keep this background check information.
The divide between the reality of what causes mass shootings and the rhetoric of gun control advocates is stark. But if they are sincere about taking concrete steps to make it more difficult for dangerous people to buy guns, then there are paths to compromise.
Color us skeptical that during a Presidential primary, Democrats will be willing to cut a smart deal with President Trump. But if they are more interested in regulations they believe will save lives than talking points they think will harm Trump, a few thoughtful changes could get a bill passed.
John Lott is President of the Crime Prevention Research Center, and on Wednesday he testified before the Joint Economic Committee hearing on various gun control laws. Andrew Pollack is the co-author of Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies that Created the Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students.