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The Futility of Gun Regulations: From Ghost Guns to Background Checks

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Los Angeles Police Department via AP

It seems obvious: Restrict gun access and people will be safer. Everything from gun bans to background checks keep being pushed as the solutions.

But theory and practice don’t always match.  Too often restrictions don’t stop criminals and only disarm law-abiding citizens, particularly poor minorities. This only makes life easier for criminals. 


Mass shootings from the school shooting earlier this month in California to the German Synagogue shooting in October using so-called “ghost guns,” homemade guns, have demonstrated yet again how hard it is to stop those who want to commit crimes from getting guns. The German murderer’s homemade guns included everything from a shotgun to a machine gun. The Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva says that the school shooter’s gun was assembled by hand from various parts.

There are already 300 million guns in the United States, and more than 12 million enter the market each year. With 3D metal printers, more people will be able to make weapons that are indistinguishable from those purchased in stores. It would be almost impossible to remove those weapons from circulation, but even if we could magically make all guns disappear, drug gangs would smuggle in new ones. The issue of drugs and guns are intertwined, since gangs arm themselves in order to protect turf and valuable merchandise.  And guns are just as easy to smuggle in as drugs.

It is no more difficult for criminals to buy guns than it is for them to buy illegal drugs.

Every country in the world (that we have crime data for) that has banned all guns or all handguns has seen a subsequent increase in murder rates.   Even island nations, which have relatively easily-monitored and defendable borders, have faced five or six-fold increases in murder rates after guns were banned.  Some of the biggest spikes in murder rates corresponded with increases in drug gang violence.


Those countries with the highest gun ownership rates also tend to have relatively lower homicide and firearm homicide rates.

Some think that background checks are the answer. Indeed, after each mass public shooting, Democrats call for background checks on private transfers of guns. But a new federal law wouldn’t have stopped any of the attacks. In fact, it wouldn’t have stopped any mass public shooting since at least the year 2000 – all of the attackers obtained guns without going through private transfers. Some of the attacks occurred in states that already have these laws. 

As I show in my book, “The War on Guns,” there is no evidence that expanded background checks reduce rates of any type of violent crime, including mass public shootings, suicide, murder of police officers or domestic violence against women.  Bloomberg’s Everytown claims otherwise for a couple of these categories, but they never actually look at change before and after a law is adopted.

That squares with the limits of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Its proponents boast that the system has stopped 2.4 million “prohibited purchases.” But 96% of these cases were dropped after the first two stages of review. Many more are dropped during the three remaining stages.

These “initial denials” affect certain racial groups more than others. Hispanics are more likely to share names with other Hispanics, and the same is true of blacks. Because 30 percent of black males are forbidden from buying guns because of their criminal records, law-abiding black males are especially likely to have their names confused with those of prohibited people.


And these background checks are costly. In D.C., checks on private transfers add $125 to the cost of a gun. That fee can put guns out of reach for the most likely victims of violent crime: poor blacks living in high-crime, urban areas. 

Other gun laws, like gun-free zones, create targets for mass shooters.

Mass killers have even explicitly talked about their desire to attack gun-free zones. And they have good reason for doing so, given the dozens of mass public shootings that have been stopped by concealed carry permit holders. One need only listen to the wiretapped recording of an Islamic State supporter who was planning an attack this spring.  His target was one of the biggest churches in Detroit.  In the recording, Khalil Abu-Rayyan explains: “A lot of people go there. Plus people are not allowed to carry guns in church. Plus it would make the news.”  Fortunately, the man’s father alerted the FBI.

Mass public shooters almost invariably pick the singular locations where permitted concealed handguns are banned. This has been true of movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado or Lafayette, Louisiana to mall shootings in Omaha, Nebraska or Salt Lake City, Utah. It happens time and again.

Since at least 1950, every single one of Europe’s public mass shootings has occurred in a place where general citizens are banned from carrying guns. In America, 94 percent of that type of shooting has occurred in those gun-free zones.

In late 2013, the Secretary General of Interpol — essentially a global version of the FBI —proposed two ways of preventing mass shootings: "One is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that. Another is to say the enclaves [should be] so secure that in order to get into the soft target, you're going to have to pass through extraordinary security."


But Noble warned, "You can't have armed police forces everywhere." He also suggested that it is essentially impossible to stop killers from getting weapons into these “secure” areas. He concluded by posing the question, “Is an armed citizenry more necessary now than it was in the past, with an evolving threat of terrorism?” The answer is an emphatic yes.

* Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of “The War on Guns.”


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