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What Reporters Should Ask Biden About Guns at His Promised Press Conference on Wednesday

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

President Biden’s remarks after the hostage situation at the synagogue in Texas leave more questions than answers.

What were the motivations for the attack occur? A full day after a Pakistani Muslim attacked a synagogue on the Jewish sabbath to gain the release of Aafia Siddiqui described as the “Lady of al Qaeda,” Biden doesn’t know. The synagogue was near where Siddiqui is held. But when asked why the attacker targeted that synagogue, Biden again responded that he didn’t know but promised more at a press conference on Wednesday.


Those answers are surely much better than the answers given by the FBI on Saturday, where they were not sure of the motive but ruled out the attack being “specifically related to the Jewish community.” The investigation should go forward, but it is troubling that the FBI’s immediately concluded no connection between a radical Pakistani Muslim trying to free a prominent al Qaeda member and an attack on a synagogue. The “massive backlashforced the FBI to walk back its claim.

But there are other important problems with Biden’s comments. While he concedes that “you can’t stop something like this if someone is on the street buying something from somebody else on the street,” what he does know is that this type of attack occurs because “there’s so many guns that have been sold of late; it’s just ridiculous.”

His first suggested solution? Background checks. Presumably, he means background checks on the private transfer of guns – so-called “universal background checks.” The problem is that even if such a law had been in effect and perfectly enforced, it wouldn’t have stopped one mass public shooting this century.

But it isn’t just Biden. Background checks have been the first go-to solution after every mass public shooting from when Obama was president to the present. In 2016, after listing a series of mass public shootings that background checks wouldn’t have stopped, ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) “why are we focusing on things that have nothing to do with the massacres that we are responding to?” Murphy never responded with an example but instead argued that “we can’t get into that trap” and concluded that “so this has to be broader than just responding to the tragedy that happened three days ago.”


That is the only time I can find a reporter asking a politician who advocated background checks to prevent mass public shootings. Why don’t reporters ask other politicians such as Biden this question? You would think listeners care to know whether these laws actually make a difference. 

There are follow-up questions that reporters could ask. For example, when Kamala Harris claims that the background check system “has kept more than 3 million firearms out of the hands of dangerous people” reporters should hopefully know enough that claim is wrong.

Since the Brady background checks began in 1994, there have been 3.8 million initial denials. However, it is one thing to stop a felon from buying a gun. It is quite another to stop a law-abiding citizen from buying a gun just because their name is similar to a felon’s. In 2017, for example, there were 112,000 initial denials for supposedly attempted prohibited purchases, but just 12 federal prosecutions for prohibited people trying to buy guns by June 2018. These are extremely easy cases to prosecute (after all, the criminal would have lied under oath in illegally trying to buy the gun), but the reason is that the rest of these weren’t real cases.

The background check system is a mess. The mistakes stop minorities through no fault of their own from buying guns. The error rate for black males is three times their share of the population. And these mistakes are easy to fix with reasonable changes -- just requiring that the federal government meet the same standards for doing background checks that private companies have to meet.


Another question reporters could ask is whether this attack occurred in yet another place where civilians were banned from having guns. Former members of the Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas claim that the very left-wing Rabbi “didn’t allow his member (including myself) to be armed during services.” Whether this attacker knew the characteristics of this synagogue, 94% of the successful mass public shooters pick places where victims aren’t allowed to defend themselves. The national media constantly ignores dozens of what the police say would otherwise have been mass public shootings if a legal concealed handgun permit holder hadn’t been present.

This last point is related to Biden’s troubling response that these types of attacks occur because “there’s so many guns that have been sold of late; it’s just ridiculous.” It ignores that people are buying the guns as violent crime soars because the government – from prosecutors to police to jails – isn’t doing its job to protect them. It ignores the evidence from forty years of the NCVS that having a gun is by far the safest course of action when a criminal confronts someone. And that the people who benefit the most from firearms are people who are the most likely victims of violent crime (poor blacks who live in high crime urban neighborhoods) and relatively physically weaker people (primarily women and the elderly).

To Biden and Democrats, violent crime is a gun crime problem, but they ignore that 92% of violent crime has nothing to do with guns. And they ignore that defensive guns uses are four to five times more common than gun crimes.


The bottom line is that the media could do a much better job of asking politicians such as Biden tough questions on crime. If we want to save lives and protect people from violence, we need those questions asked.

Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author most recently of “Gun Control Myths.” Until January, Lott was the senior adviser for research and statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy.

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