With each mass shooting, calls rise from gun control advocates for tighter rules on firearms. The go-to policy prescription involves background checks. But a measure passed by the House and being considered in the Senate to expand the National Instant Criminal Background Check System would not only fail to fix major flaws in the system but would also probably introduce new ones.
Lawmakers from both parties acknowledge that errors in the background check system let felons obtain guns, as we saw when a deranged man, Devin Kelley, killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., in November. The killer, while in the Air Force, had been convicted of domestic violence in 2012, involuntarily committed to a mental health care center and given a bad conduct discharge. Yet the Air Force failed to follow policies to ensure that his conviction was reported to federal law enforcement, which allowed the killer to pass the check. The military has failed to report other such cases.
The background check measures before Congress aim to improve enforcement of existing law and increase such reporting by imposing financial penalties on government officials whose agencies fail to provide required information. That’s a good goal, but any proposal should also fix another major problem with the background check system: false positives that stop law-abiding people from getting weapons that they might need to protect themselves and their families.
The background check system confuses the names of law-abiding individuals with those of criminals, resulting in thousands of “false positives” every year. Relying on phonetically similar names along with birth dates just doesn’t allow for much accuracy.
Ronnie Coleman, a Virginia resident, was not allowed to buy a gun in 2012 because another person from his hometown in Texas who had a felony conviction also had a name and birth date “close enough” to his to cause a denial. Mr. Coleman was advised to get a unique transaction number from the background system to prevent this confusion in the future, adding another bureaucratic step to the process.
Between 2006 to 2010, the last period for which more comprehensive annual data on the denial of firearm applications by the background check system are available, there were 377,283 denials. But the federal government prosecuted only 460 of those cases, leading to 209 convictions, mostly on charges of providing false information. There was a similarly small number of state prosecutions resulting from the gun purchase denials.
Why didn’t more of those denials lead to perjury prosecutions? According to my analysis, the reason is simple: a high percentage of cases are dropped because the applicant was wrongly denied clearance to buy a gun.
Many of those people are trying to buy guns to protect themselves. “This incredibly high rate of false positives imposes a real burden on the most vulnerable people,” said Reagan Dunn, the first national coordinator for Project Safe Neighborhoods, a Justice Department program started in 2001 to ensure gun laws are enforced.
The system also does a poor job of accounting for people who have had their rights to buy a firearm taken away and then restored. In the 1990s, Frank Wise of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., was convicted of check fraud after his employer went bankrupt. When his paycheck bounced, two checks he sent to his mortgage company also bounced. Nearly 20 years later, Mr. Wise was able to get his record cleared, but that information wasn’t entered into the background check system for three years. Getting this fixed cost him $3,600 in legal fees.
Even more people would face such problems if background checks were made “universal,” meaning to include the private sale or transfer of firearms, which are exempt from checks in most states.Many people consider this a common-sense policy, but there would be a cost: Background checks involve fees that drive up the price of guns in private sales and make it harder for poor people to defend themselves.
To get some idea of what background checks add to the price of a weapon, look at the fees for checks on private transfers in states that already impose checks. In New York City and Washington, those fees cost at least $125 for private gun sales.
If people believe that background checks reduce crime and benefit everyone, everyone should pay for it, out of general government revenue. Pushing background checks on private transfers as proposed during the hearing disarms many law-abiding poor people.
So what should be done when the background check system fails to stop mass killers from attacking? One answer is to have more civilians carry permitted concealed handguns. Those law-abiding gun owners can help protect places where there are no police. In 2013, PoliceOne, a news and resource site for active and retired law enforcement officers, released a survey finding that over 91 percent of the more than 15,000 “verified law enforcement professionals” who responded supported concealed carry.
We do need to fix the background check system. But let’s really fix it. Let’s make sure that rare cases like Devin Kelley can’t slip through the cracks, but let’s also make sure that the government stops preventing millions of law-abiding citizens from buying guns for protection. Adding more names without fixing these problems will only disarm law-abiding Americans.