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.. . . .