op-ed

In the Billings Gazette and Montana Standard (Butte): New Background Check Bill is Flawed

7 May , 2021  

Dr. John Lott has a new op-ed in the Billings Gazette and the Montana Standard (Butte) on Senator Jon Tester pushing for the new background check bill before the Senate.

Let’s say a stalker threatens a female friend of yours. She asks you late one evening if she can borrow your handgun for a couple of days. She is trained and has no criminal record. Should you loan her your gun?

Under a bill that has passed the House along a party-line vote and now before the Senate, loaning her your gun soon could land you in prison. An exception only exists for “imminent” danger — where her stalker is right in front of her at that very moment. Saying that her stalker is expected in 30 minutes won’t cut it. Even those annual Boy Scout shooting trips will face legal dangers. Adults who lend troops their guns for a day might soon find themselves in prison.

In an email to constituents, Senator Jon Tester is telling people that this is a good bill. He claims: “the bill includes exceptions for . . . temporary transfers for sporting, hunting, and self-defense.” But Tester doesn’t tell people how narrowly the bill construes these exceptions.

Tester says: “I believe we can keep our communities safe while also protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.” Yet, those are just a couple of the hidden consequences if the Senate passes the bill, such as in Montana the nearest federally licensed dealer might be 50 or 100 miles away. Everyone wants to keep criminals from getting guns. But the current background check system is a mess. It primarily disarms our most vulnerable citizens, particularly law-abiding minorities. Around 99% of the time background checks stop someone from buying a gun, it is a mistake. We’re not talking here about preventing guns from falling into the wrong hands — these are people who legally can buy a gun.

Gun control advocates keep claiming that federal background checks have stopped 3.5 million dangerous people from buying a gun. However, what they should say is that there were 3.5 million “initial denials.” Relying on phonetically similar names along with similar birth dates doesn’t allow for much accuracy (e.g., “Smith” and “Smythe” are assumed to be the same).

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 because his name is similar to a felon’s.

These mistakes affect certain racial groups more than others. Hispanics have similar names with other Hispanics; the same is true of blacks. Because 33% of black males have criminal records that prevent them from buying guns, law-abiding black men more often have their names confused with prohibited people. Data I saw at the US Department of Justice showed black men are falsely stopped at three times their share of the population.

We can fix the problem if the government does what it requires for private companies, but Tester has no desire to do that. When businesses perform criminal background checks on employees, they must use all the exact information that is already available to the government.

There is another problem: Background checks make gun buyers and sellers pay for the costs of conducting them. In DC. and New York City, the total cost is at least $125. In Oregon, it is as low as $55.

These costs present a genuine obstacle to poor people living in high-crime, urban areas. The most likely, law-abiding victims of violent crimes are usually least able to afford these costs. It isn’t like gang members are going to pay these fees.

Democrats oppose requiring free voter IDs, but they see no irony in requiring IDs (not free ones) and more costs on those who purchase guns.

Tester’s gun-control legislation will turn many well-intentioned Americans into criminals and disarm the most vulnerable.

John R. Lott Jr. of Missoula 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.

John R. Lott, Jr., “New Background Check Bill is Flawed,” Billings Gazette, May 5, 2021.

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