Article published Monday, March 3, 2014, at Investor's Business Daily.

Brady Law Has Done Little To Keep Guns Out Of Criminals' Hands

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Last Friday marked the 20th anniversary of the so-called Brady Law, a federal gun control in honor of James Brady, Ronald Reagan's former press secretary who was wounded in John Hinckley's assassination attempt.

Since it requires background checks on all guns purchased from federally licensed firearms dealers, gun control advocates celebrated the law's purported effectiveness.

The description by the Capitol newspaper The Hill was typical: "The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which took effect 20 years ago Friday, has blocked more than 2 million firearm sales, preventing 'countless' killings and other crimes, gun control advocates said at an event to mark the anniversary ... ."

On Friday, the Brady Campaign claimed that half those blocked from purchasing a gun — over 1 million — were felons.

Impressive numbers. But, alas, both are gross exaggerations.

In reality, the "Brady Checks" are quite ineffective in stopping criminals from getting guns. There are actually very few hard-core criminals that are stupid enough to even try to buy a gun from a dealer that does a background check.

The media don't understand what they are reporting. Getting denied by a Brady check is not the same thing as saying that the person is a prohibited person. The correct terminology here is that there have been more than 2 million "initial denials."

Take the numbers from 2010, the last year the full National Instant Criminal Background Check System report was produced (the Obama administration has stopped releasing this detailed report).

So let us look at these numbers, a relatively typical year. Out of the 76,142 initial denials in the federal system only 44 individuals were prosecuted and only 13 were convicted of illegally trying to purchase a gun when they were prohibited from doing so.

As if that wasn't bad enough, those convicted were hardly what one would call dangerous criminals — usually people with relatively trivial records from years earlier that didn't realize their offense was covered.

While some have attacked Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama for not enforcing the law, none of those presidents would have failed to prosecute a felon who tried to buy a gun. They would have prosecuted, and prosecuted successfully.

The real problem is denying someone a purchase because they have a similar name to a felon, but that is not the same thing as saying that the person being denied is a felon.

We have seen this same problem more prominently with the "No Fly" list. There were five times that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy was "initially denied" flights because his name was on the anti-terror "no fly" list.

It wasn't that the Senator was a terrorist. His name was just too similar to someone that we really did want to keep from flying. By Obama's method of counting, that means the "no fly" list stopped five flights by terrorists.

All these denials mean delays for many law-abiding gun buyers. Although just an inconvenience for most, this causes dangerous delays for people who suddenly, legitimately need a gun for self-defense.

With more than 2 million initial denials, there are going to be a significant, if small, number who really needed a gun quickly for self-defense. A good example is a woman who suddenly finds herself stalked by an ex-boyfriend or spouse.

Gun-control advocates all too easily dismiss the concerns of would-be victims who suddenly feel threatened. They should not be left as sitting ducks.

My own research suggests that delays caused by the Brady background checks likely increase violent crime slightly, especially rape.

Indeed, there is no real scientific evidence among criminologists and economists that background checks actually reduce crime.

In fact, a 2004 National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that the Brady background checks did not reduce violent crime, not even a single category of violent crime. Later national studies have not found a beneficial effect either.

If the criminal background checks that private companies did on employees had these errors, they would be sued out of existence.

The Brady Law has been a mess. If we are going to keep it, let's try to fix it.

John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of the recently released “At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge?”

Home (description of book, downloadable data sets, and discussions of previous controversies)

Academic papers:

Social Science Research Network

Book Reviews:

For a list of book reviews on The Bias Against Guns, click here.

List of my Op-eds

Posts by topic

Appalachian law school attack

Baghdad murder rate

Arming Pilots

Fraudulent website pretending to be run by me

The Merced Pitchfork Killings and Vin Suprynowicz's quote

Ayres and Donohue

Stanford Law Review

Mother Jones article


Craig Newmark

Eric Rasmusen

William Sjostrom

Dr. T's

Interview with National Review Online

Lyonette Louis-Jacques's page on Firearms Regulation Worldwide

The End of Myth: An Interview with Dr. John Lott

Cold Comfort, Economist John Lott discusses the benefits of guns--and the hazards of pointing them out.

An interview with John R. Lott, Jr. author of More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws

Some data not found at

Updated Media Analysis of Appalachian Law School Attack

Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

Journal of Legal Studies paper on spoiled ballots during the 2000 Presidential Election

Data set from USA Today, STATA 7.0 data set

"Do" File for some of the basic regressions from the paper