Freedomnomics

Article published Wednesday, May 1, 2013, at National Review Online.

What Should We Do about Guns?

By John R. Lott, Jr.

After the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey background-check bill, and the subsequent demonization of the Senate, Senators Manchin and Toomey are reportedly back at work on bipartisan legislation addressing gun control. John R. Lott, author of the new book At the Brink, who has been researching gun policy for decades, talks about the state of the debate with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Gabby Giffords has accused the Senate of being in the grips of the gun lobby. Is there another explanation for the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill?

JOHN R. LOTT: Yes, there is. The politicians were simply representing the voters in their districts.

The accusation that politicians were attempting to please the gun lobby at the expense of their constituents, which is based on the oft-repeated assertion that 80 to 90 percent of the public say they favor background checks, is simply not credible. The survey questions on which this statistic is based proved nothing more than that respondents wished to disarm criminals. The questions posed were about a hypothetical, idealized system of background checks, not about the actual legislation facing Congress.

A better survey was recently released by the Pew Research Center. It asked: “What word best describes how you feel about the Senate voting down new gun control legislation that included background checks on gun purchases?” Many voters were upset that the bill didn’t pass, but a very substantial group were relieved. Overall, 47 percent were disappointed and 39 percent were relieved. Not surprisingly, opinions varied drastically across political affiliation. Among Republicans, 51 percent were relieved and 34 percent were disappointed. Among independents, the split was 48 percent relieved and 41 disappointed. In sharp contrast, only 22 percent of Democrats were relieved, while 67 percent were disappointed.

These numbers show that Republican senators were representing their constituents’ views. The Democratic voters who supported the legislation were never going to support Republicans in any event.

LOPEZ: What’s wrong with the Manchin-Toomey bill?

LOTT: Senator Joe Manchin got it backwards this past weekend when he told Fox News Sunday: “If you’re a law-abiding gun owner, you’ll love this bill. If you’re a criminal, if you’ve been mentally adjudicated through a court, you probably won’t like it.” On the contrary, the current background-check system is one in which law-abiding citizens, not criminals, are delayed needlessly. Expanding background checks and adding millions more names to this system will just make this problem worse. The current system needs to be fixed before being expanded.

Unfortunately, if you believe Senator Manchin, the New York Times, Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Harry Reid, the Senate will be voting on the Manchin-Toomey bill again before the end of the year.

The bill doesn’t live up to its lofty promises. In the days before the vote, President Obama asserted: “As many as 40 percent of all gun purchases take place without a background check.” He also claimed that “background checks have kept more than 2 million dangerous people from buying a gun.” But both stats are false.

Start with the 40 percent figure. That number (which is actually 36 percent) comes from a very small study covering purchases from 1991 to 1994. Not only are those data two decades old, but they covered sales before the federal Brady Act took effect on February 28, 1994. That act required federally licensed dealers to perform background checks.

And what is more, President Obama conveniently forgets that the researchers included transfers, not just guns sold, in this number. Most significantly, the vast majority of these transfers involved within-family inheritances and gifts. Counting only guns that were sold gives a very different perspective, with only 14 percent of sales not going through federally licensed dealers.

But even that number is much too high, as there were biases in the survey. For example, two-thirds of federally licensed dealers at the time were so-called kitchen-table dealers who sold guns out of their homes, and most buyers surveyed were probably unaware that these individuals were indeed licensed.

The survey also found that all gun-show sales went through federally licensed dealers. If Obama really trusts this survey, he should stop raging about the “gun-show loophole.”

The truth is that the databases the government uses to determine eligibility for gun purchases are rife with errors. This is the same problem we’ve experienced with the “no fly” list. Remember the five times that the late senator Ted Kennedy was “initially denied” flights because his name was on the list? His name was similar to that of someone 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.

So do background checks catch many criminals? The answer is: No. Almost everybody the system catches is a “false positive” — somebody who actually has a right to own a gun.

For gun purchases, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives dropped over 94 percent of “initial denials” after just the first preliminary review. The annual National Instant Criminal Background Check System report explains that these cases were dropped either because the additional information showed that the wrong people had been stopped or because the covered offenses were so many decades old that the government decided not to prosecute. At least a fifth of the remaining 6 percent were still false positives.

All these denials mean delays for law-abiding gun buyers. Although this is merely an inconvenience for most people, initial denials cause dangerous delays for people who suddenly legitimately need a gun for self-defense, such as a woman who is being stalked by an ex.

Beyond these initial denials, another 6 percent of checks fail to be completed within two hours, with most of they delayed checks taking up to three days.

Manchin and Obama ignore what happens to those who suddenly feel threatened. A gun really can make a huge difference in being able to defend oneself against assailants. Indeed, my own research suggests that these delays from the background-check system probably increase violent crime, even if ever so slightly. Perhaps not too surprisingly, rape appears to be the crime most sensitive to these delays.

LOPEZ: What, if anything, does the bill get right?

LOTT: The bill undoubtedly contains positive features. It makes it easier for people with concealed-handgun permits to buy guns. As they have already gone through background checks, the Manchin-Toomey bill would do away with the additional background check at the time of purchase that is currently required. This is in line with what some states already do, but the bill would expand that practice to cover all concealed-permit holders, who currently number over 9.3 million.

Another useful feature of the bill is that people will be able to buy guns outside their home states. And veterans who have suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder would have a better chance of being able to restore their right to own a gun.

But even if people feel good about “doing something,” they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that this bill would reduce crime. Background checks simply aren’t stopping criminals. The numbers for 2010, the last year with available statistics, are instructive. With 76,142 denials, prosecutions were justified in only 42 cases, and there were only 13 convictions.

Nor does research find that federal or state background checks have reduced crime. A 2004 National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that the Brady background checks didn’t reduce any type of violent crime. And later studies by criminologists and economists have continued to fail to find a beneficial effect.

LOPEZ: What kind of legislation would you propose?

LOTT: If we really want to stop mass public shootings – the type of attack that motivated the Manchin-Toomey bill – we need to get rid of dangerous “gun-free zones.”

I have long warned about the dangers of gun-free zones, and my latest book, At the Brink, provides additional detailed discussion. If a violent criminal were stalking you, would you put up a sign in front of your home stating that your home was a gun-free zone? My guess is that you wouldn’t. Indeed, I have debated a lot of gun-control advocates, and I have never met someone who would put up such a sign in front of their home. Why? Because instead of deterring crime, such a sign would be an invitation to the criminal to attack.

Yet we put up these signs in front of all sorts of other places. At some point, Americans are going to have to face the obvious. With just two exceptions, all the multiple-victim public shootings in the U.S. since at least 1950 have taken place in places where guns are banned. All the shootings in Europe have occurred in places where guns are banned.

Take the tragic attack in Aurora, Colo., last July. There were seven movie theaters showing the premiere of the Batman movie within a 20-minute drive of the killer’s apartment. Only one of those posted signs banning permitted concealed handguns. The killer didn’t go to the movie theater closest to his home. He didn’t go to the movie theater that advertised it had the largest auditoriums in the state of Colorado — surely something that would be attractive to someone who wanted to kill as many people as possible. Instead, the killer went to the one movie theater where the victims weren’t allowed to defend themselves.

From attacks at malls to attacks at schools, the killers in these mass shootings continually pick for their targets places where victims can’t defend themselves.

LOPEZ: You write that “not a single multiple-victim public shooting has involved a machine gun.” So should they be widely accessible?

LOTT: I try to limit my advice to policies that we can study, and that means laws that have been changed in enough different locations in recent years that we can actually test what impact the different rules have on crime rates. There have been only a couple of national changes in these laws since the beginning of the 1930s. That’s not enough to disentangle all the other factors that were changing at the same time. It might make sense to let some states try out different rules just so we can do research on these types of questions, but absent that there is simply not enough information to do anything more than guess about what effects a policy dealing with machine guns would have.

LOPEZ: How are large-capacity ammunition magazines “misunderstood”?

LOTT: The same misperceptions keep on popping up again and again, even though we have tried restrictions on magazine size in the past, and they have clearly failed. There has been extensive research by criminologists and economists showing this, and even the research funded by the Clinton administration didn’t find evidence of any beneficial effect.

As with so many other restrictions on guns, banning high-capacity magazines will primarily affect law-abiding gun owners. The reason is technical: Magazines are the simplest part of a gun to make — a magazine is just a box with a spring in it.

A potential mass shooter can easily take along a large number of magazines, and it takes only a second or two to swap in a new magazine. By contrast, the over 9.3 million concealed-handgun permit holders are unlikely to carry more than the magazine that they have in their gun.

LOPEZ: “I don’t believe that people should be able to own guns,” Obama told you in a private conversation in the ’90s. Why do you keep bringing this up? There’s no evidence that he believes it today, is there?

LOTT: Don’t take my word on Obama’s views on guns; look at the positions he took on guns during his time in Chicago. Obama supported a ban on handguns in 1996, and a ban on the sale of all semiautomatic guns in 1998 (a ban that would have encompassed the vast majority of the types of guns sold in the U.S.). In 2004, he advocated banning gun sales within five miles of a school or park (essentially a ban on virtually all gun stores), and he has worked in other ways to support bans. He was on the board of directors of the Joyce Foundation, the largest private funder of research supporting the goal of banning gun ownership in the United States. Since he was reelected last November, Obama’s rhetoric and the extremely inaccurate claims he has made show how intensely he feels about this issue.

LOPEZ: “Just as [Obama] used the financial crisis of 2008 to push governmental intervention in the economy to a previously unimaginable level,” you write, “he took advantage of the fear and outrage after Sandy Hook to pursue a goal he has cherished for many years — the disarmament of American civilians.” Is that a realistic scenario?

LOTT: Obama and congressional Democrats understand that there is not enough popular support for simply confiscating people’s guns. Instead, they aim to gradually reduce the number of guns through imposing various taxes and fees and other restrictions that they increase over time.

While Democrats fight against taxes on the poor and oppose requiring even free photo IDs from voters because they impose too much of burden, they seem to be doing everything possible — fees, expensive training requirements, and requiring photo ID — to make it next to impossible for the poor to own guns.

The Obama administration made the extremely unusual move of lobbying Democrats in the Colorado state house for a bill that would charge people a fee when they purchase a gun. The day before I went to Colorado to start my book tour for At the Brink, Vice President Biden promised Democratic state legislators help from the White House next year if they voted the right way on gun control. He also threatened that the White House would help recruit primary opponents to run against those who voted the wrong way. Democrats voted down Republican amendments that would have exempted poor people from paying the fee and capped the transfer fee at a maximum of $35.

LOPEZ: “Obama not only disagreed with me about gun control, he acted as if my views were evil,” you write. Is it possible they are? Do you worry that you are contributing to a culture of violence?

LOTT: I don’t believe that anyone would consciously support regulations that would increase violence. Reducing crime and increasing safety motivate my research and writings, and I think that the overwhelming evidence supports the positions that I take.

Obama obviously feels strongly about gun control. I am not the only one he has viewed as evil on the subject. Sharing the stage with some of the heartbroken families from Newtown, Conn., after the Senate had voted down more gun regulations, he attacked Republicans as being unwilling to “protect the lives of all our children.”

It is one thing for Obama to claim that he disagrees with others about what works. It is something entirely different to say that Republicans don’t care about the deaths of young children or that they are purposefully letting those deaths happen.

People who oppose Obama’s policies could just as easily say that by not fixing the background-checks system that stops 2 million law-abiding citizens from buying guns, and delays an additional 12 million, that Obama also wants people to die — that he wants to prevent people who quickly need guns for protection from obtaining them.

But would demonizing our president that way be useful? Would it really help get everyone together to make a deal?

To me, the debate has always been about safety. The vast majority of academic research supports my findings. The debate has been between those who argue that there is a benefit from those who own guns and those who claim that there is no significant effect on crime.

John R. Lott Jr. is a FOXNews.com contributor. An economist and former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission, he is also a leading expert on guns. He is the author of several books, including "More Guns, Less Crime." His latest book is "At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge? (Regnery Publishing 2013).". Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.

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