Article published Sunday, June 19, 2016, at The Orange County Register.

Background checks, watchlists ineffective

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Everyone wants to keep dangerous people from getting weapons. But in her statements on Monday, Hillary Clinton revealed a lack of concern for the actual facts of the Orlando massacre.

“If, yes, you are too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America,” Clinton argued. Of course, Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter, wasn’t on the no-fly list.

The American background check system prevents people from purchasing guns if they have been convicted of felonies or certain kinds of misdemeanors. Though being on the FBI’s terror watch-list sounds bad, it doesn’t mean that the person has been convicted of anything. You can be on the list simply because the FBI wants to interview you about someone you might know. About 40 percent of people on the watch list are under “reasonable suspicion” even though they have absolutely “no affiliation with known terrorist groups.”

Between February 2004 and December 2014, more than 2,000 people on the watch list bought a gun. Not one of these people has been identified as using a gun in a crime.

It is pretty easy to get on the terrorist watch list even if you haven’t done anything wrong. About 700,000 people were on the watch list two years ago, and this number has grown dramatically during the Obama administration. In 2014, about 50,000 people were on the no-fly list. This is a ten-fold increase since Obama took office.

Should the government be able to deny you the right to protect yourself simply because it wants to ask about someone you might know?

While some people on the no-fly list are there because they are suspected of terrorist activity, others get added because they are suspects in criminal cases, made controversial statements or tweets unrelated to terrorism, are victims of clerical error, or have refused to become government informants.

But not only do the terror watch list and no-fly list target many people who aren’t really threats, they also stop a lot of people who weren’t meant to be targeted. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was stopped from flying five times because someone with a similar name was on the no-fly list. Other prominent individuals such as The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes have run into this problem.

The error rate for identifying potential terror threats is probably similar to the error rate for background checks on gun purchases. More than 94 percent of “initial denials” for gun purchases are dropped after just a preliminary review. This happens because the wrong person was stopped or because the covered offenses were decades old and the government decided not to prosecute. The total error rate comes to about 99 percent.

Even if we are putting real terrorists on a list and legally prohibiting them from purchasing guns, that doesn’t stop them from getting weapons. Just because illegal drugs are illegal doesn’t mean that people can’t get them. It’s the same with guns. And incidentally, drug gangs supply both drugs and guns.

France’s strict weapon bans didn’t stop terrorists last November from getting all the AK-47s and explosive belts that they needed for their devastating attacks on Paris.

A large academic literature has failed to find any crime-reducing benefit from criminal background checks on gun purchases.

After every major mass public shooting, President Obama has argued for background checks on private transfers of guns. Someone should ask Obama if any of the attacks during his administration would have been stopped by such a law. The answer, unfortunately, is no.

The current background check system is a mess. Adding more names to the mix is neither useful nor fair.

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