Freedomnomics

Article published Friday, November 4, 2016, at Reno Gazette-Journal.

One View: Mistakes, consequences if Question 1 passes

By John R. Lott, Jr.

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

If you live in Nevada, loaning her your gun may soon land you in prison. Exception is made only for cases of “imminent” danger — where her stalker is literally right in front of her at that very moment.

And forget about Boy Scout shooting trips, where adults lend troops shotguns and rifles so the scouts can earn their firearm merit badges. Stick with this annual ritual and those adult leaders may soon find themselves in prison.

Those are just a couple of the hidden consequences if Nevada voters pass Question 1 on Tuesday, Nov. 8th.

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. Virtually every time the government stops someone from buying a gun, it is done mistakenly. We're not talking here about preventing guns from falling into the wrong hands — these are people who are legally eligible to buy a gun.

Gun control advocates constantly claim nationwide background checks have stopped 2.4 million prohibited people from buying a gun. But what they should really say is there were 2.4 million "initial denials." And over 96 percent of "initial denials" are errors that are dropped during just the first two stages of review. More cases are dropped later.

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 simply because his name is similar to that of a felon.

That massive error rate occurs because government background checks focus only on two pieces of information: names and birth dates, ignoring social security numbers and addresses. The government looks for phonetically similar names (e.g., “Smith” and “Smythe” are assumed to be the same) and even ignores different middle names.

These mistakes affect certain racial groups more than others. Hispanics are more likely to share names with other Hispanics; the same is true of blacks. Because 30 percent of black males are forbidden from buying guns because of their criminal records, law-abiding African-American men more often have their names confused with those of prohibited people.

The problem could be easily fixed if the government simply did what it requires of private companies. When businesses perform criminal background checks on employees, they have to use all of the information that is already available to the government: name, social security number, address and birthdate.

Background checks on private transfers have another problem: they make gun buyers and sellers pay for the costs of conducting them. This includes state fees and the costs of paying licensed dealers to perform the checks.

In Washington, D.C., the total cost is at least $125. In Washington State and Oregon, it is about $60 and $50, respectively.

These costs can present a very real 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 claim requiring free voter IDs imposes too much on poor minorities who want to vote. But they see no irony in requiring IDs (not free ones) and much more of those who purchase guns.

But the Democrats keep showing their true colors. When Colorado passed its private transfer background checks in 2013, Republicans proposed an amendment to exempt people below the poverty line from having to pay the new state tax on transfers. In the state house, all but two Democrats voted against the amendment. Don't Democrats normally believe in tax exemptions for people below the poverty line?

As I show in my new book, “The War on Guns,” states with these background checks experienced a post-2000 increase of 15 percent in per capita rates of mass public shooting fatalities. They also saw a 38 percent increase in the rate of injury. Nor is there evidence that expanded background checks reduce rates of any type of violent crime, including: mass public shootings, suicide, murder of police officers and domestic violence against women. Other academic research by economists and criminologists consistently confirms this.

Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown — the source of glowing praise for these laws — never actually examines how crime rates change before and after the law is adopted.

The poorly-written and confusing initiative is going to turn a lot of well-intentioned Nevadans into criminals. Furthermore, the fees and regulations attached to the initiative will make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to obtain guns for self-protection.

• Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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