Article published Saturday, November 1, 2014, at Fox News.

Hidden consequences of Washington State's gun background check Initiative 594

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 Washington State, loaning her your gun may soon make you a criminal and will likely land you in prison.

Suppose you are a Boy Scout leader. Once a year, the scouts take a trip to a local farm where the boys earn their firearm merit badges. If you continue to stick with this annual ritual you may soon find yourself in prison.

Those two examples illustrate just a couple of the hidden consequences for ordinary citizens if Washington State voters pass Initiative 594 on Tuesday -- the biggest gun control initiative on any state ballot this year.

Gun control advocates are putting a huge effort into winning passage of the initiative. With $9.5 million from billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg, the initiative’s supporters are spending half as much as the NRA is spending on all political campaigns and initiatives across the entire United States.

Yet, despite a huge money advantage, gun control advocates are still using totally inaccurate claims to make their case to voters.

Mark Kelly, who heads one of the organizations spearheading the initiative, made a very common claim for the initiative recently on CNN. He told host Jake Tapper: “right now 60 percent of all gun sales go–occur–with a background check. Why do we allow the 40 percent, the other 40 percent, to happen?” But even the normally anti-gun Washington Posthas noted this claim is false and given it three out of four Pinocchios on its fact checker blog.

The 40 percent figure Kelly pointed to rounds up a claim that 36 percent of gun transfers were done without a background check. And that number was obtained from a small, 251-person survey conducted two decades ago, from November 1991 to December 1994. Most of the survey covered sales before the Brady Act instituted mandatory federal background checks. Even if it had been a reliable survey, it tells us nothing about background checks after the law.

More importantly, the 36 percent figure had little to do with “sales.” The vast majority involved transfers, not sales: inheritances or gifts from family members. If you look at guns that were bought or traded, just 12 percent would have been transferred without a background check. And, again, most of this survey was before the federal background checks went into effect.

By the way, if gun control advocates really trusts this survey, they should not ignore this other fact from its findings: it found that all gun-show sales went through federally licensed dealers.

Unfortunately, the current system of gun background checks is severely flawed, and often causes dangerous delays for people who suddenly need a gun for self-defense, such as a woman being stalked by an ex-partner. Beyond the crashes in the federal government’s computers, 8 percent of background checks are not accomplished within two hours, with most of these delays taking three days or longer.

Like so many other supporters of Initiative 594, Kelly gets another basic fact wrong. He asserts: “roughly 1.7 million criminals and mentally ill people have been stopped from buying a gun by a background check since 1999.” But these were only “initial denials,” not people prevented from actually buying guns.

Remember the five times that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy missed flights because his name was on the “no fly” list? Kelly’s method of counting is equivalent of saying that the “no fly” list stopped five flights by terrorists.

The federal government dropped more than 94 percent of those “initial denials” after just preliminary reviews, with more false positives discovered after that. In 2010, the last year a complete report for the federal government has been released, out of 76,142 initial denials, only 49 were referred for prosecution and just 13 of those ended in conviction.

For most, such delays are just an inconvenience. But for a few, delays can be life threatening as it prevents people from defending themselves. Indeed, research by one of us suggests these delays slightly increase violent crime, particularly rapes.

Proponents of I-594, such as Geoff Potter, communications director of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, assures voters: “We know that closing the background check loophole will save lives.” But there is not a single study by economists or criminologists that support that claim.

Worse, even gun control advocates admit that the initiative will at up to $60 to the cost of getting a gun.

My own research indicates that it is poor minorities who live in crime urban areas who benefit the most from owning a gun, but those are precisely the people who will be discouraged by this substantial fee from getting a gun for protection.

Even if the background system worked perfectly, it wouldn’t have stopped the high school shooting that killed two people last month at a Washington State high school.

The shooter stole the gun he used.

Nor would the law have stopped any of the recent mass public shootings in such places as Newtown, Ft. Hood, the U.S. Navy Yard, or Aurora, Colorado. Also note that even complete gun bans in Washington, D.C., and Chicago haven’t stopped criminals from getting guns.

Expanded background checks might well be reasonable, but only after the current system is fixed.

The poorly written and confusing initiative is going to turn a lot of well-intentioned Washingtonians into criminals. The fees and regulations attached to the initiative will primarily make it harder for law-abiding citizens to get guns for self-protection.

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