What Should We Do about Guns?
The Senate goes back to the drawing board.



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.