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Background Checks: The Numbers


Yesterday I took at look at the claim that 40 percent of gun sales do not involve a licensed dealer. That claim came up in the president’s announcement.

He also claimed that the background-check system “kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun” in the past 14 years. It’s true that the background-check system rejects north of 100,000 applications a year. A close look at the numbers complicates the picture, though.

The FBI releases a report every year about these denials; the most recent one covers data from 2010. That year there were 153,000 denials, about half by the FBI and half by state agencies. Of the more than 76,000 denials the FBI referred for investigation, more than 71,000 — about 94 percent — were “not referred to field, overturned, or canceled.” (On rare occasions, checks are canceled when they should not have been conducted to begin with.) Of the cases that were deemed worthy of investigation, many fell through (because there was insufficient evidence, the person turned out not to be a felon, etc.).

Most of the cases that were not “referred to field” (about 68,000) were not overturned or canceled, either, so it’s not the case that we’re talking about only “false positives” here, as some gun-rights supporters claim. It’s also not the case that these folks were necessarily kept from “getting their hands on a gun”: They were left free, and able to buy a gun from a private seller without a background check if they so desired. A 2004 DOJ review argued that the low number of investigations and convictions stems from the difficulty of prosecuting these cases:

These cases lack “jury appeal” for various reasons. The factors prohibiting someone from possessing a firearm may have been nonviolent or committed many years ago. The basis for the prohibition may have been noncriminal (e.g., a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. military). It is also difficult to prove that the prohibited person was aware of the prohibition and intentionally lied [on the form he filled out at the gun dealer]. We were also told that in parts of the United States where hunting historically has been part of the regional culture, juries are reluctant to convict a person who attempted to purchase a hunting rifle.

Basically, a lot of the denials result from innocent mistakes, or at least mistakes that can be presented as innocent to a jury.

The same thing happens when state agencies step in and perform the checks: Of Pennsylvania’s 10,600 denials in 2010, fewer than 500 were referred for investigation. Virginia seems to be more efficient: About a third of its 3,000 referrals in 2010 were investigated, and there were about 850 reported arrests.