Andy and Andrew: You both touch on the fact that very few people who fail background checks are prosecuted. Interestingly, though, conservatives have long made contradictory points about this: Some see the fact as evidence that we need to prosecute more; others see it as evidence that many of the people who are flagged by the background-check system are “false positives.”
In my view, the reality is in between, and the status quo is the right way to approach it. As I’ve noted before, there in fact are not many “false positives,” as very few denials are fully overturned — but also, very few denials are worth prosecuting. Typically, what happens is that someone who doesn’t realize he’s prohibited from owning a gun tries to buy one. Maybe his offense was long ago, maybe he was discharged dishonorably from the armed forces, etc. My favorite example is someone who was denied because he stole a pig in 1941, which was technically a felony. Oftentimes such a person would have been eligible for firearm-rights reinstatement if he’d applied for it.
When the background check comes back, these folks are not allowed to buy a gun, but they also are not prosecuted, because jury verdicts are hard to get in these cases.
Think about it this way: It would take a pretty stupid person to try to buy a gun, fill out the paperwork, and submit to a background check knowing that the check will turn up disqualifying information. In the main, background checks don’t work by actually denying people; they work by stopping people from trying to buy a gun (at least from certain sources) to begin with.