News and notes on guns in America

No, the Gun Background Check System Doesn’t Wrongly Reject “Millions” of Buyers

The pro-gun, oftdebunked economist John Lott on Monday scored a coveted New York Times op-ed. He used the piece as the platform for a fringe contention that, if true, would qualify as front page news for the gun policy world.

The federal background check system, Lott wrote, has improperly blocked gun sales to “millions of law-abiding citizens,” simply because they have names and birthdates that are the same as or similar to someone disqualified from possessing firearms.

A few of us at The Trace have been parsing Lott’s claim. Bear with us as you read on; this inquiry took us fairly deep into the weeds of federal gun restrictions, and takes some space to explain.

But to cut to the upshot: Lott is peddling another myth.  

He seems to draw his bogus conclusion not on rigorous statistical analysis, but a conspiratorial inference. Looking at a report covering background checks from 2006 to 2010, Lott takes the number of denials (more than 375,000) and subtracts the number of federal prosecutions for lying on the form (480).

A ha! The government, Lott concludes, dropped many of the charges because it discovered that the applicants should never have been rejected in the first place.

Except…the same government report Lott cites (the link to which is now down) lists fewer than .1 percent of denied gun purchases as rejected for prosecution because the buyer was incorrectly barred.

Many more weren’t prosecuted because they weren’t considered a priority by the relevant U.S. Attorney’s office, or because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive, the federal agency tasked with investigating denied purchasers, decided prosecutors wouldn’t even be interested.

Whether or not federal prosecutors are sufficiently serious about gun background check fraud is a separate subject. Lott’s topic is the purported injustice of the system’s “false positives.” In building his case, he elides other data showing that very few Americans eligible to buy guns are erroneously blocked from doing so.

  • For a 2016 audit, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General went back through 447 denied gun transactions. It found a single mistaken denial, for an accuracy rate of 99.8 percent.
  • Shoppers rejected by a gun background check can file an appeal. From 2012 to 2016, the last five years for which data is available, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reversed 18,466 denials. For context, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed more than 44 million transactions during the same period.

So yes, there are rare gun buyers who have their purchases rejected — or more likely, delayed — when there names match that of a prohibited person. But that number is “infinitesimal compared to the total number of background checks the go on,” says Anthony Coulson, a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent turned gun background check guru.

“To say the rate of false positives is incredibly high is just false,” he adds. “It’s a lie.”