Today The New York Times uses the Sandy Hook murders as an excuse to talk about "gaps" in the information on which background checks for gun purchases are based, although it concedes (in the fifth paragraph) that "the database flaws do not appear to have been a factor in the Newtown, Conn., school massacre." There are two reasons for that: 1) There was no background check on Adam Lanza, since he used his mother's guns, and 2) even if he had bought the guns himself, it looks like he would have passed a proper background check based on complete information, because he did not meet any of the criteria for rejection. But since Lanza did something horrible with a gun, we should talk about gun control, right? And now that we're talking about gun control…
This sort of bait and switch is familiar by now: After a mass shooting, gun controllers push the policies they've always supported as if they were a logical response to that particular example of senseless violence. When skeptics say it is hard to see how the proposed measures could have prevented that attack, gun controllers (if they are honest) say that's beside the point, because the real goal is not preventing the rare mass shootings that get all the attention but curtailing more common forms of gun violence. If so, the horrible event that supposedly makes new legislation urgently necessary does not in fact strengthen the case for that legislation one iota. If the proposed policy was a good idea before the attack, it remains a good idea; if it was a bad idea, the emotionally compelling but logically irrelevant deaths of innocents do not make it suddenly sensible.
But OK, I'll bite. Let's talk about background checks. I would have no objection in principle to making the information on which they rely more complete if the criteria for preventing people from buying guns made sense. But several of them do not.
As I mentioned yesterday, federal law bars "an unlawful user of…any controlled substance" from owning a gun. Think about that for a minute. If you smoke pot or use a relative's Vicodin or Xanax, you have no right to keep and bear arms. Survey data indicate that nearly 40 million Americans have used "illicit drugs" in the last year, and the true number is probably higher (since people may be reluctant to admit illegal behavior even in a confidential survey). On the front page of today's New York Times, right next to the story about improving background checks by (among other things) gathering more data on "those who have tested positive for illegal drugs" (while applying for a federal job, for example), there is a story about how "marijuana is, as a practical matter, already legal in much of California." In that article (as Matt Welch noted earlier today), California's former Republican governor, who famously smoked a joint on camera in his bodybuilding days, says one reason he likes biking through Venice is the contact high he gets from all the outdoor pot smokers. The former mayor of San Francisco comments on all the "incredibly upstanding citizens," "leaders in our community," and "exceptional people" who smoke pot and are not "ashamed of it." Nevertheless, the Times notes, "people who use the drug recreationally, who said they would think nothing of offering a visitor a joint upon walking through the door, declined to be quoted by name, citing the risks to career and professional concerns." Maybe they're also worried about losing their constitutional rights.
Anyone convicted of a felony also is not allowed to buy a gun. While that might make sense for an armed robber or a murderer, it surely does not make sense for a nonviolent drug offender (a marijuana grower, say), or even for people convicted of real crimes that do not involve violence. If someone is convicted of check kiting, why should that mean he no longer has a right to armed self-defense? The logic escapes me. Likewise with someone who "is illegally or unlawfully in the United States" or "has been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa." Those facts alone do not make someone a special threat to public safety, and they certainly do not make him less vulnerable to criminals. And does a "dishonorable discharge" from the armed forces (another disqualifier) automatically mean you can't be trusted with a gun? It seems like it would depend on the circumstances.
So by all means, let's talk about background checks, but without mindlessly endorsing (or recklessly expanding) the existing prohibited categories, the folly of which may not become fully apparent until they are seriously enforced.