Civil Liberties

Dylann Roof and Background Checks: Not Loopholes, Just Predictable Lack of Bureaucratic Competence

And why should all the millions caught up in the drug war be deprived of Second Amendment rights?


The New York Times today unnerved its readers who like to feel protected by a warm blanket of gun laws that some sort of vague "loophole" in the national gun buyer background check program allowed accused Charleston church mass murderer Dylann Roof to buy a gun, even though having misdemeanor prescription drug possession charges should have barred him from legally obtaining it.

The story is so poorly and vaguely written and reported—seems to be mostly stenography of a meeting with FBI chief James Comey—that one can't even understand what it is trying to say. It mentions a "loophole in the check system allowed the man, Dylann Roof, to buy the .45-caliber handgun despite his having previously admitted to drug possession" though it does not specify the nature of the loophole in any way. Then it refers to equally vague past "loopholes" in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System somehow related to "the three-day period the government has to determine whether someone is eligible to buy a gun."

CNN helps clarify the Times's unclear story, and it appears that more, better, or less "loopholey" laws might not matter in a world where human bureaucrats are trying to enforce them:

Comey said the FBI made a clerical error due in part between a breakdown in paperwork between police departments and counties.

A clerical error is not a loophole, and presuming the Times reporter or editor knew that detail that they chose not to specify in the story, they should be ashamed of themselves.

A CNN Explainer on how the background check system is supposed to work.

I'm sure the answer is to somehow use technology to make the net around those prohibited by law from legally obtaining a gun tighter and more inescapable, but it does always help to remember on every level that "passing law against something" by no means equals "that thing never happens," for a variety of reasons.

And if the law only accomplishes good things and not bad things—that is, if there are no costs worth considering in trying to enforce an often feckless law—that might not be such a big deal.

But: I always like to make this point, though it means nothing to those for whom the right to own a gun for safety or pleasure means nothing: background checks to "catch" people prohibited from owning guns by federal law are going to harm an overwhelmingly large number of people who would never harm anyone with the weapon they are being kept from owning.

It takes a very high level of belief that essentially no one should own a gun to believe that everyone who the law has connected to illegal drugs should not be able to access the best means for self-protection.