Murderers Slip Through the Screen

Politicians have too much faith in background checks and extreme vetting as defenses against terrorism and mass shootings.


Last week Sayfullo Saipov, who was approved as an immigrant in 2010, used a pickup truck to murder eight people on a bike path in Manhattan. This week Devin Kelley, who was repeatedly approved as a gun buyer in recent years, used a rifle to murder 26 people at a church in a small Texas town.

The deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since 9/11 and the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history illustrate the limits of screening as a defense against violence. We would like to think that the right combination of exclusion criteria and background checks can reliably prevent mass murder, but experience tells us otherwise.

Responding to Saipov's attack, Donald Trump promised on Twitter that "the United States will be immediately implementing much tougher Extreme Vetting Procedures," because "the safety of our citizens comes first!" But it is hard to imagine what procedure could have predicted Saipov's seven-year journey from eager immigrant to Islamic terrorist.

According to the Uzbek government, Saipov was raised in Tashkent by an affluent family and never had any trouble with the law or gave any indication of extremism. As the winner of a diversity lottery visa, he underwent background checks, security screening, and interviews before entering the United States.

Saipov, who had worked as an accountant for a hotel in Tashkent, hoped to get a job in the hospitality industry despite his limited English skills. Instead he ended up working as a truck driver, moved around a lot, and became increasingly embittered and alienated over the years.

Although Saipov was not very observant at first and did not know much about his religion (according to a local imam), he was drawn to Islamic extremism. The path he followed was shaped by his post-immigration experience, and he might never have been radicalized if he had landed the sort of job he wanted or if the trucking businesses he started had been more successful.

Kelley, by contrast, showed clear signs of violent tendencies years before he opened fire on parishioners at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. As an airman in 2012, he was convicted of beating his wife and son by a general court martial, which punished him with 12 months of confinement, a reduction in rank, and a bad conduct discharge.

Under federal law, Kelley was triply disqualified from buying a gun: His assault on his wife was the equivalent of a misdemeanor involving domestic violence, his aggravated assault on his son was the equivalent of a felony, and his separation from the Air Force, since it was ordered by a general court martial, was the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. But the Air Force did not report Kelley's convictions to the National Crime Information Center, so they did not show up in the FBI's background checks when he bought his weapons.

The Air Force is investigating what went wrong in this case and promises to improve its reporting, which until now seems to have been limited almost entirely to dishonorable discharges. But even an improved database cannot be expected to have much of an impact on mass shootings, since the perpetrators of such crimes typically do not have disqualifying criminal or psychiatric records.

The idea that screening can prevent mass shootings is nevertheless powerfully appealing. After the October 1 shooting that left 58 dead in Las Vegas, Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), who argues that Congress is complicit in gun violence because of its failure to "do something," told CNN's Jake Tapper "the most important intervention is background checks."

Murphy wants to require background checks for all gun transfers, not just those involving federally licensed dealers. But as Tapper pointed out, the Las Vegas shooter "passed his background checks" because "there didn't seem to be any reason to prevent him from purchasing firearms."

Even when screening demonstrably fails to stop mass murder, it does not lose its appeal among those who crave simple solutions.

© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. Aren’t you just admitting that we need to screw up doing even more to stop gun violence?

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  2. 2nd Amendment:
    A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

    So, no unconstitutional background checks, unconstitutional bans on any arms, and no surrender.

  3. Isn’t this an argument against admitting refugees? They’re all vetted extremely, to the point where battle capable young males are largely excluded.

    1. Probably! Back in the olden days when people didn’t give a fuck about appearing to be “nice” all the time we would have simply banned Muslim immigration because there’s a decent chunk of them that want to fuck our shit up, and since we don’t owe anybody anything it’s easier to just ban them all. I don’t think it’s necessary to do that, but we would in fact save lives by doing so, and since in progtopia every person is the same anyway what’s the difference whether we have Muslims or not? Their arguments don’t even stand up to their own logic. LOL

      But since we’re now no longer allowed to appear to be mean we simply have to accept letting in a bunch of people who are thousands of percent more likely per capita to commit mass murder/terrorist acts. I feel sorry for the sane/decent Muslims, but honestly I wouldn’t give two shits if we just cut them off until the extremism faze has faded away in the Muslim world… Which will probably only happen after we stop blowing up their countries, so it may be awhile.

  4. Banning gun sales to married people under 30 with children would do a lot more to prevent mass murder than any of these measures. Beyond that, the FBI shouldn’t call people ‘psychopath’. And beyond that, if they did we need to track down their kids and interview them. That will solve about 90%.

    1. WHY should FBI not label psychopaths as such? Calling them nice neighbours does not change their sickness, nor remove their danger to society. You also conveniently forget that a signficant number of the psychopaths who have killed many these past few years HAD been pointed out as “dangerous”, which warnings were ignored, and that all but perhaps one or two were, or had been, on psychotropic drugs prescribed for anxiety, PTSD, and other social disturbances, all which such drugs have listed side effects including tendency to violence, rage, suicide, etc.

      As to your bit about married under thirty with children…….. how many in this class do you actually KNOW well enough to be able to affirmatively declare the whole of that population unfit to bear arms on the basis of the infinitesimal subset you DO know? Besides, how many of the mass killers using guns in the past 30 years were married, under 30, and had children in the home? I can’t think of one. Name one.

      1. So exactly how many nosy acquaintances or embittered ex-boy/girlfriends or quack science head shrinkers need to label you as dangerous before your Constitutional rights no longer apply? And why, exactly, is it ok for the state to exparte revoke 2nd amendment rights but not 1st, 4th, etc? The theory behind the Constitution is that our rights are essential – we are born w them, they are not bestowed by the state. Among those rights is the enumerated right to gun ownership, which the founders viewed as so important that they provided an additional justification for it – citizen militias are a requirement of a free state. Rights that are essential cannot be revoked other than as the result of a formal judicial process: a hearing w a judge, lawyers & jury. If we want to say that the right to gun ownership can be revoked ex parte – without the right to self-defense essentially – on the basis of not what you have *done* but what people *believe* you *might* do, we treat that right not as essential at all but as a privilege that is bestowed on a subject by the state like a parent bestows an allowance upon a child.

        1. Once we go down this road & establish that the enumerated rights in the bill of rights are not essential but merely privileges, there is no longer a reason why the same justification could not be used to revoke other rights. For example why not revoke 1st amendment protections from the mentally I’ll? After all (flimsy) research has shown that merely communicating w a mentally ill person can result in that mental illness spreading as in ‘follies a deux’. Why not revoke 4th amendment protections from those in demographic groups more likely to commit crimes or who have taken some sort of psychological battery showing violent tendencies? After all we can’t just tell violent ppl they can’t have guns – to protect the children we must ensure that guns to not make it into the hands of those who might maybe at some point be dangerous.

          1. NOTE: tbh we have long ago “gone down this road” in the US – in fact the beginning of the betrayal of an essential view of human rights was immediate at the time of the founding. There was of course slavery, that wicked asterisk hidden after the whole bill of rights. Even ignoring slavery, though, was the Alien & Sedition Act, which to this day forms the philosophical basis for the contemptible modern use of the Espionage Act to punish journalists & their sources. The point is that I’m using the reduction argument as a rhetorical flourish & not to make the case that the US is now or ever was a libertopia. IMO the principles & arguments expressed in the founding documents & their precursors (Cato’s letters et al) are in most cases agreeable & worth fighting for, but in practice this countries track record of applying those principles in a coherent principled manner is godawful; even the authors of those founding documents tended toward a “for me & not for there” expression of human rights once power was achieved.

  5. Yearly thought screening is really the only answer.

    1. You’re not thinking big brother enough.

      1. So make it 24-7. Done.

    2. Wow thank you Fist for thoroughly addressing all of the concerns raised in the article with this incredibly enlightening comment.

  6. Conflict resolution skills should be more widely discussed and taught and we should encourage a greater sense of community. I’ll start the healing. New Jersey is legalizing cannabis now that ‘our good friend’ Christy is out. Isn’t that swell news John?

    1. “conflict resolution” these days, thanks to a couple decades of government schooling, consists of admin and/or teachers jumping in, taking ove,r deciding what THEY want to have happen regardless of facts or offenses, and so kids never learn how to deal with life’s potholes, flat tyres, and baseball bats to the head. When a 14 year old girl was noted to have visible on her binder a professionally done portrait of her Father at work (OK, he in his BDU’s and carried his MBR) she was ordered to instantly remove it. She protested, THAT”S MY DADDY AT WORK. She received some outrageous punishment for her “crime”. You wanna talk about “conflict resolution” she was just handed a HUGE conflict and left to deal with it on her own. Ya think this might have generated any confusion, anger, hatred, desire for payback?

  7. This was a result of government failure to adequately enforce existing law but we still have to ban semi-automatic (which is entirely and objectively unconstitutional at all levels of government…) rifles because reasons.

  8. If I can’t get a gun at the grocery store then the second amendment might as well not exist.

    1. Then I should be able to buy milk from the gunshop?

      What the world needs os a Costco/amazon where I can buy all the armaments I want. Aisle 19: 9mm semi auto. Now on special buy one gross of armour piercing rounds get one gross free.

      Shop for and buy your weapons online, pass whatever checks they throw at you then have it delivered to your door.

      That gives you easy access as a citizen and allows the feds to track every round you buy.

      Before long weapons will be titled like vehicles and well have to get ownership transferred at the DMV but only to politically approved buyers. Yeah federalism. Home of the free and all that.

      1. SOME weapons will be titled like vehicles.

        THere, fixed it for ya.

        Probably eighty percent of the guns I know about (quite a few hundreds of them….) will never be so titled. Look at what the dutiful submitted Ozzies have just gone through…… “every” firearm must be registered. Thus the coppers know where those are. They have no clue how many are out there unregistered. They just concluded a 3 month amnesty period, where unregistered guns could be brought in to be sold (thus no longer required to be registered by that owner) or registered. Several thousand were newly registered, but those who know what’s what are convinced the total registered in the country is still far short of what exists.
        Consider the states for New York’s SAFE act, requiring registration of all
        black and ugly” guns…… data believed to be accurate reveal that something less than five percent of them are actually registered. Connecticut is similarly situatied, with possibly as much as 15% registered. We’ve got some 400Mn guns in private hands. I’d be amazed if 4Mn would be titled as you suggest. The Warsaw Jews were certainly glad they only brought in the old rusted things when the nazis demanded they be surrendered. They’d already been registered, in theory. When Hitlers stooges came round to gather them up and herd them off to the cattle cars, they who had refused registry and surrender fired back, driving the soldiers away.

    2. Shop at Fred Meyers, out here in the West. WalMart, too. Both have gun counters. Just a few steps away from the produce or frozen food section. A little ice cream to go with that nice new Ruger?

      But it was not that long ago when we could walk in to a general store, hardware, feed and farm, Sears, Monkey Wards, JC Penney, put greenbacks on the counter, pick up the gun I just bought, and walk out, clerk not having a clue what even my first name is. GUess what? I never shot anyone with any of those guns I bought just like that, most of which I still have. Decades later. So they must be defective of sumthin, as they’ve never shot anyone yet.

  9. Even when screening demonstrably fails to stop mass murder, it does not lose its appeal among those who crave simple solutions.

    Call me crazy, but cynically dismissing the potential of screening to reduce mass murder smacks of craving a simple solution.

    I mean, how much can the Air Force and FBI be expected to do? Communication is hard. Let’s just give up.

  10. Most people just can’t accept that we have a government with limited powers.

    I’m not talking about the Constitution. Fuck, politicians and government officials alike use that for toilet paper. No, I’m talking about reality. The government isn’t run by omnipotent gods. There are some things they just can’t do.

    1. But most people are magical thinkers, with a concept of government somewhere between a fairy tale monarch and a Marvels comic dystopian dictator. Witness the emotional euphoria and trauma over the elections of the right/wrong figurehead in recent US presidential elections (along with ridiculous expectations about what that magical leader could do).

    2. Atheists like to mock theists who believe in an omnipotent, omniscient being who subtly guides our lives, and will help us, if we simply do what he asks. (And, short of the occasional complete destruction of entire societies that are lost causes, and short of letting individuals suffer the consequences of their own decisions, He isn’t constantly breathing down our necks making sure we do what is right.)

      Yet most of those same atheists — indeed, the vast majority — believe that, with the passage of just one more law, the creation of just one more bureaucracy, we can create an omnipotent, omniscient government that will fix all our problems.

      Of course, this isn’t just an atheist problem — there’s plenty of theists that believe the same thing, even though they also adhere to a doctrine that only a Supreme Being in the afterlife will be able to make everything right — but what these atheists and theists believe in regards to government is far more a nonsensical belief than in some fairy tale Supreme Being living in the sky somewhere…

  11. The only reason this terrorist did not kill more people is he is a bad driver, hit a bus and totaled the truck. If he had not crashed, the death toll in NYC would have been much higher. The two biggest terror events in the US, 9/11 and OKC bombing, did not use guns. This event on proves, not system is perfect and to claim that background checks on all sales is the answer is just idiotic. How exactly will this law be enforced? Clearly if the info is never put into the system then it cannot work. The most ridiculous act related to this event is Sen. Flake introducing legislation for a law that already exists. It is ironic no one in the media has not yet pointed out that a couple on months ago, the SCOTUS ruled on this very law by stating a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence was a valid reason for denying a person the right to purchase or possess a firearm.

    1. “This event on proves, not system is perfect and to claim that background checks on all sales is the answer is just idiotic”

      USA has been bombing weddings, funerals, churches, hospitals etc for some time now. Employing death squads, torturing, and imprisoning. The nation has cheered from the sidelines until now. This is a case of chickens coming home to roost, karma, reaping what ye’ve sown.

  12. This never happened when young men had an alternative dream – to play a guitar, get the chicks and drugs, and die at age 27 by aspirating your vomit in a stupor.

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  14. Well at least screening stops drug war violence in urban areas.


    Ok, forgettaboutit

  15. IF SOMEONE wants A GUN – he will get one

    The TRUTH about the “supremacy clause” – our Constitution does not delegate to the national government authority to restrict our arms, ammunition, regulate firearms dealers, do background checks, etc.

    https://publiushuldah.wordpress.com/ ?s=The+TRUTH+about+the+”supremacy+clause

    1. and if that someone wants to do harm with that gun, and truly is unable to get it, there are MANY other ways. Rented trucks, meat cleavers, propane tanks, stolen cars, baseball bats, molotov cocktails, chainsaws, tire irons, broken wine bottles, bricks, pressure cookers…….

  16. the current background check system has not, nor could have, stopped ANY of the mass shootings in the time since the Brady Brats inflicted them upon us.

    Most recent year available’s statistics reveal some 72,000 DENY codes were issued as someone attempted to purchase a firearm. That’s a signficant number. It is a crime (federal) to attempt to buy a gun when one is a “prohibited person” and cannot legally own a gun. Anyone want to guess how many of those 72K were even investigated, let alone prosecuted, or convicted? Some 44 were prosecuted, I think the total convicted was 13. Even when someone tries to cheat on the BGC and is found out with the Deny response, in over seventy two thousand instances that year NOTHING happened. Now, a signficant number were false negatives.
    But this guy passing the checks multiple times? We have the Obama air Force to thank for that one. They failed to REPORT as mandated his disqualifying events. What use is the car out in the driveway when it has three flat tyres and one with only ten pounds pressure in it?

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  18. Stop thinking “mass shootings.”

    See “Gun Control and Mass Killers” at Relevant Matters

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