Gun Rights

If Disqualified Gun Buyers Aren't Dangerous, Maybe They Shouldn't Be Disqualified

Given the arbitrariness of federal criteria for gun ownership, the public safety benefits of background checks are dubious.

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CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom

Last year the FBI asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to retrieve guns from 4,170 people who were cleared to buy them even though they were disqualified under federal law. USA Today, which reported that number in an "exclusive" last week, sees it as evidence of a broken background check system. But these retrieval referrals also highlight the arbitrariness of the criteria that strip people of their Second Amendment rights.

If the FBI cannot complete a background check on a gun buyer within three days, the dealer is allowed to complete the sale, which is why the ATF is sometimes tasked with seizing guns after the fact. That does not happen very often. The 4,170 "delayed denials" in 2016 represented 0.015 percent of the 27.5 million background checks conducted that year. Judging from the ATF's recent track record, nearly all of the guns will be retrieved.

According to a 2016 report from the Justice Department's inspector general that looked at a sample of 125 delayed denials from 2008 through 2014, the ATF recovered weapons in 116 cases. In two cases, the gun owners already had resold the weapons, and in one case "the matter was referred to local authorities after the subject was arrested by them on unrelated charges." In five cases, "the subjects could not be located," and in one case "the ATF office explained that due to competing priorities it did not have the resources to retrieve the firearm." In other words, the illegal gun owners were disarmed 95 percent of the time. But the public safety benefit of those efforts is debatable, because the reasons people are forbidden to own guns often have little or nothing to do with the threat they pose.

A 2004 report from the DOJ inspector general noted that there were often delays in retrieving weapons from prohibited buyers, partly because "ATF special agents did not consider most of the prohibited persons who had obtained guns to be dangerous and therefore did not consider it a priority to retrieve the firearm promptly." It's no wonder, given the factors that make people ineligible to own guns, which include any felony record, whether or not the crime involved violence and regardless of how long ago it was committed; a history of forcible psychiatric treatment, whether or not the buyer was deemed a threat to others and regardless of how much time has elapsed; living in the United States without the government's permission, which has nothing to do with violent tendencies; and federally prohibited use of a controlled substance, even when it is allowed by state law.

The 2004 report noted that gun buyers who fail background checks before completing their purchases are rarely prosecuted, even though all of them, on the face of it, have committed felonies by making false statements on the ATF form they filled out while trying to buy a firearm. The FBI blocked 122,000 gun sales in 2002 and 2003, which represented 0.7 percent of background checks. Only 154 of the would-be gun owners—0.1 percent—were prosecuted. According to the 2016 report, prosecution rates in more recent years have been even lower. "These cases lack 'jury appeal' for various reasons," the 2004 report noted. One of those reasons: "The factors prohibiting someone from possessing a firearm may have been nonviolent or committed many years ago."

If most people who are forbidden to own guns by federal law do not strike ATF agents or jurors as dangerous, maybe there is something wrong with the law. The scandal is not lackadaisical ATF agents, negligent prosecutors, or apathetic jurors; it is the casual ease with which the government deprives people of the fundamental right to armed self-defense.

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35 responses to “If Disqualified Gun Buyers Aren't Dangerous, Maybe They Shouldn't Be Disqualified

  1. Related:

    The Brady Bill, the most important piece of federal gun control legislation in recent decades, has had no statistically discernable effect on reducing gun deaths, according to a study by Philip J. Cook, a Duke University professor of public policy, economics and sociology. “The Brady Bill seems to have been a failure,” Cook told a sparsely attended lecture in Caplin Pavilion on March 11.

    1. …and based on these findings, he suggested that the government respect the 2nd Amendment?

      Ha ha, that’s just a little joke.

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  2. If most people who are forbidden to own guns by federal law do not strike ATF agents or jurors as dangerous, maybe there is something wrong with the law.

    “Oh, very well. All those people are *potentially* dangerous.”

    1. Someone needs that lesson on the difference between potentially and actually. Tell them to ask their wives if they would sleep with Adam Levine for a million dollars.

    2. This is what I came here to say. I don’t think there are a lot of GC advocates that are going to lose sleep over this.

  3. I’m with you on the dubious safety benefits, but I’m not sure about the likely outcome of convincing people that the background check system doesn’t work.

    When a critical mass of swing voters come to believe that the background check system doesn’t protect them from criminals and mass shooters, they may not conclude that the background check system should be abandoned.

    If we can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, they’ll probably be just as inclined to make gun ownership as illegal and difficult as possible for everybody–regardless of whether such a policy is practical or rational.

    After all, if there’s anything at all to learn from our national experience with the drug war, it’s that no policy is so expensive, irrational, or impractical that the government won’t squander a never ending amount of resources to pursue it.

    1. If we can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, they’ll probably be just as inclined to make gun ownership as illegal and difficult as possible for everybody–regardless of whether such a policy is practical or rational.

      That argument is already being made, and has been for a while.

      1. Agreed; declaring guns illegal, at least as much as Australia or possibly Japan, is the ultimate goal of gun control advocates. That way our homicide/suicide/crime rates would [continue to] decline to the levels of “other developed nations,” simply through imitation of other country’s policies. If only we libertarian pro constitutional hold out gun nuts would just get the hell out of their way, it would be so simple.

        1. Yeah, one good way to get a gun control advocate angry is to point out that Japan and the United States are two different countries, with different history and culture and legal traditions. A normal person wouldn’t find such a point to be controversial, but a gun control advocate sure does.

          1. True. Not to mention Japan is basically a police state, which is what would be required to get the world the gun-grabbers here want. Not that that would necessarily bother them, mind you…

            Another thing that pisses off the gun controllers, I’ve found, is bringing up Switzlerland and THEIR gun laws, which are VERY lenient, and the fact that crime is pretty damn low over there. Hell, they carry fucking assault weapons around like it’s nothing! Sounds like my kind of place. Just visiting there would make their fucking heads explode, LOL!

            1. “Not to mention Japan is basically a police state, which is what would be required to get the world the gun-grabbers here want.”

              You are half right. A police state is the world the gun-grabbers want. They want an all-powerful government. A populace that is capable of defending itself hinders that goal.

            2. No way the crime rate is low because it’s too damn cold to go out and commit a crime?

          2. Another is to bring them up to speed on the Swiss. They admit to about 2.3 guns per household, but The hamlet I visited was nearly that per ‘adult’! And that didn’t count the issued weapons, either. The 12yo daughter was qualified on the ‘family crew served mg’, just in case the French attacked.

            1. Dang French. If they would just leave Germany alone the Swiss wouldn’t need machine guns with 12 year girl crews.

  4. “Last year the FBI asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to retrieve guns from 4,170 people ”

    “retrieve’: get or bring (something) back; regain possession of.

    I think the word you are looking for is “confiscate”.

    1. ‘Twas the FBI’s chice of term. Remember, in THEIR world, they own/control/regulate everything. So in their peabrains, the came from government, and thus must return to gummit. Strange world, theirs…..

    2. The word in the constitution is “infringe”

    3. Just more successful “involuntary buybacks”…

  5. This is the wrong direction tactically. If you want to get gun control advocates ‘off your back’ convince them that it’s possible to at least slow down the process of guns going into the wrong hands (like the guy who kills his wife after getting a restraining order). Saying that background checks are ineffective and always will be just makes it more urgent that getting guns is difficult for *everyone*.

    Personally, I think if you’re going to have gun regulation make it the kind that insures people know how to shoot straight (take a live-fire course and pass it). More damage done by people who can’t hit the side of a barn than anything else.

    1. You are twelve times more likely to be struck by an errant round fired by a police officer than by a concealed carrier.

      1. Yes, and on a “per contact” basis, the white guy is more likely to be killed by a cop than a black guy. And the vaunted US health care system is much, much, much, much more likely to kill you than anyone with a gun or a bomb or a letter opener.

        1. and more people die from lawfully prescibed medicines taken per directions than all gun deaths inculidng suicides. And we’ve not even touched the deaths due to stupid drivers in their hurtling multi-tonne projectiles as they smash into all manner of objects……. HOW often do you see some creep folloing a mere 25 feet behind the guy in front of him at 75 mph on a motorway at night? The wonder is we don’t have many times MORE car crashes and resultant deaths.

      2. I suppose the relevant question, then, is: do cops fire their weapons 12 times as often as concealed carriers?

        On a per-capita basis, I suspect that that the ratio is much higher than that (given that cops are actively sent to those kinds of situations), but then, there are also 4 to 8 times more concealed carriers than cops IIRC (1 mil vs. 8 mil or 14 mil or 16 mil, can’t remember), so it probably balances back out.

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  7. Here is the one that always bugged me. Someone with a felony DUI loses their right to own a firearm for life. That same person however can get their ability to drive back after a certain period of time. How in Hades does that make any sense? Some one who hasn’t committed a firearms violation loses that ability for life but they commit a serious motor vehicle violation and after a few years can drive again?

    1. First offense DUI conviction in Massachusetts means no guns for life.

      Everyone always says federal law bans felons from owning guns. The law does not use the word felons. It says anyone convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison. I wish people (especially reporters) would stop saying felon and use the actual definition. Most people don’t see themselves as felons, but there are many many relatively minor nonviolent crimes that are punishable by more than one year in prison. Like DUIs in some states. I would wager the vast majority of people in this country have committed a crime punishable by more than a year in prison, they were just never caught and probably didn’t even realize they were commiting a “serious” crime.

  8. The government should not be deciding who can own guns and who can’t own guns, which is the whole point of the 2nd amendment.

    Stop allowing the government this power over you and stand up to government. Buy guns, sell guns, give guns away and acquit anyone that the government tries to prosecute for owning weapons.

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  10. Shall not be infringed
    Period.

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