by JOHN R. LOTT JR. December 3, 2015 4:00 AM
Passing more laws doesn’t keep terrorists from getting guns.
On Sunday, Hillary Clinton slammed Republicans for not being serious about protecting Americans from terrorism. “How many more Americans need to die before we take action?” Clinton asked in response to Friday’s shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. She believes that stopping such attacks involves “common-sense steps like comprehensive background checks, closing the loopholes that let guns fall into the wrong hands.” Within minutes of the attack in San Bernardino, Calif., yesterday, Clinton pushed again for more regulations.
Clinton also wants to crack down on terrorism by prohibiting people on the no-fly list from buying guns. “If you are too dangerous to fly in America, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America.”
Are Republicans really putting Americans in danger by opposing new gun-control laws?
After every mass shooting, Clinton and President Obama have called for “comprehensive” or “universal” background checks, which would apply not only to the purchase of guns from a dealer but also to private transfers of guns. However, it wouldn’t have stopped any of the mass shootings during Obama’s tenure. Last weekend, Clinton, Obama, and other Democrats issued their calls for new legislation before anyone even knew how the Colorado shooter had obtained his rifle.
Colorado had already expanded background checks two years ago. So had Oregon before the Umpqua Community College shooting in October. France also has a background-check system. So too does California, which experienced yesterday’s attack. Yet, while the existing laws didn’t stop shootings of the very kind Clinton claims that they will stop, she uses these failures to justify imposing similar laws on the rest of the country.
The American background-check system is supposed to prevent the purchase of a gun by anyone who has been convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors. The Feinstein amendment would also ban the sale of guns to anyone who is on the terrorist watch list. Now, being on the watch list sure sounds bad, but it doesn’t mean that a person has been convicted of anything. In fact, it is pretty easy to get on the watch list; you can be on it simply because the FBI wants to interview you about someone you might know. According to the TechDirt website, about 40 percent of the people on the watch list are considered to be under “reasonable suspicion” even though they have absolutely “no affiliation with known terrorist groups.”
The number of people on the list has grown dramatically during the Obama administration; by 2013, there were about 700,000 people on the list. As of 2014, about 50,000 people were on the no-fly list. This is a ten-fold increase since Obama became president.
Between February 2004 and December 2014, over 2,000 people on the watch list bought one or more guns. The government has not identified a single one of these people as using a gun in a crime.
Should the government be able to deny you the right to protect yourself simply because it wants to ask you about someone you might know? And that isn’t the only problem posed by the proposed expanded background checks. In New York, today’s background checks add about $80 to the cost of transferring a gun. In Washington State, they add about $60. In Washington, D.C., they add $200. In effect, these laws put a tax on guns and can prevent less affluent Americans from purchasing them. This disproportionately affects poor minorities who live in high-crime urban areas.
While some people on “no-fly” lists are there because they are suspected of terrorist activity, you can also get added because you are a suspect in a criminal case, made controversial statements or tweets unrelated to terrorism, are the victim of a clerical error, or refused to become a government informant.
Not only do the terror watch and no-fly lists target many people who aren’t really threats, they stop a lot of people who aren’t even actually on the lists. The late Senator Ted Kennedy was stopped from flying five times because someone with a similar name was on the no-fly list. Other prominent individuals such as The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes have also run into this problem.
The error rate for identifying potential terror threats is probably similar to the error rate for background checks on gun purchases. Over 94 percent of “initial denials” for gun purchases are dropped after just a preliminary review. These cases were dropped either because the wrong person had been stopped or because the covered offenses were decades old and the government decided not to prosecute. The total error rate comes to about 99 percent.
Putting people on a list and prohibiting them from legally purchasing guns doesn’t really stop them from getting weapons. The fact that people are prohibited from buying certain drugs doesn’t mean people can’t get them. It’s the same with guns. And, incidentally, drug gangs supply both illegal drugs and illegal guns.
Indeed, since Clinton wants to make a comparison to last week’s Paris attacks, we should point out that France’s strict weapon bans didn’t stop the terrorists from getting the AK-47s and explosive belts they used in the attacks.
Strangely, the Oregon, Colorado, California, and Paris shootings are being used to push for additional gun-control laws of the sort that failed to prevent those attacks.
— John R. Lott Jr.is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010).