The Truth Behind That "Huge Spike" In Rejected Background Checks

Gun control groups know that their best shot of electing anti-gun candidates this November is to scare the bejeebers out of American voters, particularly suburban women, where support for new gun laws is strongest. How do you do that at a time when more Americans than ever before are purchasing firearms for self-defense? Well, you have to scare them into believing that it’s a terrible thing that people are exercising their Second Amendment rights.

One way to do that is to claim that all those new gun sales have caused the sharp increase in violent crime in Democrat-run cities with restrictive gun control laws like New York and Chicago. We’ve already debunked that study here at Bearing Arms, but my friend and colleague Ed Morrissey has a done a fantastic job of taking apart a new claim by the gun control crowd; scores of violent criminals are trying to buy guns right now, and the only way to stop them is to pass a universal background check law.

Politico is responsible for the Everytown for Gun Safety press release disguised as a news story that claims “the number of people trying to buy guns who can’t legally own them has skyrocketed.” As Ed points out at Hot Air, however, while the raw numbers have indeed increased from 9,700 rejections in March of this year to more than 23,000 in June, the raw numbers of legal gun owners has increased at the same pace. In fact, as a percentage of total background checks, the number of rejected background checks has barely budged in recent months.

If we do the math, we see an increase in background checks between the two Marches of almost exactly 70%. Rejections did increase at a higher rate … but not much higher. The March 2019 rejection rate was 1.15%, and that increased in March 2020 to, er, 1.7%.

Whopping, I tell ya.

The better story here might be that over 98% of people who wanted to buy firearms in March 2020 were lawful purchasers even with the massive spike in demand. That point doesn’t come up at all in this analysis, however, nor does anyone bother to do the basic math to come up with the rejection rates. To do either would undercut the motive for citing these numbers in the first place.

It’s true that gun control advocates don’t want to talk about why more Americans than ever before are choosing to exercise their Second Amendment rights. It undercuts their fealty to the Left to acknowledge that civil unrest and soaring violent crime rates in deep-blue cities have many of us concerned for our personal safety. Everytown and Politico are also ignoring another important point in the background check data, however, and that’s the fact that some of these denials were false positives. As Dr. John Lott pointed out in a 2018 op/ed in the New York Times, only a handful of denied background checks are ever prosecuted, and he believes a key reason is simply that in most cases no real crime was committed.

Between 2006 to 2010, the last period for which more comprehensive annual data on the denial of firearm applications by the background check system are available, there were 377,283 denials. But the federal government prosecuted only 460 of those cases, leading to 209 convictions, mostly on charges of providing false information. There was a similarly small number of state prosecutions resulting from the gun purchase denials.

Why didn’t more of those denials lead to perjury prosecutions? According to my analysis, the reason is simple: a high percentage of cases are dropped because the applicant was wrongly denied clearance to buy a gun.

Many of those people are trying to buy guns to protect themselves. “This incredibly high rate of false positives imposes a real burden on the most vulnerable people,” said Reagan Dunn, the first national coordinator for Project Safe Neighborhoods, a Justice Department program started in 2001 to ensure gun laws are enforced.

We don’t have any hard numbers yet, but it stands to reason that with the background check system as busy as it’s been over the past few months, there’ve likely been more mistakes made in the background checks themselves. It’s likely that the slight uptick in the percentage of background checks that are denied is due in part to the strains on the system.

Bloomberg’s anti-gun group isn’t going to go out of their way to acknowledge this, in part because they believe the answer is to subject more gun transfers to this flawed system, but mostly because their goal here isn’t to inform but to mislead. The real story isn’t that NICS denials have ticked up from 1.1% to 1.7% of all background checks, it’s the fact that the NICS numbers themselves have been at record highs for several months, and the only thing that might bring them down is the fact that demand for firearms is far outpacing supply at the moment. That’s a fact that gun control activists are desperate to avoid, but there’s no reason why media outlets like Politico should play along with their charade.