Sutherland Springs exposed flaws in the NICS system. Whether you agree with background checks or not, they’re the law and the Air Force blew it on that one. They failed to input the information into the system. Plain and simple.

However, is the lack of data being input the only flaw in the system by any stretch of the imagination. Well, the FBI asked BATFE seize thousands of firearms from prohibited people who bought them in gun stores, most after NICS failed to report that the individual was prohibited.

Federal authorities sought to take back guns from thousands of people the background check system should have blocked from buying weapons because they had criminal records, mental health issues or other problems that would disqualify them.

A USA TODAY review found that the FBI issued more than 4,000 requests last year for agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives to retrieve guns from prohibited buyers.

It’s the largest number of such retrieval requests in 10 years, according to FBI records– an especially striking statistic after revelations that a breakdown in the background check system allowed a troubled Air Force veteran to buy a rifle later used to kill 26 worshipers at a Texas church last month.

The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) vets millions of gun purchase transactions every year. But the thousands of gun seizure requests highlight persistent problems in a system where analysts must complete background checks within three days of the proposed purchase. If the background check is not complete within the 72-hour time limit, federal law allows the sale to go forward. ATF agents are asked to take back the guns if the FBI later finds these sales should have been denied.

It appears that the claim is that the NICS is overworked and mistakes get made, yadda yadda yadda. A former BATFE agent even called the three-day provision on background checks “reckless.”

Of course, that former agent now works for Giffords, so you know where his loyalties lie, and it’s not with the United States Constitution.

Now, 4,000 mistakes sound like a lot, but let’s put this in perspective. According to USA Today, the total number was 4,170 goofs. However, the NICS processed over 27.5 million checks in 2016 alone.

I’m not the only one who sees this perspective.

Larry Keane, general counsel for the firearm industry trade association National Shooting Sports Foundation, noted that the FBI’s seizure directives represent only a small portion in the flood of of transactions that the bureau has been processing in recent years. On Black Friday alone, FBI examiners fielded more than 200,000 background check requests, a one-day record for the system.

“What we support are more resources for the NICS operation to process the volume of requests,” Keane said.

Keane said there has been no discussion in the industry about extending the three-day time limit for completing background checks, adding that more than 90% of all checks are completed almost immediately after the request is forwarded to the FBI. He said less than 1% of all firearms transactions are later referred to the ATF for retrieval.

Unfortunately, looking at the numbers, it appears Keane overstated the problem. You see, we’re actually looking at more like 0.015 percent of all background checks made resulted in a situation like this, not one percent.

Tricky journalism

What’s happened here is a journalism trick.

Journalists know that people won’t freak about a problem that represents 0.015 percent of the total number. Even if that represented millions of people, that number sounds so small as to be trivial. It simply can’t be presented as being that small a sample.

So what they do is they phrase it such a way that will grab your attention. “Thousands” sounds like so much larger a problem with 0.015 percent, even if it’s the same exact thing. “Thousands” gets your attention, it makes it seem like something you need to be concerned with, makes it a problem you should be talking about with your co-workers around the office water cooler.

But the numbers are what they are.

Does that mean USA Today meant to mislead people? Perhaps.

You see, this trick really has more to do with marketing your story to editors and the readers–yes, this works on editors too–and less with manipulation, as a general rule. If the headline doesn’t grab you, if that happens enough, no one will buy the paper or access the website. It’s something we all do, to some extent. Think of it as an early form of clickbait.

Crossing the line

Where USA Today crossed the line, however, is in presenting this information with no reference to just how many total background checks do take place. They failed to provide sufficient information so the reader could discern the scope of the “problem” for themselves.

There are only two reasons to do this: Laziness and Lying.

Laziness is just failing to do it because you couldn’t be bothered. However, the report is done in a manner where laziness doesn’t appear to be an issue. The journalist contacted people from both sides, quoted them, and appears to have done the difficult legwork just fine. It was the minute detail in one aspect missed. Now, that doesn’t mean laziness couldn’t be an issue. After all, everyone overlooks something that might have been revealed with just a bit more work from time to time, right?

Besides, didn’t the reporter quote Keane from the NSSF?

Well, yes. At the end of the piece.

You see, newspaper writers tend to use a format called the inverted pyramid. You put all the most important information at the top of the story, and then work your way down in order of importance. Here’s a visual of what it would look like.

(Public domain image)

This is done so editors can make cuts easily. They just start at the bottom to chop off information so the story will fit in the newspaper space available.

In the age of the internet, this is still in use at many sites because readers lose their attention after a time. You provide the key points at the top, then work your way down in order of importance, ostensibly so the reader gets all the relevant information.

Keane’s quote, however, is at the bottom. It’s where readers are least likely to see it, meaning many will read a chunk of the story and then click away to read something else, all the while believing there’s this epidemic of firearms in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. They have no reason believe this is really a non-issue because they clicked away before that.

Now, couple the placement of Keane’s quote with the lack of information about the total number of background checks–information available with a quick Google search–and it’s really difficult to see any way this is an honest mistake.

This isn’t fake news. This is activism masquerading as journalism, and it’s pathetic.

The fact is that there is no problem with massive numbers of bad guys getting guns and then doing horrible things. USA Today even notes that the BATFE agents charged with recovering these guns don’t view most of these people as dangerous, and that’s because few ever do anything dangerous with those guns.

The only real problem here is when supposedly unbiased media outlets present manipulated facts in order to sell a narrative.