John Lott: Background Check Reform Needs To Address False Positives

John R. Lott is a name well known in gun rights circles. He’s kind of our go-to when it comes to information on how fewer guns mean more crime and vice versa. Let’s be frank. When the man speaks, we tend to listen.


When he takes to the pages of the New York Times, however, there’s a chance a lot more people will listen.

This time, he attacks the idea of background check reform not being the answer to violence.

The background check measures before Congress aim to improve enforcement of existing law and increase such reporting by imposing financial penalties on government officials whose agencies fail to provide required information. That’s a good goal, but any proposal should also fix another major problem with the background check system: false positives that stop law-abiding people from getting weapons that they might need to protect themselves and their families.

The background check system confuses the names of law-abiding individuals with those of criminals, resulting in thousands of “false positives” every year. Relying on phonetically similar names along with birth dates just doesn’t allow for much accuracy.

Ronnie Coleman, a Virginia resident, was not allowed to buy a gun in 2012 because another person from his hometown in Texas who had a felony conviction also had a name and birth date “close enough” to his to cause a denial. Mr. Coleman was advised to get a unique transaction number from the background system to prevent this confusion in the future, adding another bureaucratic step to the process.

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.


To be fair, Lott is right.

The problem with false positives is that they create a barrier between law-abiding citizens and their ability to exercise a constitutionally protected right. While we take for granted that convicted felons can’t buy guns–just one of the rights barred to them due to their status as felons–we often forget about the innocents who are blocked from buying firearms because of the actions of another.

How is this right?

The answer is simple: it’s not, not by a longshot. I can’t help but agree that this needs to be addressed by Congress, and I find it difficult to see how even the most ardent liberal would be able to oppose it. Not without having to outright admit that they don’t want anyone owning firearms. It would prove the lie that they don’t oppose gun ownership but want “common sense gun control.” After all, just how does the denial of rights to innocent people count as “common sense?”

Lott is right. False positives do need to be addressed. Badly.

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