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The Media Can’t Stop Misleading on Guns

DAVID HARSANYI | Published on 7/23/2020

With the possible exception of religion, there is no issue in American political life that is as poorly covered as guns. At RealClearPolitics, John Lott reports that legacy media outlets often quite literally allow anti–Second Amendment activists to write their news stories on gun policy. Politico hasn’t quite done that today, but . . . well, I’m not sure having reporters dutifully repackaging Everytown USA press releases is any better.

Politico’s piece is headlined “Blocked gun sales skyrocket amid coronavirus pandemic.” I have been curious to find out how the anti–Second Amendment crowd would spin the recent spike in gun sales — which has been especially concentrated among new owners and women — and I now have my answer:

Internal FBI data reveal a jarring new stat: The number of people trying to buy guns who can’t legally own them has skyrocketed. That came as part of a surge in gun purchases in the first three months of 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019. And the change has raised concerns about gun safety.

Reporters who lard up their pieces with adjectives such as “jarring,” “massive,” “whopping,” and “raised concerns” are usually trying to convince readers of something that isn’t true. And so it is here. Indeed, all this Politico piece tells us is that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is working exactly as intended.

Groups such as Everytown spend a lot of time trying to convince Americans that their country doesn’t have a background-check system at all. They’re good at it, too; millions of voters seem to be under the impression that criminals can walk into a Walmart and walk out with an AR-15. And yet suddenly Everytown is upset that “jarring” numbers of people are being denied guns by the FBI. Isn’t that the point of the system?

And about those numbers . . . the piece goes on:

In March 2019, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) ran background checks on 823,273 attempted gun buys (the system immediately greenlights the vast majority of transactions). This past March, however, NICS processed more than 1.4 million background checks — a massive spike. The most dramatic shift, though, might be in how many people the system blocked from buying guns.

In March 2019 and February 2020, the NICS system blocked about 9,500 and 9,700, respectively. But in March 2020, it blocked more than double that amount: a whopping 23,692 gun sales.

What these stats show is that very few prohibited Americans attempt to buy guns from dealers (this number is even lower than typically suggested, because many of them aren’t attempting to hoodwink the FBI but are simply ignorant of the law), and that this is as true in 2020 as it was in 2019. The rejection rate in February 2019 was 0.6 percent and in February 2020 it was 0.68 percent. In March 2019, the rejection rate was 1.15 percent, and it was 1.64 percent in March 2020. As a 2019 Government Accountability Office report inidicates, the number of rejected applications has consistently been around 1 percent for years. Remaining around the historical average is neither “whopping,” “jarring,” nor “massive,” despite the framing of the piece.

The piece goes on:

NICS’s website says it only blocks gun sales for a narrow number of reasons: because the would-be purchaser has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, for instance, or because the potential buyer is subject to a restraining order for stalking an intimate partner.

Actually, NICS says nothing of the sort on its website. Rather, it offers eleven rather broad grounds and circumstances in which a person can be denied a gun. We know they are broad because no other constitutional right has anything close to as many restrictions on it. I can assure you that if the FBI had eleven reasons to deny women abortions, Politico wouldn’t be characterizing them as “narrow” constraints.

Politico finishes off the short piece off by quoting a couple of completely baseless statements from Everytown president John Feinblatt:

“This FBI data confirms our fear that America’s background check system is completely overwhelmed, which means that more guns are slipping through the cracks and being sold to prohibited purchasers,” John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown, said in a statement. “Mitch McConnell can stop this by taking action to close the Charleston loophole, but he’s too scared of the gun lobby’s waning political power to do anything, even as gun violence rises in the midst of a pandemic.”

There is no evidence to bolster the assertion that the system is “completely overwhelmed” or that more people are “slipping through the cracks.” In fact, the FBI spokesperson says in the piece that the NICS “has reallocated resources to address the incoming volume of NICS transactions.”

Also, there’s no such thing as the “Charleston loophole.” I realize that activists such as Feinblatt think every gun purchase in America reflects a “loophole” that needs to be closed, but the three-day waiting limit on checks was purposely written into the 1998 law — which makes it the opposite of a loophole. The provision was added to the law to ensure that the FBI couldn’t arbitrarily deny Americans their Second Amendment rights. The Charleston church shooter obtained his gun — despite his drug use — not because of problems with the law but because of a data-entry error. If that is distressing to Feinblatt and his organization, perhaps he should ask the Democratic House to stop ignoring FBI requests for more NICS funding.

The simple truth is that these numbers reflect an established pattern: When gun purchases rise — probably initially owing to the helplessness felt by many people during the COVID-19 lockdown, and later compounded by the lawlessness that erupted in big cities — other numbers will rise with them. Ultimately, Feinblatt’s objection isn’t to more background checks; it’s to more gun ownership. That’s his job, so it’s to be expected. But what’s the media’s excuse?