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Column: Expanding Background Checks Will Do More Harm Than Good

President Obama’s continued call for “common-sense proposals to make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun” is something that everyone agrees with. Unfortunately, the president is misleadingly claiming what his proposals will do, and they are more likely to do more harm than good.

Consider “background checks.” According to Obama and gun-control advocates, “40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.” That is just false. Only if you were to classify family inheritances and gifts as “purchases” would you get a number anywhere near that high.

Today, the Brady Act requires that federally licensed dealers check whether potential gun buyers have not committed a felony or many types of misdemeanors, have not been dishonorably discharged from the military, and not been involuntarily committed for mental illness. Before the Brady Act went into effect in 1994, half the states imposed such requirements, but federal law only required people sign a statement that they did not have a criminal record or a history of mental problems.

Now the 40 percent figure rounds up a claim that 36 percent of “transfers” were done without a background check, and that number came from a small 251-person survey conducted two decades ago, from November 1991 to December 1994. That is the only study done, and most of the survey covered sales before the Brady Act instituted mandatory federal background checks, telling us nothing about checks since.

More important, the 36 percent figure only comes from including such transactions as inheritances or gifts from family members. If you look at guns that were sold, 88 percent went through federally licensed gun dealers.

This survey also found that all gun show sales went through federally licensed dealers.

We don’t know the precise number today of transfers without background checks, but it is hard to believe that the percent of sales without them is above single digits. But even if a few purchases avoid checks, should we expand them? It depends on how the system would be implemented.

The current system is severely flawed. Some checks cause dangerous delays for people who suddenly need a gun for self-defense, such as a woman being stalked by an ex. Beyond the computer crashes, 7 percent of the checks are not accomplished within two hours, with most taking three days or longer.

Obama and others have recently asserted that background checks have “blocked 1.7 million prohibited individuals from buying a gun.” But that is wrong. These were only “initial denials,” not people prevented from buying guns.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms dropped more than 94 percent of those “initial denials” after preliminary reviews. And at least 22 percent of the remaining cases were still incorrectly stopping law-abiding citizens from buying guns, bringing the total false positive rate to around 95 percent.

For a few people, these delays can make a huge difference in being able to defend themselves. Indeed, my own research suggests these delays might actually contribute to a slight net increase in violent crime, particularly rapes.

No amount of background checks on private transfers would have stopped the attacks in Connecticut, Wisconsin, or Colorado. And even complete gun bans in Washington and Chicago have not stopped criminals from getting guns.

But it certainly makes no sense to expand the background check system before it is fixed. Passing laws may make people feel better, but they can actually prevent people from defending themselves.

John R. Lott Jr. is a former chief economist at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the author of At the Brink.