Saturday, February 22, 2014

Background Check Funny Math

As I noted in an earlier post, Missoula Mayor John Engen and Nancy de Pastino had a fine column about gun violence in the Missoulian last week, in which they called for enhanced background checks for gun sales. And as anyone could have predicted, angry responses are beginning to pop up on the op-ed page.

Daniel Kostelnik’s letter in yesterday’s paper is a case in point. Kostelnik lards his letter with some offensive and bizarre accusations – he apparently believes, for example, that Engen is in cahoots with “rich and powerful people … who are working to disarm all American citizens” – but his main point seems to be that background checks don’t really keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

Kostelnik claims that “out of thousands of people denied gun purchases, all but 17 were cases of mistaken identity.” In others words, thousands of people (except for those 17) were denied their legitimate Second Amendment right to buy and bear arms. Where he got this ridiculous number he doesn’t say, but it certainly doesn’t square with this U.S. Department of Justice report that in 2010, the last year for which data is available, only 24% of denials were appealed, and only a third of those appeals resulted in the denial being reversed. So about 8% of all denials (there were 2.1 million denials between 1998 and 2010) were eventually reversed. So Kostelnik is asking us to believe that 2.1 million people (minus 17) were denied the ability to purchase a gun because of mistaken identity, and only 8% of them were able to get the error corrected (if they even tried, which most of them didn't)! Believe that if you want, but if you do, I have a bridge to sell you.

According to the DOJ report, about 1.8% of all applications for gun transfers are denied, and opponents of background checks often cite that low number as evidence that the checks don’t work. “See! Those pesky checks hardly stop any felons or abusers or mentally impaired people from getting guns!” Indeed, that’s Kostelnik’s point, although he blows it way out of proportion: the way he figures it, over 118 million background checks have only prevented 17 sales to people who shouldn’t have guns.

But even if the numbers are correct, the reasoning is faulty, because presumably there are a fair number of those folks who shouldn’t have guns who never tried to purchase one (legally) in the first place, precisely because they knew they couldn’t pass the background check. In other words, use whatever numbers you want, the DOJ’s or Kostelnik’s; you still won’t know how effective background checks are at deterring attempts to purchase guns illegally. 

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