The Brady Campaign released a report this week claiming that in its first 20 years, the NICS background check system has blocked more than 2.1 million gun purchases. Brady would have you believe each of those denials prevented a dangerous person from getting a gun. They would also have you believe their numbers prove the system should be expanded to include all firearm transfers, rather than just those occurring between licensed dealers and their unlicensed customers, as is the case now.
The problem for Brady is their claims simply do not tell the whole story, and the truth does not support their recommendations.
Everyone agrees that keeping firearms away from dangerous people is a good idea. Although Brady does not tell you that many thousands of the denials it cites were false positives, we'll stipulate that many dangerous people undoubtedly have been turned away from licensed dealers empty-handed after a NICS checks. But the story doesn't end with the denial.
A denial should indicate that a prohibited person tried to obtain a gun, and lied about his eligibility to the dealer. That's a crime. Thus, you would imagine the federal government would be interested in ensuring the people who are denied did not get away to pursue the many other options available to get a gun. That is not, however, what the numbers show.
Out of 72,659 NICS denials in 2010, for example, only 62 led to federal prosecutions. Of these prosecutions, only 13 led to convictions. So what happened to the other 72,647 people who were denied?
One possibility, as we've mentioned, is that some of those persons should never have been denied in the first place. In that case, NICS didn't enhance public safety, it merely stood in the way of someone exercising a constitutional right.
Assuming for the sake of argument the rest of the people really were dangerous enough not to be trusted with firearms, they still had other options to get them. And if you talk to the criminals themselves, these alternatives are the primary means by which they obtained their firearms.
According to a 2004 survey of state prison inmates who possessed a firearm at the time of their offense, 37.4% obtained the firearm through a relative or friend, and 40% obtained it directly through various criminal means. Meanwhile, only 11.3% obtained the firearms in retail sales that might have involved a background check through a licensed dealer.
Moreover, even if background checks applied to every sale, that still wouldn't stop the common practice of straw purchases, where a person who can pass the background check acquires the firearm for someone who can't.
In the final analysis, Brady's numbers are not so impressive, nor do they argue for expanding a system that most criminals have already learned to circumvent.