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The truth about assault weapons bans and background checks

With Senate Judiciary Committee meeting this week, it's likely that new gun control bills will be drafted very quickly. There are in essence two parts to the bills: the part that deals with the  “assault weapon ban” and the part that deals with “universal background checks.” The first one faces long odds of passage, but the second might well pass.

Democrats will undoubtedly push for an assault weapons ban. The ban has become a central tenant of the Democratic party, with Obama's calls "to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets" and even Michelle Obama claiming crimes are being committed with “automatic weapons.” Senator Dianne Feinstein is pushing hard to reinstitute the earlier assault weapon ban, which she had originally enacted in 1994.

Proponents of an "Assault Weapons Ban" often argue their point by posing the question: "Why do people need a semiautomatic Bushmaster to go out and kill deer?"

From 1994 to 2004, we banned both so-called assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 bullets. But the ban simply did not do any good. 

They obviously imply that the weapon must be a military weapon not designed for hunting. But they are simply plain mistaken. It has just been made to look like a military weapon. The semiautomatic Bushmaster functions identically to a small game hunting rifle. Indeed, the caliber of bullet it fires is too small to be used legally to hunt deer in most states.

The AR-15 is a semi-automatic gun, not a machine gun, like those used in the military. One pull of the trigger releases one bullet. With a machine gun (or automatic), one pull of the trigger releases many bullets.

Generally, people need semi-automatic guns for self-defense. As Vice President Joe Biden’s recent gaffe about recommending people fire two warning shots from a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun so amply illustrates. The recoil from such a shotgun may be too much for a smaller person. I know of seven cases during just this past December where at least ten shots were fired defensively. They involved instances where 2, 3, or even 4 criminals had broken into people’s homes.

The assault weapon ban also faces one very big obstacle. We have been there, done that. From 1994 to 2004, we banned both so-called assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 bullets. The ban was very similar to what is proposed now, with guns banned because they looked like military weapons or had rather arbitrary, cosmetic criteria.

But the ban simply did not do any good. 

Despite plenty of studies by criminologists and economists, none of the academic criminologists or economists who have studied this have found any benefits from the law. One of the studies was even funded by the Clinton administration. Yet, this study too concluded: "the evidence is not strong enough for us to conclude that there was any meaningful effect (i.e., that the effect was different from zero)." 

Seven years later, in 2004, the authors of that report (Chris Koper and Jeff Roth) published a follow-up study for the National Institute of Justice together with a fellow criminologist (Dan Woods). Yet again, they could not discern any benefit: "we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence."

The old ban banned semi-automatic guns purely based on their looks or whether they contained two or more features such as bayonet mount, folding or telescoping stock, pistol grip, flash suppressor, or grenade launcher fittings. The new rules list 157 banned guns by name because of their looks and would ban other guns if they have just one of those features.

Yet, these minor differences have already been tried by states such as California and Connecticut, and, again, neither criminologists nor economists have found any benefits from these state level laws either.

What is so maddening here is that the proposals are trying to split semi-automatics into two groups: the “bad” ones and the “good” ones, but there is no sensible criteria used to distinguish the two. While Democrats know that there is absolutely no chance of passing a law that will ban all semi-automatics, they want to appear as if they are “doing something” by trying to ban some of them.

As for the second part of gun control measures, expanded background checks, the likelihood of passage is stronger, but the case for expanded checks is weak. Again, research by others as well as my own keeps failing to find that background checks lower crime rates.

Possibly that isn’t really too surprising. Background checks are just one way of stopping criminals from getting guns and even more extreme methods have failed. Even when guns were banned in Washington and Chicago or even in island nations such as the UK, Ireland and Jamaica, criminals still got guns and murder rates rose after the bans.

To make their case in favor of expanded background checks, impressive numbers have been repeated over and over again. President Obama claims “40% of guns are purchased without a background check” and that background checks have “blocked 1.7 million prohibited individuals from buying a gun.”

Both claims are simply false.

The 40% number is actually 36%, and refers to transfers, not sales. It would only be accurate if family inheritances and gifts were reclassified as "purchases." 

The 36% number was based on a small survey from 1991 to 1994, most of which came before the Brady Act took effect on Feb. 28 1994, with the act introducing the requirement that all federally-licensed dealers perform checks.

Similarly, the supposedly 1.7 million prohibited individuals prevented from buying a gun make no sense whatsoever. What we have is 1.7 million “initial denials.” Again, it is a big difference.

Truth is, these government databases are rife with flaws. Remember the five times that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy missed flights because his name was on the anti-terror “no fly” list? By Obama’s method of counting, that means the “no fly” list stopped five flights by terrorists. 

Hardly.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives dropped over 94 percent of those “initial denials” after preliminary reviews. Further review found that at least a fifth of the other 6 percent were also wrongly stopped from buying guns.

The current flaws in the background-check system may be an inconvenience for many, but for some it means dangerous delays. Some people who suddenly, legitimately need a gun for self-defense, such as a woman being stalked by an ex-spouse or companion will find themselves defenseless.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of these laws can cost lives. Talking about only the benefits of more laws and not their costs isn’t going to make anyone safer.

John R. Lott, Jr. is a columnist for FoxNews.com. He is an economist and was formerly chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. Lott is also a leading expert on guns and op-eds on that issue are done in conjunction with the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is the author of eight books including "More Guns, Less Crime." His latest book is "Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges Off the Bench" Bascom Hill Publishing Group (September 17, 2013). Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.