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More Federal Lies on Guns


The Clinton administration is continuing to portray the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 as the key to national salvation. However, once again, the administration’s claims are as bogus as a $3 bill.

The Justice Department announced on June 21, 1998, that presale handgun background checks mandated by the Brady Act and by state laws resulted in 69,000 people’s being denied permission to purchase guns in 1997. The White House issued a statement the same day in which President Clinton proclaimed that, since the Brady Act’s passage, “law enforcement officials have stopped hundreds of thousands of felons, fugitives and stalkers from buying handguns every year.” White House spokeswoman Nanda Chitre attributed the stunning discrepancy between Justice Department and Clinton numbers to an “editing mistake.”

This is nothing new. After a Justice Department report in 1996 asserted that the Brady Act had barred 60,000 people from buying guns, Mr. Clinton told supporters in Michigan: “We did pass the Brady Bill and 100,000 felons, fugitives and stalkers lost their handguns.” White House Deputy Press Secretary Mary Ellen Glynn explained at that time that the president “misspoke” as “he was reaching the end of a train trip.”

Statewide data suggests that even the Justice Department’s numbers are severely flawed. The Indianapolis Star-News recently reported that the Justice report overstated by more than 1,300 percent the number of handgun purchases that were blocked in Indiana in 1997. Justice’s statistics for Arizona overstated the number of denials by more than 30 percent.

That also was not the first time that the Clinton administration’s numbers on the Brady Act had gone down in flames. A 1996 General Accounting Office report found that the data used to estimate nationwide denials under the Brady Act is extremely unreliable. For instance, arrests are sometimes counted the same as convictions — and the fact that a person was once arrested (though later found innocent) could be used to deny his request to buy a firearm. GAO found that almost half of all the rejections under the Brady Act were due to paperwork problems or traffic violations, not to criminal records. (GAO did not even examine the percentage of denials that were valid.) Though the federal data is still very shaky, no member of Congress has requested that GAO update its study on Brady Act rejection numbers.

The Clinton administration is also deceptive in its claims that stopping felons from buying a gun in a gun store automatically stops them from acquiring a weapon. According to a 1991 Justice Department survey of convicts, most guns used to commit crimes have themselves been acquired illegally or on the black market. Felons who attempt to purchase firearms can be sentenced to prison for 10 years. Unless Brady law violators are arrested and convicted, the Clinton administration can have no idea of how many criminals actually failed to acquire guns because of the 1993 law. Despite Clinton administration claims on how dangerous illicit-gun buyers are, the federal government prosecutes fewer than one in a thousand supposed violators. The number of convictions from prosecutions for making false statements on Brady forms declined from 253 in 1994 to 36 in 1997. According to Justice Department spokesman Gregory King, the law’s objective was “to keep people from getting guns — not to increase federal prosecutions.”

Neither the Justice Department nor the White House shows any interest either in determining the number of citizens who have wrongly been denied the right to purchase a handgun because of the Brady Act or in investigating such cases. For gun-control advocates, this is the ultimate “harmless error.” Paul Blackman of the National Rifle Association notes, “No one has a clue how many false positives are in the system. My guess would be that it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of three-quarters” of denials, based on the experience of state systems.

Computer systems for nationwide instant checks will be in place by the end of November, but the White House is reneging on ending the waiting periods. Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel, the administration’s point man on gun control, announced on NBC’s Meet the Press on June 14 that “there is good common sense to the five-day cooling-off period.” After all, he said, “20 percent of the guns … used in murder are purchased within the week of the murder.” That statement is wrong. Ms. Chitre, the White House spokeswoman, acknowledged that Mr. Emanuel “misspoke on that one.”

The Brady Act has not been a significant factor in reducing crime. Violent crime rates have declined more rapidly in states not covered by the Brady Act (because they have instant background checks, or for other reasons) than in other states.

The Brady Act banned law-enforcement agencies from using background check information to compile registration lists of gun owners. But some law-enforcement agencies blatantly violate this provision of the law. National Rifle Association Vice President Neal Knox recently observed, “Some local and state agencies, such as the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification, have been caught maintaining computerized records of Brady purchases despite the clear prohibition in the law. No prosecutions have resulted.”

Even worse, the FBI recently announced its plans to retain records of approved gun buyers for 18 months. The FBI also announced plans to impose a fee of $16 to conduct the mandatory checks — a new tax on gun owners. The FBI intends to require a background check and fee even for people who have their guns repaired. “This is akin to requiring a driver’s license test for people picking up their cars after an oil change,” says firearms lobbyist James Jay Baker.

The FBI’s contempt for the clear language of the federal gun laws has enraged and alarmed many gun owners. In New York City, registration lists have been used by politicians to conduct witch-hunts of peaceful gun owners. In many countries, registration lists have been used to carry out gun confiscations. The Gun Owners of America, the nation’s second-largest gun rights lobby, staunchly opposes any type of instant background check system because of fears that it will be contorted into a gun owners registration system.

Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) has introduced legislation to prohibit the FBI from compiling registration lists of gun owners and from imposing a fee to conduct federally mandated background checks on would-be gun owners. Mr. Barr concludes that such policies indicate that the FBI “is carrying out a long-standing policy of this administration to discourage firearms ownership.” Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has gone further and introduced a bill to completely repeal the Brady Act. Paul’s bill would be a far better curative than Barr’s bill, though with the current spineless majority in Congress, its prospects are not bright. Unfortunately, late this year the Brady Act will automatically expand to require federal background checks on purchases of any firearms, not just handguns. The new restrictions on the sales of rifles have sparked fears that the government could severely disrupt gun shows.

Most congressmen have no doubts about their own moral authority to restrict other Americans’ ability to defend themselves. And many congressmen are apathetic — or worse — when federal law enforcement agencies announce plans to violate inconvenient provisions of federal firearms legislation.

The credibility of gun-control laws, like that of all laws governing private conduct, ultimately rests on the trustworthiness of our political leaders. Every lie or deception that government officials use to justify these laws undermines their legitimacy. The Clinton administration’s record on the Brady Act seems custom-made to maximize citizens’ distrust of Washington.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.