Yuuuuuuuge, Politico says … in a story spoon-fed to them by a gun-control group. The numbers came from a FOIA request filed by the Michael Bloomberg-funded group Everytown for Gun Safety, a group which just poured $15 million into eight key races as part of their campaign to flip the Senate and beat Donald Trump. Not only didn’t they bother to do the math, both they and Politico then make an assertion that is flatly contradicted by the numbers they promote.
The quasi-press release starts off promising a “jarring new stat,” and claims that “the number of people trying to buy guns who can’t legally own them has skyrocketed.” But what do the numbers actually say?
In March 2019, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) ran background checks on 823,273 attempted gun buys (the system immediately greenlights the vast majority of transactions). This past March, however, NICS processed more than 1.4 million background checks––a massive spike. The most dramatic shift, though, might be in how many people the system blocked from buying guns.
In March 2019 and February 2020, the NICS system blocked about 9,500 and 9,700, respectively. But in March 2020, it blocked more than double that amount: a whopping 23,692 gun sales.
“Whopping”? Is that a technical term, a mathematical term, or a press-release term? It’s not mathematical, we can be sure. If we do the math, we see an increase in background checks between the two Marches of almost exactly 70%. Rejections did increase at a higher rate … but not much higher. The March 2019 rejection rate was 1.15%, and that increased in March 2020 to, er, 1.7%.
Whopping, I tell ya.
The better story here might be that over 98% of people who wanted to buy firearms in March 2020 were lawful purchasers even with the massive spike in demand. That point doesn’t come up at all in this analysis, however, nor does anyone bother to do the basic math to come up with the rejection rates. To do either would undercut the motive for citing these numbers in the first place.
Instead, they cut away from the numbers to focus on speculation:
If NICS can’t finish someone’s background check in three days, the gun sale can proceed. The data shows that more than twice as many gun background checks were immediately delayed in March 2020 than March 2019. The surge in gun purchases came as the coronavirus pandemic surged in the U.S. An FBI spokesperson told POLITICO that NICS “has reallocated resources to address the incoming volume of NICS transactions.”
“This FBI data confirms our fear that America’s background check system is completely overwhelmed, which means that more guns are slipping through the cracks and being sold to prohibited purchasers,” John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown, said in a statement. “Mitch McConnell can stop this by taking action to close the Charleston loophole, but he’s too scared of the gun lobby’s waning political power to do anything, even as gun violence rises in the midst of a pandemic.”
The DoJ asked for money to retrieve these weapons in May, but Politico noted at that time that House Democrats didn’t consider it a priority. In fact, that’s been the dirty little secret about background checks in general — no one follows up on the rejections, especially when the background check system stops the sale. The Trump administration has tried to fix that problem, especially this year. This is one of the issues that gun-rights advocates routinely raise when gun-control groups want to pass new restrictions; they point out that this basic law has never been fully enforced, except at the point of sale.
In other words, this isn’t a new problem, and it’s not even a statistically significant increase in it. This issue certainly shouldn’t stop the 98%-plus applicants from exercising their Second Amendment rights to self-defense, especially at a time when violence of all kinds has risen in the pandemic — none of which has to do with increased gun sales to lawful owners or the pandemic. The rise in violence comes from the retreat of police after the killing of George Floyd, neither of which was related to COVID-19. Everytown’s argument blaming legal, background-checked gun ownership is absurd and grotesque, as is Politico’s journalistic dictation from this partisan interest group.
Tom Lehrer once sang about New Math. Maybe we should call it News Math.