Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

Return to Database
MYTH: 99% of background check denials are errors
Summary:

  • Researcher John Lott claims that more than 99% of background check denials result from errors in the federal background check system, meaning millions of people are wrongfully prevented from purchasing firearms.
  • Federal law requires background checks for all sales and transfers of firearms involving a federally licensed firearms dealer. Falsifying information on the background check form is a crime.
  • According to the FBI and the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General, 99.8% of firearm background check denials are accurately denied.
  • While some denials are prosecuted at the state level, at the federal level more than 99% are not due to severe underfunding of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the difficulty of prosecuting these cases. 

Lott’s Claim:

In a February 12, 2018 New York Times op-ed titled “Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence,” Lott claims that the federal background check system prevents “millions of law-abiding citizens from buying guns for protection” due to false denials. A false denial occurs when a person who should have passed the background check to purchase a firearm did not because of an error. Lott argues, “The background check system confuses the names of law-abiding individuals with those of criminals, resulting in thousands of ‘false positives’ every year.”

Lott further asks, “Why didn’t more of those denials lead to perjury prosecutions?” He argues that “a high percentage of cases are dropped because the applicant was wrongly denied clearance to buy a gun.”

In a 2017 Star Tribune opinion piece, Lott claims “More than 2.4 million people have been denied gun purchases because of checks, but about 99 percent of those people are actually law-abiding citizens who happen to have similar names to the individuals we actually want to stop. More than 99 percent of the denials are mistakes!”

The Facts: 

Lott falsely claims that millions of people are wrongfully prevented from purchasing firearms because of background check errors. This type of error is called a false positive, meaning a person was incorrectly identified as being a prohibited purchaser. Lott bases his claim on the low prosecution rate of National Instant Check System (NICS) perjury cases. (A perjury case stems from a person providing false information on the firearm background check form.) While the prosecution rate is low for NICS perjury cases, the reason is due to a critical lack of funding of the ATF and an overcrowded federal court system. The low prosecution rate is not due to false positives.

According to a September 2017 audit of the National Instant Check System (NICS) conducted by the US Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, 99.8% of background check denials were accurate. This finding was in line with the FBI’s own quality control estimate of a 99.3–99.8% accuracy rate for 556,496 denied transactions from 2008 to 2014. This finding contradicts Lott’s statement.

Lott’s Counter: 

When challenged on his background check denials claim during a congressional hearing, Lott argued that the OIG report could not be relied on because it used a non-random sample to examine background check denials (you can listen to the clip here, with the pertinent portion starting at 1:34:15).  

Rebuttal: 

Lott misconstrues the way in which the OIG report sampled cases. The report is careful to include incidents under each type of background check denial category, to ensure the system doesn’t have a problem in any subcategory. Beyond that, the sample is random.

Sources:

John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020
John Lott, “Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence,” New York Times, Feb. 12, 2018 
John Lott, “In Second District race, a real difference in how to battle terror,” Star Tribune, Sep. 29, 2016
Devin Hughes and Jen Pauliukonis, “A Lott of Lies about guns in the New York Times,” GVPedia, Feb. 16, 2018
Office of the Inspector General, “Audit of the Handling of Firearms Purchase Denials Through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System,” US Department of Justice, Sep. 2016
“NRA actively worked to weaken gun law enforcement, USA Today, Feb. 8, 2013

Share