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The Washington Times
Thursday, July 02, 1998
Commentary Section
Gun control decoys on the firing range
By James Bovard

The Clinton administration is once again hailing 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 three dollar bill.

The Justice Department announced on June 21 that presale handgun background checks mandated by the Brady law and by state laws resulted in 69,000 people being denied permission to purchase guns in 1997.

But the Justice Department's estimates did not even maintain credibility for a week. The Indianapolis Star and News reported on June 24 that the Justice Department exaggerated by 1,300 percent the number of gun buyers turned down in Indiana because of the Brady Act. White House spokeswoman Nanda Chitre conceded the same day that President Clinton had exaggerated the number of people stopped from buying guns by the Brady Act and that White House counsel Rahm Emanuel had greatly exaggerated the number of newly bought guns used in homicides.

This is not the first time Clinton administration numbers on the Brady Act have gone down in disgrace. A 1996 General Accounting Office report found that the data used to estimate nationwide denials under the Brady act are 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 their request to buy a firearm. GAO found almost half of all 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 guns in a gun store automatically stops them from acquiring weapons. 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 1 in 1,000 violators. The number of convictions from prosecutions for making false statements on Brady forms declined from 253 in 1994 to 36 in 1997.

Nor has the Justice Department kept records on the number of people who have successfully appealed denials to purchase handguns under the Brady Act. Paul Blackman of the National Rifle Association notes: "No one has a clue how many false positive 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.

Rather than impose five-day waiting periods, some states have instead created instant background checks to quickly check the bonafides of would-be handgun buyers. These systems make it far easier to apprehend criminals who attempt to buy guns when law enforcement knows the precise location of the violator. Virginia police make more than 400 arrests per year as a result of gun background checks - more than federal agents make in the entire country as a result of Brady Act background checks.

Nor has the Brady Act 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 other reasons) than in other states. In fact, according to University of Chicago professor John Lott, author of the newly published "More Guns, Less Crime," the Brady Act is actually responsible for "significant increase in rapes and aggravated assaults." 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 prosecutions have resulted."

Even worse, the Federal Bureau of Investigations recently announced its plans to retain records of approved gun buyers for 18 months. 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 it will be contorted into a gun owners registration system.

Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, 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 owners. Re. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, has gone further and introduced a bill (BR 2721) to completely repeal the Brady Act. Mr. Paul's bill would be a far better curative than Mr. Barr's bill, though with the current spineless majority in Congress, its prospects are not bright.

The arguments over the effects of the Brady Act are drawing the battle lines for future political conflicts over gun control. The fact that the Clinton administration cannot get its numbers straight indicates that the ruling political elite have no right to further restrict Americans' right to defend themselves and their families.

James Bovard, the author of "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty" (St. Martin's), writes often on gun issues.