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Everytown’s Hail Mary

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Everytown’s Hail Mary

What do you do when millions of Americans are lining up against your worldview?

You find a friendly reporter willing to help you try to cast a frightful shadow over that reality in the hopes of advancing your anti-American agenda.

At least, that’s what Everytown did. A Politico reporter used FBI NICS data acquired by Everytown to claim “Blocked gun sales skyrocket amid coronavirus pandemic.” The claim in the article is that the number of people denied the ability to purchase a firearm through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has, well, skyrocketed. The title and the first line of the article are pretty similar.

The rest of the article is in line with Everytown’s standard operating procedure: use the numbers that present the most dramatic, starkest difference even if other comparisons are more appropriate. Everytown’s friendly Politico reporter uses raw numbers, which in the data Everytown acquired shows that there were 23,692 denials in March 2020 compared to 9,558 in March 2019. For context, March 2020 saw 639,263 more total federal NICS transactions than March 2019.

Since raw differences needs the context of reality, let’s look at this in terms of percentage of in-month checks instead of comparing different time periods. For all checks including immediate responses and delays, 0.7% of federal NICS transactions in March 2020 resulted in a denial. That is fully one-tenth of one percentage point higher than the previous March, which saw 0.6% of all such checks result in an immediate denial. Factoring in delayed decisions,​ the percentage of total denials in March 2020 was four-tenths of a percentage point higher than that of March 2019 (1.6% and 1.2% respectively).

Not all denials are correct. The FBI’s 2019 NICS Operations Report shows that 27% of denial appeals were overturned. There were 103,592 total federal denials in 2019, and 19,278 appeals filed.

Previous annual federal denial percentages typically hover around 0.4% of all federal NICS checks, though that has ticked up to 0.5% in recent years (according to the data Everytown provided to Politico). There was a larger increase in checks resulting in an initial delay; these went from 11.2% of all immediate federal NICS responses in March 2019 to 20.4% of all such checks in March 2020.

A nine and two-tenths percentage point increase is not negligible by itself. Of course, a reasonable person should factor in the unprecedented demand placed upon the NICS system in March as well as the potential for COVID-19 staffing disruptions. NICS office staffing levels just were not designed for such record volume. NICS analysts hand check potential delays, and there are only so many analysts to go around.

Again, March 2020 set the record for NICS checks. The record has since been broken.

And that is the likely cause of the thorn in Everytown’s side. Everytown’s President told Politico that “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. 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 first line of that statement claims that the background check system is somehow allowing prohibited persons to obtain firearms. The Politico article focuses on the number of federal NICS denials, which would be the number of prohibited people who were not allowed to purchase a firearm. That shows the exact opposite of what Everytown is claiming.

Of course, the Politico article also claims that people are prohibited for a narrow number of reasons but fails to mention the most common reasons people are denied – criminal records, substance abuse, indictments, and misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, among others. When your goal is to make it sound as easy as possible for prohibited people to obtain firearms, you won’t include those details. Instead, you’d make factually inaccurate claims about loopholes.

Everytown’s proposed solution, closing the “Charleston loophole,” would have given the FBI nearly unfettered discretion to prevent firearm purchases during this period of unprecedented demand. That legislation would eliminate the default proceed “safety valve” in federal law and would lead to perpetual delays for law-abiding gun owners attempting to purchase firearms.

Everytown’s newfound concern with NICS denials is also a bit surprising given that their endorsed candidate for president, former Vice-President Joe Biden, once said “we simply don't have the time” to prosecute NICS related violations.

The biggest inaccuracy with Everytown’s statement is, of course, the “gun lobby” boogeyman. Everytown is an organization that caters to the whims of a billionaire who wants nothing more than absolute control. Michael Bloomberg’s cronies apparently cannot comprehend that there is an actual grassroots organization with millions of members and countless allies not subject to top-down control. The “gun lobby” is the American people. 

The same American people who stood in line to purchase a firearm. Those are the American people that Everytown wants to marginalize.

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