The Gun Fight: Analyzing NRA Statistics

Oct. 9, 2000 -- Faced with a public outcry over gun violence in schools, the National Rifle Association went on the attack in March 1999 against the Clinton administration, accusing it of deliberately not enforcing gun laws.

“I’ve come to believe [Bill Clinton] needs a certain level of violence in this country. He’s willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told ABCNEWS’ This Week earlier this year.

“This president has presided over a complete lack of enforcement,” he continued.

Those accusations rang true with the American public. A gallup poll taken this year found that more than 53 percent of Americans believe we need to enforce current gun laws more strictly and not pass new ones.

But an ABCNEWS investigation has found that many of the NRA’s claims are unfounded, and that in fact, numerous gun laws are being enforced.

LaPierre’s accusations became the centerpiece of the NRA campaign against President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. LaPierre said the federal government should enforce existing gun laws before passing new ones. He used the argument in his efforts to oppose the Juvenile Justice Bill that was debated in Congress last summer, but ultimately failed. The most hotly contested piece of that legislation was an amendment requiring background checks on everyone buying a gun at a gun show.

A ‘Total Lack of Prosecution?’ In its effort to defeat the legislation, the NRA sent letters to its members in June of last year claiming that felons were being released back on the streets — without being prosecuted — after they failed to pass background checks.

An excerpt of that letter reads: “According to the Clinton/Gore Administration’s own numbers, the total lack of prosecution during the past five years of the Brady background checks has returned 250,000 predators to the streets, unscathed. Not one of them was federally prosecuted in three straight years. That’s both a disgrace and an outrage.”

On its Web site, the NRA asserts that “all violations under the Brady check, Instant Check Phase” were “0 in 1996, 0 in 1997, and 0 in 1998.”

But an ABCNEWS examination of that data found the claims either unsupported or misleading.

In the case of the Brady Law, there have been hundreds of federal prosecutions, according to statistics obtained by ABCNEWS.

The NRA based its claim of zero prosecutions on a Department of Justice letter sent to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., it says proves its point.

However, the letter only cites statistics on the number of people federally prosecuted for firearm violations related to the Brady Law. The data represents prosecutions of people who illegally attempt to sell guns, not purchase them, and the statutes the NRA cites do not apply to gun buyers.

604 Prosecutions or Zero?

At the request of ABCNEWS, the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent government agency, compiled data for violations of law by people who tried to buy guns illegally. The commission found at least 604 people were federally prosecuted and convicted for illegally attempting to buy a firearm in the period the NRA points to. After being presented with the data during an interview with ABCNEWS’ Peter Jennings, LaPierre admitted there had been only one prosecution.

But LaPierre went a step further, saying there has been a “complete lack of enforcement.” The Brady Law data the NRA cites ignores other federal gun prosecutions, as well as untold state and local cases.

It is important to note that not everyone who fails a Brady background check has committed a crime, as in cases where the applicant is mentally ill, or makes an honest mistake in filling the Brady check form.

According to the commission, the number of people prosecuted federally for illegally attempting to buy a gun is far higher than 604. It was unable, however, to put a specific number on those cases because the federal statutes covering illegal attempts to buy guns cover other crimes as well. No complete record is available of federal prosecutions of people attempting to buy guns illegally.

Further, the federal government does not handle most gun prosecutions. Many states prosecute people attempting to buy firearms under their own gun laws.

In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 90 percent of all weapons convictions occur in state courts. Because of varying laws in each state, and the vast number of state and local jurisdictions in the United States, there is no breakdown of state weapons convictions according to specific crimes.

“Criticism of federal prosecution statistics ignores the basic fact that both federal and state authorities prosecute gun cases,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “State and local authorities make the vast majority of arrests and undertake the vast majority of prosecutions.”

By focusing only on the Brady Law, which was designed as a way to better implement this patchwork of existing gun laws, including the original law that made it a crime for convicted felons and others to buy firearms — the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 — the NRA misses an awful lot of gun prosecutions.

More Firearms Convictions According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there has been a steady increase in total state and federal firearms convictions since 1992. In 1996 there were 22 percent more criminals sent to prison for state and federal weapons offenses than in 1992.

The NRA’s apparent narrow focus also seemingly ignores some of the reasons why there are relatively few Brady prosecutions. In order to convict someone under the law for attempting to buy a gun illegally, prosecutors must show the individual was a prohibited gun purchaser who knowingly gave false information on the federal purchase form. These are often difficult cases to prove in court.