Gun Researcher John Lott Offers False Firearm Statistics Days Before Congressional Appearance

Discredited gun researcher John Lott falsely claimed that “over 99 percent” of individuals who fail background checks to obtain a gun are law-abiding citizens, despite convincing evidence that the vast majority of denied individuals are prohibited by law from owning a gun.

On his October 26 appearance on CNN's New Day Saturday, Lott made untrue charges on background checks that are characteristic of his work. He often advocates for weaker gun laws by manipulating statistics about firearms and by touting his discredited research that purports to prove looser rules concerning the carrying of guns in public reduces crime.

Lott, a contributor to, will testify before an October 29 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the controversial “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law while representing his new organization Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC). Lott has previously mischaracterized “Stand Your Ground” in order to defend the law that played an important role in the acquittal of George Zimmerman on charges that he unlawfully killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. CPRC's secretary is National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent who caused controversy by calling Martin a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe,” and used the Martin case to make disparaging remarks about the African-American community and endorse racial profiling.

On New Day Saturday, Lott attacked the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which processes checks when individuals buy a firearm from a federally licensed gun dealer, by claiming that nearly all of gun purchases prevented by the system were the result of “false positives” where a person legally entitled to own a firearm is nonetheless denied.

Lott said, “The background check system is a complete mess. I mean virtually everybody who gets stopped right now is a law-abiding citizen. Over 99 percent of the people who were stopped are law-abiding citizens.” He later elaborated, “Go and read the annual NICS reports, in 2010 ... there were 76,000 initial denials, of those 44 were prosecuted [by the Justice Department] and 13 convictions. 13 out of 76,000 and it's not because President Obama is not trying to enforce the law, it's because those are false positives.”

But Lott's claim about false positives relies on the mistaken assumption that every person who is denied a gun purchase but not successfully prosecuted by the federal government for lying on the background check form was actually legally allowed to purchase a firearm. This claim also ignores state-level prosecutions for criminals who attempt to obtain firearms and that federal law enforcement agents have said they must prioritize those cases where felons actually obtain firearms and not when they are stopped from obtaining a gun by a background check.

Furthermore, an accurate metric does exist in the annual NICS report for determining the incidence of false positives. Because those who are denied the purchase of a firearm can file an appeal, the percentage of successful appeals is a known fact.

The FBI, which administers NICS, noted in a 2012 operations report that 88,479 denial decisions were issued that year. Of the 26,357 appeals filed, only 4,020 decisions were overturned, an appeal success rate of just over 15 percent. Overall, less than 5 percent of denials were successfully appealed. Put another way, using the 2010 NICS data Lott cited, approximately 1 out of 1,729 gun sales conducted by licensed firearms dealers resulted in a denial that was successfully appealed.*

While Lott criticized NICS as ineffective, the system has processed nearly 1 million denials since 1998 with over half of those denials involving individuals convicted of felonies or serious misdemeanors. State agencies have processed additional denials, resulting in a total of at least 2 million denials processed by NICS and state agencies since 1994.

* According to the Department of Justice, 6,037,394 background checks were conducted by NICS in 2010 with 3,491 successful appeals.