ERICKSON: Guns and privacy

April 12, 2013 

Universal background checks seems like a no-brainer. Criminals and those with mental health issues should be unable to buy guns. Unfortunately, as with most things, the reality is more complicated.

The bipartisan proposal before Congress, drafted by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., complicates things further. In each of the massacres we have witnessed in the past two decades related to gun violence, universal background checks would not have prevented the tragedies.

The shooter in Newtown, Conn., actually failed a background check. He then killed his mother and took her guns. The students in Columbine, a massacre that occurred while the assault weapons ban was in place, used shotguns belonging to family. Universal background checks scratch the itch to do something, but all they do is drive up bureaucratic compliance costs.

More troubling, the Toomey-Manchin proposal, in order to make background checks do more than just scratch the itch to do something, invade the relationship between doctors and patients.

Under their proposal, doctors would be allowed to add their patients to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) without ever telling the patient he or she has been added. There would be no due process under the legislation. Not all doctors could do so with ease, but doctors who see a patient related to mental health issues from ADHD to depression, would be able to add the patient to NICS without ever telling the patient.

California and several other states will take already purchased guns from a gun owner if the gun owner is subsequently added to a mental health watch list. It is not a far leap to imagine an activist doctor who opposes guns doing so liberally. It is also not a far leap to imagine the brave new world of lawsuits when that starts happening.

There are also privacy concerns. In the past four years, several groups critical of the president have seen their private tax records “accidentally” released. Non-profits whose records were “accidentally” released publicly by the IRS saw their donors targeted for harassment by political opponents. Just yesterday, the ACLU revealed it had obtained a confidential email from within the IRS that stated Americans have “generally no privacy” in their email correspondence, Facebook messages, direct messages, Twitter direct messages, etc.

When the federal government treats existing privacy so badly, imagine the brave new world of universal background checks. This past week, Missourians learned their state had given the federal government the complete list of Missouri’s concealed carry permit holders. This was in contravention of Missouri law. Finally, universal background checks do not often work as intended. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, points out that in the last year there were 15,000 red flags on background checks in the United States -- 15,000 people who should not be able to buy a gun attempted to do so. Only 40 were prosecuted by the United States Department of Justice.

Why the gap? It is not a priority to prosecute would be gun buyers, but also many of the 15,000 were false positives. The background check blocked legitimate gun buyers from buying guns. Background checks do seem like common sense. But they generate a high number of false positives, the Toomey-Manchin proposal would complicate the doctor-patient relationship to make the law more expansive, and multiple privacy groups are raising serious concerns about how the information would be processed and stored.

Scratching the itch sometimes causes another scratch. Congress should tread carefully.

-- Erick Erickson is a Fox News contributor and radio talk show host in Atlanta.

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