On May 30, former president Barack Obama was a keynote speaker at an event in Brazil. The event, VTEX Day, is billed as “the largest digital innovation event in Latin America.”
During a conversation with a host on stage during the digital innovation event, Obama took the opportunity to speak negatively about U.S. gun laws. He said, “Our gun laws in the United States don’t make much sense. Anybody can buy any weapon, any time, without much, if any, regulation. They can buy [guns] over the internet, they can buy machine guns.”
His statement to a foreign audience includes six lies about our gun laws and one truth. Let’s start out on a positive note and cover the one true statement first.
‘Gun laws in the United States don’t make much sense.’
On this, Obama and I agree. I doubt, however, that we share the same reasoning.
Firearms in the United States are regulated by myriad, and often nonsensical or conflicting, laws and regulations. Here are just a couple examples of our absurd gun laws:
- If a plastic foregrip is added to an AR-15 pistol, without federal paperwork approved, taxes paid, engravings made, and months of wait-time, it is an illegal firearm. However, an AR-15 rifle with the exact same operating mechanism and cartridge fired may have the same foregrip added without consequence.
- A handgun with a rifled barrel (twisting grooves for bullet spin) that fires a shotgun shell is a standard firearm. However, the same handgun with a smooth barrel is a highly regulated firearm.
- A semi-auto shotgun made in America may hold more than five shotgun shells. However, if the same shotgun were imported, it may not.
Well, that was easy—we’ve covered all of Obama’s true statements. Now let’s tackle the lies.
1. Anybody Can Buy a Firearm
False. There are three major federal restrictions on who may purchase firearms in the United States (not including the many state and local restrictions).
The first category of persons who may not purchase firearms under federal law is based on age. Persons under 21 years of age may not purchase handguns from a gun dealer, and persons under 18 years of age may not purchase rifles nor shotguns.
The second category of persons who may not purchase firearms under federal law are referred to as “prohibited persons.” This category includes, among others:
- Those convicted of domestic violence,
- Unlawful users of controlled substances,
- Illegal aliens,
- Those subject to certain restraining orders,
- Those adjudicated as mental defectives or committed to mental institutions,
- Fugitives, and
- Veterans with dishonorable discharges
The third major category includes non-U.S. citizens.
Additionally, various state and local laws prohibit persons from purchasing firearms unless a special permit or license is issued by that state. For example, Massachusetts requires the possession of a valid Firearm Owner Identification Card for any person to purchase a firearm.
2. Any Firearm Can Be Purchased
False. Under federal law, machine guns made after 1986 may not be purchased by civilians (more on this under lie No. 5 below). Also, the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) regulates other firearms which may be purchased, but clearly not in the way insinuated by Obama’s comments (more on this under lie No. 3 below).
Various state and local laws prohibit entire categories of firearms from being purchased, either by their features or by name. For example, AR-15-style rifles may not be purchased in Connecticut and any firearm not on a specified list (most models of handguns introduced in the past few years) may not be purchased in California.
3. A Firearm Can Be Purchased at Any Time
False. When purchasing a firearm from a federally licensed gun dealer (FFL), background-check requirements must be satisfied. In most cases, this includes a background check being run through the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). However, many states use their own background check system.
If a background check is required (all sales except for some states that exempt concealed weapon permit holders), then a firearm may only be purchased during the hours of operation of the relevant background check system.
Federal background checks may only be run between 8 a.m. and 1 a.m. Eastern and some state systems, like Tennessee for example, operate between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Central.
Within the statement that a firearm can be purchased at any time is also the inference that a firearm may be purchased anywhere. This is also false. For example, handguns many only be purchased in a person’s state of residence. Therefore, if a person wants to purchase a handgun while he out of his home state, that is a time at which he is not permitted to purchase a firearm.
For the class of firearms covered by the NFA, such as short-barreled rifles, a purchaser must wait until certain paperwork is approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). This wait time is often up to 10 months. Clearly this is a restriction on the time at which certain firearms may be purchased and possessed.
Additionally, some states have mandatory waiting periods before certain purchases.
4. Firearms Can Be Purchased with Few Regulations
False. If you’ve been paying attention so far, the United States has many regulations on the purchase and possession of firearms.
5. Firearms Can Be Purchased Over the Internet
False (well, at least in the way the comment was likely meant). It seems clear that Obama wants people to think that a gun can be purchased online and shipped straight to a purchaser’s home like any other online purchase. This is not true.
It is technically true that firearms may be purchased online. However, when a person purchases a firearm online from an out-of-state retailer, the firearm must first be shipped to a local FFL, where the purchaser must appear in person to fill out the federally required paperwork and satisfy the background check requirements.
Therefore, although it is true that the payment may be made online, the firearm may not be purchased over the internet like any other unregulated product.
6. Anyone Can Purchase a Machine Gun
False. First, see lie No. 2 above. “Anyone” may not purchase a firearm, let alone a machine gun.
Second, machine guns made after 1986 may not be purchased nor possessed by an ordinary civilian. These machine guns may only be purchased or possessed by FFLs or government entities.
Machine guns made before 1986 are still NFA firearms and may only be purchased after the extensive paperwork and wait times that accompany all NFA firearm purchases. Additionally, some local laws outright ban the possession of any machine guns.
If politicians want us to take them seriously in discussions about our firearm laws, they need to stop lying about these laws. Misrepresenting firearms laws does nothing to help reduce gun violence.
In fact, the enforcement, or in many cases like gun-free zones, reducing our current laws is what we need. Any call for more gun control is an admission that gun control doesn’t work.