New Research Shows Firearms Purchased Without Background Checks closer to 13% than Previously-Thought 40%


Public outcry from parents, students and lawmakers is causing Congress to consider stricter gun laws such as expanding the nation’s background check system to include purchases made at gun shows and over the internet.

Proponents of expanded background checks have claimed that up to 40% of the nation’s gun purchases take place without a background check on the purchaser.  The number has long been used by gun-control activists, but further analysis shows the number may not be accurate.

The number first came into wide use in 2013 when former President Barack Obama began citing it in the wake of the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT, in December 2012 that killed twenty-six people, mostly six- and seven-year-olds.

The number originated from a 1993 study in which researchers conducted a relatively small survey of 251 people who had recently purchased firearms.  The researches, Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig of the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, found that 35.7% of respondents said they did not purchase their guns from a licensed gun dealer.  That number, rounded up, is where most people seem to get the 40% number.

The statistic, however, may be misleading because Cook and Ludwig’s original findings also included people who received their guns from things like trades, gifts and inheritance – non-purchases.  Most people who cite the 40% number often don’t make that distinction but it’s an important one because even if background checks were expanded to cover things like gun-show purchases, they still wouldn’t cover acquisitions through trades or inheritance.

Cook and Ludwig also caution people who cite their research to do so with caveats, such as the trades-and-gifts distinction, but also that the research is quite dated, and statistics could have changed dramatically over the last 20-plus years.  It’s important to note here that the federal government has been barred from doing research on gun violence since 1996, when the so-called Dickey amendment was passed, the amendment barring such research.

But researchers at Harvard and Northeastern Universities published a new study in 2017 that found that markedly less than 40% of gun owners obtained their firearms without undergoing a background check.  The online survey of 1,613 gun owners found that 22% of gun owners who obtained a firearm in the previous two years did so without undergoing a background check.

For gun owners who obtained a firearm through a purchase, only 13% did so without a background check – almost one-third the 40% number.

President Trump has encouraged members of Congress to expand the nation’s background check system, telling them, during a meeting at the White House this week, to be strong on the issue.

“You have to be very, very powerful on background checks. Don’t be shy,” Trump said during the meeting.  “I’d rather have you come down on the strong side than the weak side. The weak side is easier to do.”

It remains to be seen whether the appetite is there for comprehensive gun reform on Capitol Hill.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell surprised many this week when he announced he was delaying Senate debate on gun control measures in favor of banking reform to be taken up next week.  After that, McConnell said he hopes to move to anti-sex-trafficking legislation.

It is unclear when, or if, gun-control legislation will be taken up by Congress in the near-term future.


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