Setting the Record Straight on Firearm Background Checks

BO40pctAny time that the media picks up a story about any crime involving a firearm, a couple of things are a near certainty.  The first is biased coverage and the second, often a result of the first, is that a small contingent of the population will wring their hands and loudly call for more gun control.

One of the more often bandied about measures that the hoplophobes push for is increased – or “universal” – background checks.  They often refer to the imaginary “gun show loophole,” a myth perpetuated by major news organizations such as the New York Times, USA Today, and the Las Vegas Sun.  These media outlets have, once again, recently latched on to outdated and incorrect figures, citing a seemingly high figure of firearm transactions that take place without “a background check or registration.”  Let’s take a look at the narrative:

From NYT:

Gun control advocates say that ignores the biggest flaw of all in the system, that about 40 percent of all gun sales are exempt from background checks because the seller is a private party, often operating online or at a gun show.

From USA Today:

[G]aping holes remain in the system. About 40% of gun sales – chiefly those at gun shows and online – face no legal requirement for a background check outside states that have made their laws broader than the federal one…

From the Las Vegas Sun:

With some exceptions, the proposed law would require every person who buys a gun from an unlicensed, private seller — they account for about 40 percent of all gun sales and typically are found at gun shows and online — to undergo a computerized FBI criminal background check.

USA Today went on that “Congress had a chance to expand background checks in 2013, after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., but shamefully refused to do so.”  Shameful?  That’s what I call “common sense gun control.”  Why?  Because the whole background check issue is a straw man when it comes to crime prevention.  The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) says “This figure is from an out-dated, flawed survey and misses the real policy question of how criminals access firearms.

Setting aside the misdirected focus of the study as it relates to crime, the source of this questionable 40% statistic is a 1997 Justice Department report that provides findings from telephone survey conducted in 1994.  The report estimated 60 percent of all firearm transactions go through licensed firearm dealers (FFLs), implying that the other 40 percent do not involve a background check.

Even the report’s authors acknowledge a number of weaknesses in the survey data, saying that “some types of estimates may still be biased.”  The report authors went on to express concern that “nonrespondents may tend to differ from the general population (and the completed sample) in relevant ways,”skewing results.  It is easy to see why lawful gun owners may not want to answer random firearm surveys given the late-1994 time frame – a period shortly after the implementation of the federal “Assault Weapon” Ban (AWB) when government intervention in RKBA was crystal clear and anti-gun media coverage was rampant.

The reliability shortcomings of the survey data weren’t the only issue with the report data, either.  The figures and their calculations are open to interpretation.  While some with anti-gun agendas (such as many media outlets as well as President Obama) refer to the “up to 40%” of gun sales that do not undergo background checks, the survey data included all acquisitions, including legitimate, legal gifts, inherited property, and other lawful means of firearm transfers.  In a related survey, the report authors acknowledged the ambiguity in survey responses.

PinocchioWhen one of those authors was contacted by The Washington Post to re-run the data based on the media and President’s quotes, they found that gun purchases without background checks more likely amounted to only 14 to 22 percent, less than half of the touted figures.  The author also notes that the tiny sample size of the survey results in a margin of error of ±6%.  After initially trying to give the report, the President, and the media some slack, the Washington Post gave the “up to 40%” claims three out of four “Pinocchios.”  The Richmond Times, earlier this year, also called out U.S. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine  after he spouted the bad information on the Senate floor during a call for more gun control.  The Times rated Kaine’s rant “Mostly False.”

The National Rifle Association also points out a number of shortcomings in the survey data.

  • Most of the survey covered sales before there was a federal background check system  The survey was conducted only eight months after the Brady Act mandating background checks went into effect.  Survey participants were asked about their gun acquisitions going back two years, meaning that only purchases during one third of the time period covered were subject to background checks.
  • Some respondents were unsure whether they purchased from an FFL – A number of the small (251) group of gun owners answered “probably” or “probably not” on whether they got the gun from a licensed firearm dealer.  Further, the survey simply asked buyers if they thought they were buying from a licensed firearms dealer. Although all FFLs perform background checks, only those perceived as being licensed dealers were counted.  However, there is evidence that survey respondents who went to the smallest FFLs, especially the “kitchen table” types, had no idea that the dealer was actually “licensed.”
  • The survey reported all transactions, including gifts, not just “sales.” – Counting only guns that were bought, traded, borrowed, rented, issued as a job requirement or won through raffles, and 85 percent went through federally licensed gun dealers; just 15 percent would’ve been transferred without a background check.
  • John Lott, author of several landmark studies on the real-world impact of gun control, has concluded that if you take out transfers of guns either between FFLs or between family members, the remaining number of transfers falls to about 10 percent. Lott stated, “We don’t know the precise number today, but it is hard to believe that it is above single digits.”

So What?

NSSF adjusted NICS background checksAfter all of this, the real question is a Hillary Clinton-esque “what difference does it make?”  So what if some minuscule number of transactions didn’t undergo background checks that were not required for private individual sales?  The US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicates that, in the instances where criminals do acquire firearms, they don’t go through the usual channels that law-abiding citizens do.  Of course they don’t buy from licensed dealers (because they generally can’t), but they also don’t use this mythical “gun show loophole.”

A survey of prison inmates by the U.S. Department of Justice reported that only about 8 percent of criminals that possessed a firearm during their current offense acquired their guns from retail stores.  Unless the had been in prison since the early ’90s (before background checks were mandated), that means that they passed the check yet still managed to go out and commit a crime.  Not only does this figure indicate background checks don’t prevent crime, but it shows that criminals find other “creative” ways to get weapons.

According to the BJS, the vast majority of criminals in state prison for gun crimes get guns through theft, on the black market, from a drug dealer or “on the street.”  Less than one percent get guns from gun shows.  The BATFE claims that the “most frequent type of trafficking channel identified in ATF investigations is straw purchasing from federally licensed firearms dealers” with nearly half of their investigations involving straw purchases.  This shows yet another failing of background checks as, in a straw purchase, someone legally allowed to purchase a firearm (who will pass the check) buys it for a prohibited person.

The BATFE report goes on to say that “[f]irearms stolen from FFLs, residences, and common carriers were involved in 26 percent of the trafficking investigations.”  According to the BJS, “about 1.4 million guns, or an annual average of 232,400, were stolen during burglaries and other property crimes in the six-year period from 2005 through 2010.” The FBI’s stolen firearm file contained over 2 million reports as of March 1995.  The BATFE claims that “[t]hose that steal firearms commit violent crimes with stolen guns, transfer stolen firearms to others who commit crimes, and create an unregulated secondary market for firearms, including a market for those who are prohibited by law from possessing a gun.

An unregulated secondary market of stolen firearms.  Explain again where a background check would be implemented in that market?  Point out where this was accounted for in the “40%” figure voluntarily given by survey participants and touted by anti-gun zealots?

Not only can the anti-gun propagandists not make a valid point, they have to use bad information to push their half-baked agendas.



Thanks to NRA-ILA public affairs media liaison, Catherine Mortensen, for bringing the recent resurgence of this disinformation in the media.

4 Responses to Setting the Record Straight on Firearm Background Checks

  • taxn2poverty says:

    Shall not be infringed…background checks of any kind are an infringement.

  • Mic Roland says:

    Of course, very few gun crimes are committed by citizens who bother to buy them legally. The Newtown shooter did not buy his guns, he killed his mom and stole HER legal guns. A universal background check would never fine people like him.

    The push for “universal background checks” is actually just a smoke screen, a camel’s nose under the tent, as it were. The only real ‘gun control’ that would be effective in curtailing that shadow market of stolen guns, would be laws making it illegal for ANYONE to have any kind of gun at all. Then, they wouldn’t be around to be stolen, you see?

    But the gun control zealots know there would be too much push-back if they voiced their true agenda. So, they seek to nibble at rights, as a camel noses under a tent, until he’s fully inside.

  • Ozarkmac says:

    The gun control folks, including the politicians, always exclaim the remark, “We have to do something!” The problem is it’s all emotions. Politicians are motivated by their constituents who are falsely led to believe that this “something,” usually some law or restriction that doesn’t stop any crime, is going to work and it never does. The only thing it does accomplish is the inefficient use of our tax dollars. They can all feel good about themselves because they did “something.”did “something.”

  • Maria says:

    Criminal records should be visible only to law forces


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