Investigating the ‘40 Percent Myth’ Regarding Guns Sold Without Background Checks (VIDEO)

One of the most common memes being echoed by pro-gun control advocates in the ongoing national debate on gun control is the claim that 40 percent of gun sales are conducted without a background check.  Almost all the major players, including the president and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have propagated the stat.

“We don’t need more laws. We need a couple of fixes,” Bloomberg said in July, on CBS’ Face the Nation. “There’s a loophole where you can sell guns without a background check at a gun show, 40 percent of guns are sold that way, same thing on the Internet. … The NRA has opposed anything.”

“The law already requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks, and over the last 14 years that’s kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun,” said President Obama on Jan. 16, the day he unveiled his proposal to reduce gun-related violence. “But it’s hard to enforce that law when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.”

However, the question is, to what degree is that claim accurate?

Well, not surprisingly, the answer to that question depends on whom one asks.

But first, a quick reminder of how the current system is set up.  All FFLs (federally licensed dealers) are required to perform a background check before approving the sale of a firearm.  Private sellers, on the other hand or, as the law states, individuals who are not “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, do not need to perform a background check before making a sale.

However, it is a felony for a private seller to sell the firearm if “he has reason to believe” the buyer could not pass a background check.

Okay, so are 40 percent of guns sold without a background check?

The origin of that figure comes from a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice in 1997, as pointed out in their analysis:

The researchers estimated that about 40 percent of all firearm sales took place through people other than licensed dealers. They based their conclusion on data from a 1994 survey of more than 2,500 households. But it’s important to note that of the 2,568 households surveyed, only 251 people answered the question about the origin of their gun.

There are obvious limitations to this study: the small sample size, the fact that its over 15 years old, the terminology used: actual sales vs. other transactions (gifts, inheritances and prizes), etc. and they all cast reasonable doubt about that 40 percent figure.

So, the truth is that we don’t know what the actual figure is.  Nevertheless, let’s take a look at what a range of experts and professional fact checkers had to say.

The Washington Post gave the 40 percent figure two ‘Pinocchios’ (which implies “significant omissions and/or exaggerations”) and made the following conclusion:

In other words, rather than being 30 to 40 percent (the original estimate of the range) or “up to 40 percent” (Obama’s words), gun purchases without background checks amounted to 14 to 22 percent. And since the survey sample is so small, that means the results have a survey caveat: plus or minus six percentage points. called the claim “Half True” and concluded:

The best information on the informal gun market is based on a survey and is about 15 years old (the data used in the survey is almost 20 years old). There’s no question that many guns are bought with no background check, but there’s not sufficient current evidence to say that the proportion is 40 percent of all sales.

Author and gun rights advocate John Lott, after an exhaustive analysis of the data, said in his article “We don’t know the precise number today, but it is hard to believe that it is above single digits.”

The Duke University professor who co-authored the study, Prof. Philip Cook, told that he had no idea whether the study is still reliable or not.

“This survey was done almost 20 years ago. … It’s clear there are a lot of transactions that are not through dealers. How many, we’re not really clear on it. … We would say it’s a very old number,” said Cook.

Given that there’s so much ambiguity surrounding this subject, is there other data available to provide insight?  Well, this was also included on the WP’s write-up:

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, will report data from a 2004 survey of inmates in state prisons in a chapter in a book titled “Reducing Gun Violence in America,” to be published Jan. 28 by Johns Hopkins Press.

The offenders were incarcerated from crimes committed with handguns, and this is how they reported how they obtained the guns:

Licensed gun dealer: 11 percent

Friends or family: 39.5 percent

“The street:” 37.5 percent

Stolen gun: 9.9 percent

Gun show/Flea market: 1.7 percent


Given this data, one is tempted to agree with NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s comments at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.

LaPierre testified, saying, “When it comes to the issue of background checks, let’s be honest: Background checks will never be ‘universal’ because criminals will never submit to them.”

Your thoughts?

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