The stale claim that 40 percent of gun sales lack background checks
By Glenn Kessler,
Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES
“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. But it’s hard to enforce that law when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.”
--President Obama, remarks on gun violence, Jan. 16, 2013
“Studies estimate that nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are made by private sellers who are exempt from this requirement.”
--“Now Is the Time: The president’s plan to protect our children and our communities by reducing gun violence,” released Jan. 16
“That’s why we need, and I’ve recommended to the president, universal background checks. Studies show that up to 40 percent of the people -- and there’s no -- let me be honest with you again, which I’ll get to in a moment. Because of the lack of the ability of federal agencies to be able to even keep records, we can’t say with absolute certainty what I’m about to say is correct. But the consensus is about 40 percent of the people who buy guns today do so outside the NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check] system, outside the background check system.”
--Vice President Biden, remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Jan. 17
Regular readers of this column know that we are often suspicious when politicians inject the phrase “up to” before citing a statistic. That’s because it often suggests the politician is picking the upper value in a range of possibilities.
A reader expressed deep skepticism of this 40-percent figure when Obama used it. We were further struck by Biden’s admission he could not say with “absolute certainty” that it was correct. So let’s investigate.
The White House says the figure comes from a 1997 Institute of Justice report, written by Philip Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago. This study is based on data collected from a survey in 1994, just the Brady law requirements for background checks was coming into effect. (In fact, the questions concerned purchases in 1993 and 1994, while Brady law went into effect in early 1994.) In other words, this is a really old figure.
The data is available for researchers to explore at the Interuniversity consortium on political and social research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan. Digging deeper, we find that the survey sample was just 251 people. (The survey was done by telephone, using a random-digit-dial method, with a response rate of 50 percent.) With this sample size, the 95 percent confidence interval will be plus or minus 6 percentage points.
Moreover, when asked if he or she bought from a licensed firearms dealer, the possible answers included “probably was/think so” and “probably not,” leaving open the possibility the purchaser was mistaken. (The “probably not” answers were counted as “no.”)
When all of the “yes” and “probably was” answers were added together, that left 35.7 percent of respondents indicating they did not receive the gun from a licensed firearms dealer. Rounding up gets you to 40 percent, though as we noted the survey sample is so small it could also be rounded down to 30 percent.
Moreover, when gifts, inheritances and prizes are added in, then the number shrinks to 26.4 percent. (The survey showed that nearly 23.8 percent of the people surveyed obtained their gun either as a gift or inherited it, and about half of them believed a licensed firearms dealer was the source.)
Cook and Ludwig, in a lengthier 1996 study of the data for the Police Foundation, acknowledge the ambiguity in the answers, but gave their best estimate as a range of 30 to 40 percent for transactions in the “off-the-books” secondary market. (The shorter 1997 study cited by the White House does not give a range, but instead says “approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions” involved a licensed dealer.)
Interestingly, while people often speak of the “gun show loophole,” the data in this 1994 survey shows that only 3.9 percent of firearm purchases were made at gun shows.
Ludwig acknowledged that “our estimate is clearly not perfect.” He said that a larger sample size would have provided a more precise estimate of off-the-books transactions, but he and Cook were not involved in the design stage of the survey. He added that one reason why the data is so old is because the federal government has generally stopped funding such research.
“While there is no perfect estimate in social science, we’d have a better estimate for this proportion had the federal government not decided to get out of the business of supporting research on guns and gun violence several years ago,” he said.
Ludwig and Cook were among the social scientists who signed a letter to Biden earlier this month calling on ending barriers to firearms research. The letter includes an interesting figure, comparing how many National Institute of Health awards have been given for firearms research versus infectious diseases.
Major NIH research awards and cumulative morbidity for select conditions in the US, 1973–2012
Condition Total cases NIH research awards
Cholera 400 212
Diphtheria 1337 56
Polio 266 129
Rabies 65 89
Total of four diseases 2068 486
Firearm injuries >4,000,000 3
One of the executive orders signed by Obama on Jan. 16 directed the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence, based on a legal analysis that congressional restrictions on spending money to advocate for gun control does not apply to such inquiries.
There is a bit of irony here. While the 40-percent figure appears overstated and out of date, it remains the most cited statistic on the secondary market because foes of gun control have thwarted extensive research on guns. Advocates of gun controls thus continue to rely on a flawed statistic nearly two decades old.
Cook and Ludwig, in a paper that released this month at a gun-violence conference hosted by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that there appears to be little or no impact from the Brady law in reducing the homicide rate, even though government officials (such as Obama) routinely tout the number of people prevented from buying guns because of background checks.
“One explanation is that the type of person who is disqualified from legally buying a gun but shops at FFL [dealer with a federal firearms license] anyway tends to be at relatively low risk for misusing a gun,” Cook and Ludwig write in “The Limited Impact of the Brady Act: Evaluation and Implications.”
So is there any other, recent data that might provide some insight into the impact of the off-the-books gun market?
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
In other words, only a relatively small percentage was purchased from licensed dealers. Obama’s proposal on universal background checks, however, allows for “limited, common-sense exceptions for cases like certain transfers between family members and temporary transfers for hunting and sporting purposes.”
The Pinocchio Test
We are faced with a conundrum here. We generally believe politicians should use the most up-to-date and relevant information available, but congressional foes of gun control have made it difficult to improve on obviously stale information.
The small sample size is also a serious problem, but again, roadblocks have made it difficult to do a more comprehensive survey.
At the same time, President Obama and the White House gun-violence plan act as if the information is fresh and relevant; it has also been repeated as current information by the news media. The Obama gun-violence plan cites “studies,” but in fact these all are merely riffs on the same, relatively small survey taken nearly two decades ago. Generally, we would rule such claims are deserving of a Pinocchio or two.
Vice President Biden, meanwhile, deserves kudos for acknowledging that the information is suspect and may not be entirely accurate. He at least frames it with some caveats, which is proper.
So, we are going to take a wait-and-see approach with this statistic. Going forward, gun-control advocates should be much more upfront about its problems, especially the fact that it is old information. The 30-to-40 percent range that Cook and Ludwig first deduced should be the norm, not the “up to 40 percent” claim. Moreover, advocates should routinely acknowledge this is stale information—which they are certainly free to blame on gun-industry lobbying.
We will be watching, and urge readers to keep track as well.
UPDATE: In light of new information, we changed our ruling to Two Pinocchios. The full explanation can be read here.
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