The Washington Post

Obama’s continued use of the claim that 40 percent of gun sales lack background checks


“Why wouldn’t we want to close the loophole that allows as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases to take place without a background check?”

— President Obama, remarks on gun safety, March 28, 2013

“FACT: Nearly 40% of all gun sales don't require a background check under current law. #DemandAction”

— tweet from @BarackObama, March 28

We were away last week and have been catching up on the recent rhetoric. A number of readers asked us about this comment last week by President Obama, and his Twitter account (managed by his campaign spin-off Organizing for Action), given that we had looked closely at this statistic back in January, in two columns, and found it wanting. It ultimately earned a rating of Two Pinocchios. PolitiFact in January also concluded there were serious problems with this particular statistic, giving it a rating of “half true.” And the Associated Press, in a March fact check, labeled this factoid “old and surely very tired.”

Normally we would expect some adjustment of the language in response to a fact-checker consensus. Alas, it appears to be time for a refresher course — and a new rating.


The Facts

There are two key problems with the president’s use of this statistic: The numbers are about two decades old, yet he acts as if they are fresh, and he refers to “purchases” or “sales” when in fact the original report concerned “gun acquisitions” and “transactions.”  Those are much broader categories of data.

As we noted before, the White House said 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 was based on data collected from a survey in 1994, the same year that the Brady Act requirements for background checks came into effect. In fact, the questions concerned purchases dating as far back as 1991, and the Brady Act went into effect in early 1994 — meaning that some, if not many, of the guns were bought in a pre-Brady environment.

Digging deeper, we found 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 six percentage points.

Moreover, when asked whether the respondent 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, although as we noted before, 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, acknowledged 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.)

Meanwhile, note the phrasing in the original report — “acquisitions” and “transactions,” which included trades, gifts and the like. But Obama spoke of “gun purchases,” and his tweet referred to “gun sales.”

Why is it important to make a distinction between purchases and transactions? For one thing, the Senate bill that would expand background checks — supported by the White House — specifically makes an exception for “a bona fide gift between immediate family members, including spouses, parents, children, siblings” as well as “the death of another person for whom the unlicensed transferor is an executor or administrator of an estate or a trustee of a trust created in a will.” As noted above, such transactions can change the results.

The Police Foundation report did not break out gun purchases, so in January we asked Ludwig to rerun the data, just looking at guns purchased in the secondary market. The result, depending on the definition, was 14 percent to 22 percent. That's at least half the percentage repeatedly cited by Obama. (In a recent article for National Review, Cook and Ludwig wrote “we don’t know the current percentage — nor does anyone else.” But they say if the percentage is lower it actually strengthens the case for expanding background checks because it would be less expensive to implement.)

 Since our initial report on this statistic appeared, The Washington Post in February included a question on background checks on a survey of Maryland residents, asking whether they went through a background check during a gun purchase in the past 10 years. The result? Twenty-one percent say they did not.

Coincidentally or not, 21 percent falls within the 14-to-22 percent range for gun purchases without background checks in the 1994 survey. (Note: Because so few Marylanders buy guns, there is a large potential margin of error with this result.)

 A White House spokesman declined to comment on why the president keeps using the “up to 40 percent” statistic.


The Pinocchio Test

When we first looked at this issue, we noted that congressional foes of gun control had made it difficult for the federal government to conduct research on guns. But, as shown by the Washington Post survey of Maryland gun buyers, there is nothing stopping private pollsters from producing a more up-to-date survey.

In the meantime, we have documented that (a) the survey numbers are about two decades old, so they include purchases that predate any background checks; (b) the survey sample is rather small; and (c) the results are significantly different when adjusted for “purchases” or “sales” — the phrasing used by the president.

Two months ago, we were willing to cut the White House some slack, given the paucity of recent data. But the president’s failure to acknowledge the significant questions about these old data, or his slippery phrasing, leaves us little choice but to downgrade this claim to Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.


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