In 2013, when the gun debate heated up after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., we closely examined the origin of the claim that 40 percent of gun sales are done without a background check. It’s a very stale figure, based on data about two decades old, though some tantalizing new research may shed additional light on the issue. Given that gun violence has again become a hot political issue, it looks like it’s time for a refresher course.
First, the “loophole” mentioned by Clinton refers to “person-to-person” sales, primarily by people who do not earn a livelihood from firearm sales. People engaged in the business of selling guns by contrast need a Federal Firearms License (FFL), but unlicensed sellers can sell to a neighbor, a friend, at a gun show or over the Internet.
But many sellers at guns shows actually have an FFL and conduct background checks, while 17 states (including California, New York and Illinois) have passed laws which require at least background checks on all handgun sales at gun shows.
So where does the 40 percent figure come from? It is derived from studies that were 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.
The survey sample was relatively small — 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.
The analysis concluded that 35.7 percent of respondents indicated they did not receive the gun from a licensed firearms dealer. Rounding up gets you to 40 percent, although 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.)
The original report carefully uses terms such as “acquisitions” and “transactions,” which included trades, gifts and the like. This subtlety is lost on many politicians such as Clinton, who referred to “sales.”
Why is it important to make a distinction between purchases and transactions? For one thing, the failed Senate compromise bill that would have required background checks for gun shows and Internet sales specifically made an exception for gifts (and even sales) among family members and neighbors. Including the data on such transactions can change the results.
The Fact Checker in 2013 asked one of the co-authors of the study, Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, to rerun the numbers, just looking at guns purchased in the secondary market. The result, depending on the definition, was 14 percent to 22 percent were purchased without a background check. That’s at least half the percentage cited by Clinton.
Unpublished data from the 2004 National Firearms Survey, provided by Lisa Hepburn of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, show that about 30 percent of firearm transactions were gifts or inheritances and 70 percent were purchases (42 percent came from a store, 9 percent from a private sale, 8 percent from a family or friend, 7 percent from a gun show, 2 percent from a pawn shop and 1 percent “other”).
A majority of the private, family and “other” sales, as well as some of the gun-show sales, were likely not from a licensed dealer. But gun shows make up a relatively small percentage.
Meanwhile, a still-unpublished survey of 2,000 firearm owners recently conducted by the Gfk KnowledgePanel — a respected online survey — might finally update the two-decade-old statistic. Deborah Azrael, director of research at the Harvard center, said the survey indicated that 70 percent of firearm owners purchased their most recent firearm while 30 percent obtained it through other means (such as a gift, trade or inheritance). That’s pretty similar to the 2004 survey.
Azrael said that about two-thirds of the firearm buyers reported that they went through a background check, while about one-third of those who did not buy a firearm went through a background check. That adds up to about 60 percent of all firearm transactions – but as we noted before, that’s different from sales.
Azrael said further research will be needed to break down where the firearms were purchased, such as at a gun show, pawn shop or over the Internet.
[Update, Jan. 3, 2017: The published report of the survey found that 22 percent of gun owners who reported obtaining a firearm in the previous two years did so without a background check. Among purchased firearms, the figure was 13 percent. The number was zero for gun shows, but 45 percent for online sales, but the sample sizes were very small. Among nonpurchased firearms (such as gift or inheritance), 57 percent reported not having a background check.]
The Clinton campaign supplied numerous examples of the 40-percent figure being cited by gun-control advocates, but otherwise had no comment.
The Pinocchio Test
By any reasonable measure, Clinton’s claim that 40 percent of guns are sold at gun shows or over the Internet — and thus evade background checks through a loophole — does not stand up to scrutiny.
As we demonstrated, the 40-percent figure, even if confirmed in a new survey, refers to all gun transactions, not just gun sales. A large percentage of the gun transactions not covered by background checks are family and friend transactions – which would have been exempt from the universal background checks pushed by Democrats. Indeed, many gun-show sales are made by licensed firearm dealers — and 17 states even have that requirement, at least for handguns.
Clinton earns Three Pinocchios.
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