A Deeper Look at the 40%

Recently we have seen a wide variety of dubious figures being tossed around recklessly by gun-control advocates. Among their many claims, one statistic seems to have really stuck with people and like a misattributed quote, is being sold as gospel. Numerous media outlets are reporting that an alarming 40% of firearms are sold without background checks. For those of us who have had the joy of filling out multiple Form 4473s in our lives, this number seems alarmingly high. As it turns out, our intuitions are likely not failing us.

The statistic was pulled from a 1994 phone survey performed by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). One important thing to note about these statistics is that they are indeed nearly 20 years old. Undoubtedly, there have been many changes in how people shop for guns since the study was completed. With that said, the study reports the following:

Capture
As we can see, gun stores, pawnshops, other stores, gun shows or flea markets, and through the mail all combine for a total of 67% of all gun acquisitions. all of the transactions at gun stores, pawnshops, and other stores would have required background checks as one might expect. Contrary to popular belief, a large percentage of firearms sold at gun shows come from dealers who are required to carry out an NICS check and keep a Form 4473 reporting the sale. It is a bit disingenuous of the study to group flea markets and gun shows together (even if both are great places to buy Beanie Babies and beef jerky) because the concentration of licensed dealers who are required to carry out NICS checks is much higher at gun shows. Because of the way this grouping was formed, we cannot say all acquisitions that are included in that 4% definitely involved a check. However, we can conclude that a large portion of those sales likely did. This leaves member of family, friend or acquaintance, and the ambiguous other category as the remaining 33% of acquisitions.

After establishing the above groupings, we must examine the latter 33% to discover something about the nature of these acquisitions. Looking at the top portion of the table we can see that 24% of respondents claimed to have received firearms as gifts or as part of an inheritance. In close comparison, 29% claimed to have received firearms from family or friends. Since only a very small number of these transactions would have occurred via an FFL (only those that crossed state lines), we can reasonably infer that a substantial proportion of the acquisitions that were performed without a background check took place between family members and other close friends, many of whom would know far more about the eventual gun owner than any NICS check would.

To support the above inference, we can further examine the percentage of individuals who claimed to have purchased their firearms (73%). As we have previously discussed, 67% of acquisitions took place in environments where a background check was likely to have occurred. Each of these instances would also likely have been purchases given the fact that they occurred in such places as gun stores and pawnshops. With this information in mind, it is entirely possible that as little as 6% to 10% (depending on how one handles the gun show or flea market sales)  of purchases took place without a background check.

Because the raw data for the survey is not available, we cannot perfectly pair the “how” with the “where” for these firearm acquisitions. That being said, we are able to draw some telling conclusions regarding the misleading way these statistics have been used. Though we cannot say for certain how many firearm transactions occur in the absence of background checks, we can reasonably say that an overwhelming number of acquisitions take place well within the bounds of the law.

Original study: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/165476.pdf

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