Gun-control advocates have recently been throwing around an impressive new number. President Obama used it last Wednesday, claiming: “as many as 40 percent of guns are purchased without a background check.” Vice President Biden and everyone from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to USA Today repeatedly use it. That “fact” provided the principal support for his first announced gun-control proposal, “universal background checks.” But unless you include family inheritances and gifts as “purchases,” it is simply false.
The Brady Act background checks currently prevent someone who buys from a federally licensed dealer from buying a gun if he has a felony, or in many cases a misdemeanor conviction, or has been involuntarily committed for mental illness. Prior to Brady, federal law merely required that people sign a statement stating that they did not have a criminal record or a history of mental problems under threat of perjury. Obama’s 40 percent claim makes it look like a lot of gun buyers are avoiding these checks.
Actually, the number reported was a bit lower, 36 percent, and as we will see the true number of guns “sold” without check is closer to 10 percent. More important, the number comes from a 251-person survey on gun sales two decades ago, early in the Clinton administration. More than three-quarters of the survey covered sales before the Brady Act instituted mandatory federal background checks on February 28, 1994. In addition, guns are not sold in the same way today that they were sold two decades ago.
The number of federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) today is only a fraction of what it was. Today there are only 118,000; while back in 1993 there were over 283,000. Smaller dealers, many operating out of their homes, were forced out by various means, including much higher costs for licenses.
The survey asked buyers if they thought they were buying from a licensed firearms dealer. While all FFLs do background checks, those perceived as being FFLs were the only ones counted. Yet, there is much evidence that survey respondents who went to the very smallest FFLs, especially the “kitchen table” types, had no inkling that the dealer was actually “licensed.” Many buyers seemed to think that only “brick and mortar” stores were licensed dealers, and thus reported not buying from an FFL when in fact they did.
But the high figure comes primarily from including such transactions as inheritances or gifts from family members. Putting aside these various biases, if you look at guns that were bought, traded, borrowed, rented, issued as a requirement of the job, or won through raffles, 85 percent went through FFLs; just 15 percent were transferred without a background check.
If you include these transfers either through FFLs or from family members, the remaining transfers falls to 11.5 percent.
We don’t know the precise number today, but it is hard to believe that it is above single digits.