Politics & Policy

The ‘40 Percent’ Myth

The figure gun-control advocates are throwing around is false.

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. 

Nevertheless, even if few purchases avoid background checks, should we further expand the checks? It really depends on how the system would be implemented.

We have to realize that the current system of background checks suffers from many flaws, some causing dangerous delays for people who suddenly need a gun for self-defense, such as a woman being stalked by an ex. In addition to crashes in the computers doing the checks, 8 percent of background checks are not accomplished within two hours, with almost all of these delays taking three days or longer. 

Obama made many other false statements during his talk. He asserted that “over the last 14 years [background checks] kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun.” But these were only “initial denials,” not people prevented from buying guns.

In 2010, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms dropped over 94 percent of those “initial denials” after just preliminary reviews. Virtually all the remaining cases were dropped after further investigation by ATF field offices or the Department of Justice. Few of these “initial denials,” 62 people or about 0.1 percent, involved strong enough evidence to be consideration for prosecution. Just 13 pleaded guilty or were convicted.

Delays are undoubtedly just an inconvenience for most people buying guns. But for a few, it makes a huge difference in their ability to defend themselves against assailants. Indeed, my own research suggests these delays might actually contribute to a slight net increase in violent crime, particularly rapes.

Clearly, criminals are seldom stopped by the checks. That isn’t really too surprising because even when guns were banned in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, or even in island nations such as the U.K., Ireland, and Jamaica, criminals still got guns and murder rates rose after the bans. 

No amount of background checks on private transfers would have stopped the Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Colorado massacres.

Expanded background checks might well be reasonable, but only if the current system is fixed. Passing laws may make people feel better, but they can actually prevent people from defending themselves. 

— John Lott is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission and the author of the expanded third edition of More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

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