Fewer Americans Are Buying Guns Without Background Checks Than Previously Thought

A new survey halves the estimate from two decades ago.

A vendor's display at a gun show in Miami on Jan. 9, 2016.Lynne Sladky/AP

Is the case for background checks for gun buyers gaining momentum? In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Tuesday, public health researchers from Harvard and Northeastern universities found that 22 percent of all gun sales in the past two years around the United States were conducted without background checks—nearly half as many as previously thought. The new study asked 1,613 gun owners about when and where they acquired their most recent firearm, and whether they were asked to show a firearm license or permit, or to pass a background check. (The researchers note that the self-reporting study may have limitations, as it is based on the respondents’ memory rather than documentation.) The study is the first national survey of its kind since 1994, when an extrapolation from a survey of 251 gun owners estimated that 40 percent of all guns sales occurred without any background checks.

Yet, despite the lower percentage shown by the research, many Americans continue to purchase guns through so-called private sales with no official scrutiny: According to the study, 50 percent of people who purchased firearms online, in person from an individual, or at gun shows did so without any screening. That occurs most often in states with looser regulations on sales, where 57 percent of gun owners reported buying guns without background checks, compared to 26 percent in the 19 states that now mandate universal background checks.

The decades-old 40-percent figure was long a point of contention in the gun debate, criticized by gun groups as false (the NRA called it a “lie”), yet also widely cited among researchers and policymakers in the absence of any updated studies.

Despite a lack of federal legislation regulating private gun sales, the study’s authors suggest that state and local efforts to mandate universal background checks are making progress. And Philip Cook, a Duke University gun violence researcher who conducted the 1994 survey, told The Trace that the new results should be encouraging for advocates of stricter gun laws. “The headline is that we as a nation are closer to having a hundred percent of gun transactions with a background check than we might have thought,” he said. Referencing his previous survey, he noted that the updated figures mean “it’s more attainable, and cheaper, to pass a universal requirement than it would be if 40 percent of transactions were still being conducted without these screenings.”

Studies have shown that background checks can help curb gun violence, as well as limit interstate gun trafficking; it’s been well documented that guns originating in states with lax gun regulations inundate states with tougher laws and fuel gun crime. But even with a solid majority of Americans now undergoing background checks, the researchers note that millions of Americans continue to acquire guns free of any government oversight.