Research Reports

​Firearm Acquisitions without Background Checks

Firearm acquisitions without background checks

A newly published survey of gun owners finds that the proportion of gun buyers who have not undergone background checks is substantially lower than it was two decades ago. Nevertheless, researchers say, millions of U.S. gun transfers by private sellers do not involve background checks.

Findings from the survey were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.[1] The study’s lead author is Dr. Matthew Miller, professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University.

The last national survey to examine how many U.S. gun owners acquired their guns without a background check was done in 1994. The number reported was about 40 percent, a figure that has been used since then in policy discussions and debates. With that survey more than 20 years old, the authors chose to re-examine the issue.

They surveyed 1,613 adult gun owners in April 2015, from a group of U.S. adults who participate in the survey firm Growth for Knowledge’s KnowledgePanel. Of those who acquired a gun during the previous two years (the same time period as the 1994 survey), 22 percent said they did so without a background check. For those whose most recent gun acquisition was two to five years prior, the number with no background check was 31 percent; for those whose most recent gun acquisition was more than five years prior, the number was 57 percent.

Of survey respondents who obtained a gun from a friend or acquaintance, about three-quarters did not have a background check. Among those who acquired firearms online, nearly half did not have a background check.

The study made clear that, compared to federally licensed gun stores, the private market is largely unregulated. While only 13 percent of those purchasing a gun did so without a background check, 57 percent of those who acquired a gun via gift, inheritance or other nonpurchase escaped a background check. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimated the number of new guns on the U.S. market in 2014 (the most recent year available) at about 12.5 million. Thus, even with an increasing number of gun buyers subject to background checks, millions of U.S. adults continue to acquire guns without them.

Policy implications

Federal law requires background checks on buyers when guns are sold by federally licensed gun dealers. Private sellers, however, are not required to confirm the buyer’s eligibility to possess guns. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to require some or all private sellers to conduct background checks on gun purchasers.

Other studies show that private transactions are often the source of crime guns. For example, a survey of prisoners convicted of gun offenses showed that 96 percent of those who could not legally possess a gun when their crime was committed got a firearm from an unlicensed private seller. Research also identifies unlicensed private sellers as major players in illegal gun trafficking within the U.S.

The Miller study found dramatic differences in the proportion of gun transfers subject to background checks between states that have such regulations and those that don’t. Of survey respondents who lived in a state that regulated private sales, 26 percent obtained firearms in the previous two years without a background check; in states that don’t regulate such sales, 57 percent acquired firearms in the previous two years without a background check.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that these efforts would receive broad public support. Research shows that 90 percent of non-gun owners, and 84 percent of gun owners, favor universal background checks, and legislation to that effect has the backing of leading medical, legal and law enforcement organizations. Background checks have proven effective in keeping guns out of the hands of prohibited persons — the U.S. Department of Justice reported that, during the first 20 years of federally required checks, 2.8 million applications were denied. Research also suggests that background checks help reduce suicides, homicides and firearm trafficking.

For more coverage of this study, see:

[1] Miller, M, Hepburn, L, Azrael, D. Firearm acquisitions without background checks: Results of a national survey. Ann Intern Med. 2017;166(4):233-239 (published at www.annals.org Jan. 3, 2017).

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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