Research Reports

Selling a gun to a stranger without a background check: acceptable behavior?

Selling a gun to a stranger without a background check: acceptable behavior?

Many researchers have asked Americans whether they favor requiring universal background checks for firearm purchases. This is the first study to ask a subtly different question: Is it acceptable to sell a gun to a stranger without a background check, whether it is legal or not? Overwhelmingly, Americans said no.

Findings were first reported online in Injury Prevention. The report’s lead author is David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. Nearly 4,000 adults (18 and older) participated in the study, which oversampled gun owners. Data were drawn from a nationally representative, web-based survey conducted in 2015 (survey methodology can be found here).

More than 72 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “whether it is legal or not, it is NOT acceptable to sell a gun to a stranger without a background check,” while 11 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. A majority of all subgroups agreed with that statement, although certain subgroups (young adults aged 18–30 years, men, people with less than a high school education, conservatives, and gun owners) were less likely to agree. Nevertheless, even among gun owners, 64 percent agreed that it is not acceptable to sell a gun to a stranger without a background check, while only 15 percent disagreed.

There was no statistically significant difference between residents living in states that require a background check or gun permit for private handgun transfers and those living in states with no such requirements.

Policy implications

The federal government and the majority of states do not require background checks for private gun sales, and an estimated 22% of all firearms transferred in the US are acquired from unlicensed sellers without a background check. Without a background check, convicted felons, domestic abusers and other prohibited persons are easily able to acquire firearms, and research identifies unlicensed private sellers as a significant source of illegal gun trafficking within the U.S. Gun owners’ belief that it is not acceptable to sell a gun without a background check suggests that gun owners are well aware of this risk.

To address this risk, nineteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to require private sellers to conduct background checks on some or all gun purchasers. Support for these laws is nearly universal. Research shows that 90 percent of Americans, 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. In states that do not require background checks for all firearm sales, Dr. Hemenway’s research suggests that voluntary opportunities for private sellers to conduct background checks could be well-received.

Hemenway, D, Azrael, D, Miller, M. Selling a gun to a stranger without a background check: acceptable behaviour?

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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