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.

Related Content


Emerging Research into Concealed Carry Licensing

Researchers from The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions discussed two new research studies about the changing policy landscape regarding state concealed carry gun laws.

Grantee Spotlight

Collective Engagement for Community Peace: Understanding the Black & Brown Researchers Collective

We caught up recently with Dr. Buggs, one of the nation’s leading experts on community violence intervention and using anti-racist methods to reduce gun violence, about the status of the Collective and what’s to come.

Black & Brown Researchers Collective


Reimagining Public Safety: Community Listening Sessions with Black Communities and Defenders

A discussion on the report "Reimagining Public Safety: Community Listening Sessions with Black Communities and Defenders" which aims to help build sustainable public safety reforms formed on a responsiveness to community needs.


Using Public Funding for Community Violence Intervention Strategies: Successes and Challenges

Panelists discussed new report "Coordinating Safety: Building and Sustaining Offices of Violence Prevention and Neighborhood Safety" which examines the current landscape of Offices of Violence Prevention and identifies policy recommendations.

Grantee Spotlight

Gun Violence Prevention Advocates Reflect on “Aspirational” Work During 11th Annual Vigil

In December 2023, Joyce grantee Newtown Action Alliance held it's 11th annual vigil. Hundreds of survivors, many carrying pictures of fallen loved ones, packed St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

Newtown Action Alliance


Working with CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS)

Panelists presented NVDRS, discussed how NVDRS data was used in their work, and showcased how other researchers can access NVDRS for their own work through the Restricted Access Database, or RAD.


Justice Reform Convening Inspires Infinite Hope

Joyce hosted a first-of-its-kind convening of policing and public safety grantees. GVPJR Program Officer Dr. Quintin Williams shared his thoughts about the gathering and why, despite so many challenges in creating safer communities, he still has hope.

In The Media

'The Gun Machine': A podcast about how America was forged by the gun industry

Produced by WBUR and The Trace, the podcast looks into the history of the relationship between the gun industry and the U.S. government. 'The Gun Machine' debuts on Oct. 4, 2023.

WBUR; The Trace