Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new study shows 40 percent of gun owners get them without a background check—even in states that require them.
Gun-control advocates often cite that 40 percent of guns have been obtained by people without a background check. That stat is often attacked, however, for being produced from a small sample size of survey respondents (251) and published in an aged report from the early 1990s. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) doesn’t do the best job of tracking gun figures like this, but Harvard University researchers have.
In an interview with The Trace, Harvard Injury Control Research Center director Deborah Azrael confirmed the 40 percent figure in terms of people who’ve acquired guns without a background check. This number is based on her team’s survey of more than 2,000 gun owners for a forthcoming study. Some preliminary data released to The Trace provides context for this new 40 percent stat:
- Roughly 30 percent: Gun owners who did not purchase their most recent gun, instead obtaining it through a transfer (a gift, an inheritance, a swap between friends).
- Roughly 70 percent: Gun owners who purchased their most recent gun.
- Among the gun buyers, about 34 percent did not go through a background check.
- Among the gun owners who got their firearms through a transfer, roughly two-thirds did not go through a background check.
There are only 10 states that require background checks for all gun purchases.
*(There is also a federal background check system conducted by the FBI. There are several loopholes, however, that allow many people to bypass the federal check.) In many of the states without these requirements, firearms can be bought at gun shows, online, and through other off-the-radar venues. Sometimes, vendors in these states employ their own background checks, but there are plenty of vendors who don’t. But even in the states where there are checks, this doesn’t account for all of the guns purchased or acquired in some other, private manner.
The ATF puts out annual reports based on the number of guns recovered and traced to their original source. In those reports are maps illustrating how many guns get imported to a state, and which states are doing the exporting. In many of the states where background checks are required, you see a sizable population of guns still making their way in from states with no background check laws. Below are three state maps from the ATF’s 2014 Firearm Trace Data showing these paths of gun travel:
For Illinois, roughly half of the guns traced came from out of state, almost all of them from states with no required background checks. The grand majority of guns traced by he ATF in Illinois ended up, unsurprisingly, in Chicago:
Those against gun control often tout that Chicago has extraordinary levels of gun violence despite the fact that Illinois has a background-check law as a suggestion that such checks don’t quell violence. This point fails to take into measure the huge influx of guns into the city and state from places that have little accountability on who’s purchasing guns and why. Mandatory background checks might not stop all gun violence, but they could at least help us get a handle on where guns are coming from.
*UPDATE: This story has been updated with information on federal background-check requirements.