Interpreting a New Survey on Background Checks

In his push to expand background checks for gun purchases earlier this year, President Obama claimed several times that as many as 40 percent of gun sales take place without a background check. Numerous critics emerged to dispute the number, and at any rate the claim was based on survey data from two decades ago.

Now, as some legislators prepare to bring the issue back, the pro-gun National Shooting Sports Foundation is out with a fresh survey focusing on people who bought a gun for the first time. The Washington Times reports:

Almost all first-time gun purchases in 2012 were made at retailers or other venues where background checks are required, according to a study that suggests that most such sales are already subject to the strict checks that have become the centerpiece of the gun control debate.

About 7 percent of first-time buyers bought firearms at gun shows, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation's survey, while 7 percent purchased their firearms from family members or friends.

Of course, there are some methodological issues here: The sample size is small, the survey was conducted online, the focus on first-time buyers is debatable, etc. But setting all that aside, what does this mean? It depends how you look at the issue of background checks.

Obviously, if you think every gun purchase conducted without a check is equally problematic, this survey might ease your mind a bit. By and large, it seems, gun buyers are getting checked.

But it's not clear that this is the best way to approach the situation. Background checks aren't an end in themselves; the goal is to keep criminals from buying guns -- either by denying them when they try, or by deterring them from trying in the first place. No matter how many checks you run, you haven't accomplished anything if criminals can easily buy guns elsewhere.

So the big question is this: When a criminal faces a background check at his preferred gun source, what's his next-best option?

Under the current system, only licensed dealers -- as opposed to private citizens selling their own collections -- are required to conduct checks. It's perfectly legal for an individual to sell guns to a friend, family member, or even perfect stranger without a check. Somewhat unsurprisingly, surveys of criminals indicate that many get their guns through private sources, and that very few buy through licensed dealers. To advocates of expanded background checks, this is evidence of a loophole that needs to be closed.

Seen through this lens, the new number -- up to 14 percent, depending on how many gun-show purchases are checked -- is harder to interpret as evidence against expanded checks. These sales are far from a majority, but also far from unheard of. One could easily take the number as a sign that no-check sales are readily available to the average criminal, rather than as evidence that they're so rare as to be not worth the trouble.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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