A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sanders Uses Stale Gun Sales Stat


Results of a national survey published in 2017 show that 13 percent of U.S. gun owners who purchased a firearm in the past two years did so without a background check. Sen. Bernie Sanders was wrong when he said recently that the figure was three times as high.

Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, was referring to a statistic based on a nearly 24-year-old survey when he told NBC News’ Chuck Todd that “40 percent of the guns in this country are sold without any background checks.” When Sanders made the claim, he and Todd were discussing the deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Sanders, Feb. 18: I am on record and have been for a very long time in saying we have got to significantly tighten up the background checks. We have to end the absurdity of the gun show loophole. Forty percent of the guns in this country are sold without any background checks.

That’s not accurate, according to the most recent data available.

In January 2017, the Annals of Internal Medicine published the results of a study on firearm acquisitions authored by researchers at Northeastern University and Harvard University. It concluded that “22% of current U.S. gun owners who acquired a firearm within the past 2 years did so without a background check.”

That includes individuals who bought their guns or obtained them by other means, such as through an inheritance or as a gift.

Just 13 percent of those who were “sold” a gun — as Sanders said — in the previous two years did not have a background check, the data show.

The findings were based on an online survey of 1,613 adult gun owners in 2015. Respondents were asked when, where and how they got their most recent firearm, as well as whether they went through a background check or were asked to present a firearm license or permit.

The study, according to the authors, was undertaken to update the results of a 1994 telephone survey sponsored by the National Institute of Justice that was interpreted by some to mean about 40 percent of gun owners who had obtained a gun in the two years prior did so without a background check.

Like Sanders, Democrats and advocates of stricter gun-control laws have referred to the 40 percent figure in recent years because it was the only data available. That’s no longer the case, and the new study makes the oft-repeated statistic irrelevant, according to Philip Cook, one of the authors of the original study published in 1997.

“Even though I bear some credit (or blame) for the earlier estimate, I could not be more pleased to be done with it, given that it is based on data from a survey done more than 20 years ago and that, in any event, never directly asked participants about background checks,” Cook wrote in an editorial about the more recent analysis.

(The 1994 survey of 251 people asked whether participants “acquired this gun from a licensed firearm dealer,” and 64.3 percent answered “yes” or “probably was/think so.”)

A spokesman for Sanders acknowledged that the senator’s recent claim was out of date.

“Senator Sanders on Meet the Press provided the best information he had at the time,” his spokesman, Josh Miller-Lewis, told us in an email. “But whether it’s 40 percent or 22 percent of guns being purchased without a background check, millions of Americans still acquire guns without background checks. That’s absurd. No one should be allowed to purchase a gun without a vigorous background check. ”

Again, 13 percent of those who bought a gun in the last two years said they did not undergo a background check. But the authors of the 2017 paper did make a similar point about many Americans obtaining guns, not just purchasing them, without being screened.

“Although our estimate suggests that a smaller proportion of gun owners (22%) obtain firearms without background checks today than in the past, our findings nevertheless indicate that millions of U.S. adults annually continue to acquire guns without background checks, often from friends or acquaintances, and disproportionately so in states that do not regulate private firearm sales,” they wrote.

Still, politicians and groups supporting efforts to further control firearms would do well to retire the 40 percent talking point. That decades-old statistic was questionable before, and now there’s a better and more current estimate available.

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"Forty percent of the guns in this country are sold without any background checks."
Interview on "Meet the Press"
Sunday, February 18, 2018