Tracking use of claim that 40% of gun sales take place without a background check (Updated)

The 40% claim seems to be absolutely everywhere.  People are now calling for "universal background checks," the new phrase for what used to be called the "gun show loophole."  It is strange that "universal background checks" are being called for when none of the attacks which are supposedly serving as the motivation for the new law would have been stopped if they had been in place.

NOTE: I have an op-ed that I have written explaining why this claim is wrong.  As soon as it is published, I will post it here.

President Barack Obama, from January 16, 2013:

But it’s hard to enforce that law when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.  That’s not safe.  That's not smart.  It’s not fair to responsible gun buyers or sellers. . . .

Vice President Biden, remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Jan. 17:
That’s why we need, and I’ve recommended to the president, universal background checks. Studies show that up to 40 percent of the people -- and there’s no -- let me be honest with you again, which I’ll get to in a moment. Because of the lack of the ability of federal agencies to be able to even keep records, we can’t say with absolute certainty what I’m about to say is correct. But the consensus is about 40 percent of the people who buy guns today do so outside the NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check] system, outside the background check system.”

New York Times, from January 17, 2013:

New York Times, from January 16, 2013:

Mr. Obama’s plan would require criminal background checks for all gun sales, closing the longstanding loophole that allows buyers to avoid screening by purchasing weapons from unlicensed sellers at gun shows or in private sales. Nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are exempt from the system. . . .
New York Times, from January 15, 2013:
All federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run background checks through the computerized databases that comprise the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But the requirement does not cover guns that are sold by unlicensed sellers at gun shows and in other private sales, which account for about 40 percent of gun purchases in the country. . . .
New York Times, Editorial, from January 14, 2013:
The need for background checks on every gun buyer has never been greater, now that the Internet has made it easy for private individuals to buy and sell guns without screening. The reason that both the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns have made universal background checks their top priority is that 40 percent of gun sales now take place privately, including most guns that are later used in crimes. . . .
Steve Chapman, columnist, Real Clear Politics, from January 17, 2013:
In the category of "possibly helpful" is a new rule requiring private gun sales to include a federal background check -- as purchases from licensed dealers already do. That change, which would cover some 40 percent of all gun transactions, holds the potential of preventing convicted felons from getting guns by stopping them at the point of sale. . . .
Slate, from January 17, 2013:
The [New York] Times reports that "nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are exempt from the system" under the loophole. The paper doesn't cite where that figure comes from, but it appears to be a reference to a 1997 study by the National Institute of Justice on who owns guns and how they use them, the last major relevant study on the topic. . . .

Wall Street Journal from January 16th, 2013:
Mr. Obama also endorsed universal background checks, including for the 40% of gun sales between private parties. . . .
Associated Press, "Schumer pushes background checks for gun sales," from January 14th:
Because enforcing background checks on all gun purchases doesn't change the rules on who can own guns, Schumer says he sees it as "a way to come to the middle and get something real done." Right now, advocates say some 40 percent of gun sales occur without background checks, such as those at gun shows.  Schumer spoke to reporters at the Capitol Monday. . . .
Associated Press, "Del. Gov. Markell calls for background checks for private gun sales in school shooting's wake," from January 14th:
[Gov. Jack] Markell noted that about 40 percent of gun sales in Delaware are private sales not involving federally licensed dealers and therefore not requiring a mandatory background check of the buyer. . . .
Politico, from January 14th:
Gun control groups say 40 percent of guns are sold on the secondary market. . . .
CNN, from January 14th:
Advocates say 40% of gun sales are private transactions, including gun shows. . . .
Politico, from January 13th:
"I think the nation is ready for more thorough background checks so that we cover the 40 percent that now are not covered," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. 
The discussion came after the liberal Center for American Progress issued a recommendation"to require criminal background checks for all gun sales, closing loopholes that currently enable an estimated 40 percent of sales to occur without any questions asked." The gun-control debate was renewed after the Dec. 14 Connecticut school shooting that left 20 children and six school employees dead. . . .
Fox News Sunday, January 13th:
Chris Wallace: So, let’s talk about universal background checks, because, I was surprised to find out…[that] in 40% of the sales there is no such screen on the person buying the gun. What is wrong with universal background checks? . . . 
ABC News, January 13th:
And, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said some 40 percent of gun sales happen with no background checks, often at gun shows or through private sellers over the Internet or in classified ads. . . .
Los Angeles Times, January 12th:
Vice President Joe Biden, who could make recommendations to the president as soon as Tuesday, said he believed there was support for expansion to cover private gun sales, which make up much as 40% of all purchases but do not require background checks.
Washington Post from January 11th:
“Our top policy priority is closing the massive hole in the background check system that enables 40% of all gun sales to take place without background checks, not only at gun shows, but also with the added anonymity of the Internet,” the Brady Campaign report said. 
Another Washington Post piece from January 12th:
CAP’s top recommendation is to require criminal background checks for all gun sales, closing loopholes that currently enable an estimated 40 percent of sales to occur without any questions asked. . . .
New York Times, January 11th:
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the nation’s leading gun control groups, said its top priority was to close the loopholes that currently allow 40 percent of gun sales to be made without background checks. . . .
New York Times, January 10th:
But background checks are still not required for individual, private sales of firearms — estimated by some lawmakers to make up 40 percent of gun sales in the state. . . . 
Time Magazine, January 11th:
Gun-control advocates say up to 40% of gun buyers in the U.S. sail through the loophole.
New York Daily News, January 10th:
Also, Cuomo would demand universal background checks — so anyone attempting to buy a gun could be screened for a criminal record or mental health history. Now, fully 40% of gun purchases nationwide happen at gun shows and through private deals where no check is required. . . .
The Sun-Sentinel in Florida, January 12th:
"The problem is not gun shows. The problem is you have the ability in place for people to sell a bunch of firearms without background checks," said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition To Stop Gun Violence. 
He said 40 percent of gun sales nationwide go without background checks, including those made at gun shows by unlicensed sellers and other private sales elsewhere. In some states, gun shows allow private citizens to sell their firearms without running the background checks licensed dealers are required to conduct, he said. . . . 
, January 10th:

It's also encouraging that Vice President Joe Biden, charged by President Obama with responsibility for proposing a comprehensive approach to the problem, is reportedly going big. He is ready to start with the necessary minimum — a renewal of a more effective assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazines and extending background checks on private gun sales.The last really matters, since the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns estimates that perhaps 40% of all gun sales are made by unlicensed private dealers. . . .
CNN, January 10th:
What about background checks? 40% of all gun sales in America, gun trades are not covered by background checks. . . . (at 8:15 into this video)  Thanks to Bill Vargas.
Hartford Courant, January 8th:
The bill wouldn't cover the many ammunition purchases made at gun shows, where background checks also don't have to be performed for gun sales between private parties. [Senator] Blumenthal said it's estimated that 40 percent of all gun purchases happen at gun shows, adding that this "gun show loophole" needs to be closed via additional federal legislation. 
Julie Roginsky, Fox News, January 4th:
What’s worse, only licensed gun dealers have to run their customers’ names through a background check. 40% of the guns in this country are not purchased through those licensed dealers – and their buyers are not subject to a background check of any kind.
Dean Obeidallah, Huffington Post
Our current federal law only requires background checks to determine if the purported gun buyer has a criminal record or history of mental illness if the gun is so sold by a licensed firearm dealer. But that only accounts for 60% of the guns legally sold. Meaning, 40% of the guns legally sold are to people who have had no background check at all.
James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
An estimated 40% of all gun sales in America occur without criminal background checks on the buyer, Gross said. Many of the unscreened buyers get their weapons at gun shows, via the Internet or in person-to-person transactions. . . .
ABC News in Baltimore
"Over 40% of guns are not sold through dealers.  They're private transactions, sold at gun shows and internet sales and classified ads.  You could check Craig's List today," said Chief Johnson. . . .
Detroit Free Press:
One of the most significant changes would be requiring universal background checks for all gun sales, not just by sanctioned gun dealers, he said. Around 40% of all gun sales are made by private dealers, he said. . . .
UPDATED: I haven't tried to keep track of these quotes as often recent, but they continue at quite the rapid clip.

USA Today, from January 14, 2013:

the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said some 40 percent of gun sales happen with no background checks, often at gun shows or through private sellers over the Internet or in classified ads. . . .

There are a whole range of other pieces from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Media MattersLaw Center to Prevent Gun Violenceand the Children's Defense Fund.  Thanks to Merle Harton for providing some of the links.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't this all go back to a book published in 1996? Seems like really old information to be taking as dogma. I doubt the 40% number, since the population has grown since 1996 and the percentage of gun owners has too.

I have that book on the way here, so I'll read it first hand this week.

1/13/2013 2:17 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm looking forward to what you have to say about this. I certainly can attest to having heard the 40% claim many many times.

1/13/2013 4:10 AM  
Blogger Mack said...

I was confused by suddenly seeing it in stories- found it mentioned in a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health paper. But was later on the website- The Firing Line directed to the original source from a survey Guns in America at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/165476.pdf

1/13/2013 10:02 AM  
Blogger David aka True Blue Sam said...

They pulled that number out of thin air. In Illinois, private sales require that you see the FOID card of the person you sell to, and keep the information for ten years. If you become ineligible to acquire firearms, the State Police will find you and take away your card. Other states have rules to follow, too. In Iowa where my mother lives, you go to your county sheriff for a one year permit to acquire a pistol, or you must have a carry permit to buy a pistol. Private sales require this proof of a background check, the same as a sale from a dealer.

What the news people are really saying is that they think 40% of the citizens are common criminals and can't be trusted.

1/13/2013 10:12 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Figures don't lie, but Liars do figure......

1/13/2013 10:28 AM  
Blogger Chas said...

Mandatory background checks would only harass those law-abiding enough to endure the hassle and expense of them. Criminals would continue to buy and sell guns without background checks.
It would be a policy that targeted exactly the wrong people, while ignoring the criminals that should be targeted.
Why do we never hear of the Obama administration cracking down directly on the people who are the problem, the gangbangers who pull the triggers and actually kill people? Why? Because Obama doesn't want to offend his constituents. That needs to change. That really needs to change.

1/13/2013 10:35 AM  
Blogger bryan999 said...

This 40% stat is all over the place - liberals in the government and the media are using it as a way to, as you suggest, essentially transform the "gun show loophole" into "universal background checks".

Meanwhile the stat itself is somewhat old... Based on a 1994 survey by the US Dept of Justice:


1/13/2013 11:43 AM  
Blogger bryan999 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/13/2013 11:44 AM  
Blogger RS said...

N=1 personal observation.

6% of my guns were purchased from private owners.

94% from dealers.

1/13/2013 2:49 PM  
Blogger darwinkilledgod said...

Here's a report from Johns Hopkins that mentions 40% of guns are bought from individuals who are not licensed gun dealers:


Oddly for a report of this kind, there is no reference!

1/13/2013 5:08 PM  
Blogger RichardP said...

In my experience there are three different populations of private sales not involving FFLs.

1. Illegal
2. Complete Strangers
3. Friends and Family

Given the laws that limit transactions to people that would qualify for purchases, many people do not conduct sales to strangers, preferring to trade with an FFL dealer. Most friend and family transfers are limited to gifts, with little to no money being exchanged.

The fact that people are flocking by large numbers to gun shows and stores indicates that private transactions are limited in volume. One way to get a good grip on the private stranger to stranger transaction volume would be to observe the classifieds both newspaper and online. Most of these are individual gun purchases and the churn within them would give an approximate value for the volume of transactions performed and their rate.

Given the volume of background checks being performed, I doubt the high numbers of private transactions. While some may be willing to sell the extra items that they own, the pressure is to keep what you have since the driving fear is that you may not be able to replace it.

Now if you want to include the Illegal Sales volume, that will indeed inflate the private sales numbers. But, by definition that would not be stopped by applying more restrictions. On the contrary, it will probably increase them. Given the illogical, non sequiturs by the gun grabbers, what do you expect.

1/13/2013 7:35 PM  
Blogger Glenn Jericho said...

Do you have a statistic or counter argument for the 40% stat? If so could you please share. I remember the stat about the low instance of criminals buying guns at gun shows and flea markets from your book, but don't remember anything about numbers regarding percentages of private sales.

1/14/2013 12:57 AM  
Blogger John Lott said...

Dear Glenn Jericho:

I will share soon enough. Thanks!

1/14/2013 7:02 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

There are plenty of facets to this simplistic argument that eludes simple numbers. For example:

- inheritance
- private sales which do go through a background check (cross-state purchases by mail)
- guns which inherently don't require background checks (antique, BB, pellet)

So I wouldn't be surprised if you selected the proper things to include and exclude, you could come up with whatever number you felt you needed to make your point.

1/16/2013 2:37 AM  

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