What share of guns in private hands were acquired from private sellers?

An important question in the national debate is what share of weapons are acquired from private sellers. Private sellers do not need to conduct background checks when they make sales. The President, in his proposal to require background checks for all gun sales states:

Right now, federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run background checks on those buying guns, but studies estimate that nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are made by private sellers who are exempt from this requirement.

One such study was a survey conducted in 1994 on private ownership and use of firearms. This survey report is available at the website of the National Institute for Justice. See page 6.

Some gun freedom advocates have criticized this statistic, suggesting that it is out of date because it pre-dates the creation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Citing this data as evidence of how many firearms are currently purchased through private sales not subject to background checks is akin to citing data about current seat belt usage that is derived from a limited sample taken years before a mandatory seat belt law went into effect or before cars were even required to have seat belts.

A moment’s reflection should reveal that this criticism hollow. The survey statistic is not about how many guns were acquired without background checks. It is about how many were acquired in private sales. Actually, the implementation of background checks under the Brady Bill may have driven the private sales rate higher since the survey was conducted.

The statistic is important in the national conversation and if people have other data to provide, it would be much appreciated. The rate of private sales is less important in the Massachusetts conversation since all sales (by dealers and non-dealers alike) in Massachusetts are reported to the Firearms Records Bureau.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

3 replies on “What share of guns in private hands were acquired from private sellers?”

  1. Will,

    I guess I’m not sure why, for your purposes, you’re distinguishing between private sales and guns acquired with no background checks. In states other than MA, the two criteria are essentially one in the same. That said, the real problem with the stats you’re talking about is the sample size isn’t statistically valid. They only surveyed 251 people. Basic statistical sampling says the number should be at least 1000.

    Further, the stats are almost 20 years old as mentioned. At that time, I believe there was a 5 day waiting period as in interim step until NICS could be set up. So, I think it’s quite valid to say things could have changed since.

    Finally, as you say, this doesn’t really apply to MA as we have the FA10 system. However, Governor Patrick is pushing to make this even more strict by eliminating face to face sales by properly licensed individuals in MA. Under Patrick’s proposal, they would have to go to a licensed dealer and pay (another charge on top of the license cost, cost of the course, proposed liability insurance, increased cost of a gun due to AG rules, etc) for the dealer to do the transfer.

  2. Here is the sample description found on Page 4 of the cited study:

    Sample: Probability sample of 2,568 noninstitutionalized adults aged 18 and over who are fluent in English or Spanish and
    live in households with a telephone.

    You are correct that within that survey sample, 251 acquired guns in 1993 or 1994 and that is the sub-universe that the 40% private sale estimate comes from. I’ll leave it to someone else to compute the margin of error for a binomial variable (public/private) in a data cell of that size, but the error isn’t too great. You read numbers based on smaller data cells in the newspaper all the time.

    I think the interesting question is whether the incentives to buy private have changed since the study was done. The Brady background checks went into effect on February 28, 1994. The survey was conducted in November and December 1994 and the acquisition data was limited to guns purchased in 1993 and 1994.

    Presumably (a) the Brady bill made gun purchases from dealers harder, so people buying after the Brady bill would be less likely to buy from a dealer, but, on the other hand, (b) the initial implementation of the Brady bill required paper checks and a waiting period so that purchasing from a dealer in 1994 after February 28 might have been one of the most cumbersome times to purchase from a dealer; after the instant system was implemented in 1998, it got easier (but still harder than before the Brady bill).

    So, two conflicting arguments can be made about this survey data: On the one hand, many of the survey purchases were made before the Brady Bill went into effect — that would skew the survey results toward dealers. On the other hand, many of the survey purchases were made during the early Brady implementation and that might skew the results away from dealers.

    A new survey would be interesting and I agree we don’t really know the exact number. But it’s hard to argue that the private market is insignificant — it doesn’t matter too much whether it’s 40% or 20% or 60%.

  3. One thing to consider with regards to private vs. dealer sales in more recent times.

    It’s known that the number of firearms in private hands has grown from ~200 million to ~300 million. Any new gun on the market has to initially go through a dealer and that means a NICS check is done. The NICS checks since Obama went into office bear this out.

    So, clearly if people are motivated to buy a gun, they’ll get one at a dealer regardless of the NICS check. I would think the 5 day waiting period would have deterred some honest purchases and that’s the people who went to a gun shop for a smaller purchase and saw something “they had to have” (ie. an impulse purchase).

    If the Brady Bill did deter some dealer purchases in that era, I think people have gotten over it.

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