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Some gun freedom advocates have criticized this statistic, suggesting that it is out of date because it pre-dates the creation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.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