1 in 5 US Gun Owners Obtained Firearm Without Background Check, New Data Shows

January 6, 2017 | Northeastern University

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One in five US gun owners who obtained a firearm in the past 2 years did so without a back­ground check, according to a new national survey. 

One in five U.S. gun owners who obtained a firearm in the past two years did so without a back­ground check, according to a new national survey con­ducted by researchers at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity and Har­vard University.

The study also found the share of gun owners who acquired firearms via pri­vate sale without back­ground checks was sig­nif­i­cantly larger (57 per­cent) in states without laws reg­u­lating such pur­chases than in states with leg­isla­tive reg­u­la­tions (26 percent).

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The find­ings were pub­lished Tuesday in the journal Annals of Internal Med­i­cine.

"This is the first direct national esti­mate of the pro­por­tion of gun owners who obtained firearms without a back­ground check," said Matthew Miller, the study's lead author and pro­fessor of health sci­ences and epi­demi­ology in Northeastern's Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences.

The pro­por­tion of gun owners who had obtained firearms without back­ground checks had pre­vi­ously been esti­mated using data from a 1994 study that asked whether respon­dents had obtained their most recent firearm from a fed­er­ally licensed dealer. The 1994 survey was widely quoted as esti­mating that 40 per­cent of gun trans­fers were con­ducted without back­ground checks. How­ever, Miller said that the 1994 study focused pri­marily whether respon­dents iden­ti­fied the source of their firearms as a fed­eral firearms license and on where gun owners had obtained their firearms, but didn't ask directly if the firearms were obtained without back­ground checks per se. The new Northeastern- Harvard survey asked directly--and found that 22 per­cent of cur­rent U.S. gun owners who acquired a gun within the past two years did so without back­ground checks.

While Miller noted that it is not clear how much of the apparent decline from 40 per­cent to 22 per­cent can be attrib­uted to dif­fer­ences in the survey ques­tions in 1994 and 2015, he under­scored that it looks like we are closer today than we were 20 years ago to uni­versal back­ground checks. But Miller also cau­tioned that even today, mil­lions of Amer­ican adults con­tinue to acquire guns annu­ally without back­ground checks. He added that while research shows the over­whelming majority of Amer­i­cans favor uni­versal back­ground checks, more than 30 states don't require back­ground checks on pri­vate firearm sales.

"Our research makes the case for the adop­tion of laws in states that do not cur­rently reg­u­late pri­vate firearm trans­fers," Miller said, "and it under­scores the fact that we're talking about mil­lions of gun trans­fers annu­ally that pass from one pri­vate owner to another without a formal vet­ting process and so without knowing whether the recip­ient is someone society deems a lawful pos­sessor of firearms."

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Other survey find­ings:? Half of the firearms pur­chased pri­vately within the past two years were obtained without a back­ground check.? 77 per­cent of gun owners who pur­chased their most recent gun from a friend or acquain­tance did so without a back­ground check.? 45 per­cent of gun owners who pur­chased their most recent gun online did so without a back­ground check.

The nation­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive survey, which was con­ducted in April 2015, included 1,613 gun owners.

The new survey comes on the heels of another study by Miller and his col­leagues last year that found the esti­mated number of privately- owned guns in America grew by more than 70 million--to approx­i­mately 265 million--between 1994 and 2015. Half of that gun stock, the study found, is owned by only 3 per­cent of the population.

This article has been republished from materials provided by Northeastern University. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

Research paper: 

Matthew Miller, Lisa Hepburn, Deborah Azrael. Firearm Acquisition Without Background ChecksAnnals of Internal Medicine, 2017; DOI: 10.7326/M16-1590

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