Findings from a new study on recent gun purchases in the U.S. have the potential to reshape the national conversation on gun control.
Published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the study by Harvard and Northeastern researchers looked at purchases since 2014 and found the number of Americans obtaining guns without a background check is much lower than the figure long cited in gun control debates.
The study found that 22 percent of people who obtained guns in the past two years did so without a background check — that’s nearly half the 40 percent figure from a 1994 federal survey that researchers and politicians have regularly cited when pushing for more-stringent gun control measures. Hillary Clinton, for instance, referred to the figure in a campaign-trail speech in New Hampshire last year, saying, “Forty percent of guns are sold at gun shows, online sales,” where background checks don’t generally happen.
Gun rights activists have often contested that 1994 number. The NRA Institute for Legislative Action, for one, argued that since the survey was conducted less than a year after the Brady Act passed to require background checks, some participants may have become gun owners before federal background checks were required. The NRA also noted that 251 of the 1994 survey participants did not answer the question about how they obtained their firearms.
The research released this week, which took into account both state and federal gun control policies, showed the effectiveness of state policies: Only 26 percent of gun owners in states that require universal screening for both private and public firearms transactions got away with no background check, whereas 57 percent of gun owners in states without universal regulations avoided background checks. With several states adding such measures in the past two years, there are now 19 states that regulate private firearms transactions.
Though fewer people are obtaining guns without getting screened, the study exposed remaining holes in the background check system: Among firearm transfers since 2014 between friends and acquaintances, and from online vendors, 77 percent sidestepped a background check. According to the Guardian, however, 20 percent more Americans acquiring guns are buying them rather than inheriting them or receiving them as gifts, compared to pre-2011 numbers.