The share of Americans who obtained a gun without first undergoing a background check is dramatically lower than previous estimates, researchers have determined. The finding reshapes one of the most prominent assumptions of the U.S. gun debate, report The Trace and The Guardian. Just 22 percent of current gun owners who acquired a firearm within the past two years did so without a background check, according to a new national survey by public health researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities. For years, politicians and researchers have estimated that as many as 40 percent of gun sales are conducted without a background check — a statistic based on an extrapolation from a 1994 survey. The new figure was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The survey indicates that efforts to boost screenings at the local level may be succeeding, even in the absence of federal legislation. Gun owners in states that require background checks on all private gun sales were much less likely to report acquiring a firearm without having first been subjected to a screening than those in states with no universal background check law. The study’s authors hailed the new statistics. “We’ve been moving in the right direction,” says Deborah Azrael of the Harvard School of Public Health. The federal background check system has stopped more than 2.4 million gun transactions since its implementation in 1994, but checks are not required on sales between private parties, like many of those made at gun shows and arranged online. The expansion of background checks has been a key political battleground in the gun control conversation. Philip Cook, a gun violence researcher at Duke University who conducted the 1994 survey, says the new, smaller estimate does not undermine the argument that the U.S. needs a federal law instituting universal background checks on gun sales.