Clin­ton’s claim that 40% of guns are sold at gun shows and on­line is based on out­dated data

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - “Forty per­cent of guns are sold at gun shows, on­line sales.” — Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, in re­marks on gun vi­o­lence made in Manch­ester, N.H., Oct. 5, 2015 glenn.kessler@wash­ GLENN KESSLER

Clin­ton made this state­ment while de­cry­ing what she called a “loop­hole” in the law that per­mits guns sales with­out a back­ground check.

“We need to close that loop­hole so that when we have uni­ver­sal back­ground check, it will cover ev­ery­body,” Clin­ton said.

In 2013, when the gun de­bate heated up af­ter the Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School shoot­ing in New­town, Conn., in late 2012, we closely ex­am­ined the ori­gin of the claim that 40 per­cent of gun sales are done with­out a back­ground check. It’s a stale fig­ure, based on data about two decades old, al­though tan­ta­liz­ing new re­search may shed ad­di­tional light on the is­sue.

Given that gun vi­o­lence has again be­come a hot po­lit­i­cal is­sue, it looks like it’s time for a re­fresher course.

The Facts

First, the loop­hole men­tioned by Clin­ton refers to “per­son-to-per­son” sales, pri­mar­ily by peo­ple who do not earn a liveli­hood from firearm sales. Peo­ple en­gaged in the busi­ness of sell­ing guns by con­trast need a Fed­eral Firearms Li­cense (FFL), but un­li­censed sell­ers can sell to a neigh­bor or a friend, at a gun show or over the In­ter­net.

But many sell­ers at guns shows have an FFL and con­duct back­ground checks, while 17 states (in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia, New York and Illi­nois) have passed laws that re­quire at least back­ground checks on all hand­gun sales at gun shows.

So, where does the 40 per­cent fig­ure come from? It is de­rived from stud­ies based on data col­lected from a sur­vey in 1994, the year the Brady Act re­quire­ments for back­ground checks took ef­fect. In fact, the ques­tions con­cerned pur­chases dat­ing to 1991, and the Brady Act went into ef­fect in early 1994 — mean­ing that some, if not many, of the guns were pur­chased in a pre-Brady en­vi­ron­ment.

The sur­vey sam­ple was rel­a­tively small — 251 peo­ple. (The sur­vey was done by tele­phone, us­ing a ran­dom-digit-dial method, with a re­sponse rate of 50 per­cent.) With this sam­ple size, the 95 per­cent con­fi­dence in­ter­val will be plus or mi­nus six per­cent­age points.

The anal­y­sis con­cluded that 35.7 per­cent of re­spon­dents in­di­cated that they did not re­ceive the gun from a li­censed firearms dealer. Round­ing up gets you to 40 per­cent, al­though the sur­vey sam­ple is so small that it could also be rounded down to 30 per­cent.

More­over, when gifts, in­her­i­tances and prizes are added, the per­cent­age shrinks to 26.4. (The sur­vey showed that nearly 23.8 per­cent of the peo­ple sur­veyed ob­tained a gun either as a gift or in­her­ited it, and about half be­lieved that a li­censed firearms dealer was the source.)

The orig­i­nal re­port care­fully uses terms such as “ac­qui­si­tions” and “trans­ac­tions,” which in­cluded trades, gifts and the like. This sub­tlety is lost on many politi­cians such as Clin­ton, who re­ferred to “sales.”

Why is it im­por­tant to make a dis­tinc­tion be­tween pur­chases and trans­ac­tions? For one thing, the failed Sen­ate com­pro­mise bill that would have re­quired back­ground checks for gun shows and In­ter­net sales specif­i­cally made an ex­cep­tion for gifts (and even sales) among fam­ily mem­bers and neigh­bors. In­clud­ing the data on such trans­ac­tions can change the re­sults.

The Fact Checker in 2013 asked one of the study’s co-au­thors, Jens Lud­wig of the Univer­sity of Chicago, to re­run the num­bers, look­ing only at guns pur­chased on the sec­ondary mar­ket. The re­sult, de­pend­ing on the def­i­ni­tion: 14 per­cent to 22 per­cent were pur­chased with­out a back­ground check. That’s at least half the per­cent­age cited by Clin­ton.

Un­pub­lished data from the 2004 Na­tional Firearms Sur­vey, pro­vided by Lisa Hep­burn of the Har­vard In­jury Con­trol Re­search Cen­ter, show that about 30 per­cent of firearm trans­ac­tions were gifts or in­her­i­tances. Of pur­chases, 42 per­cent came from a store, 9 per­cent from a pri­vate sale, 8 per­cent from a fam­ily or friend, 7 per­cent from a gun show, 2 per­cent from a pawn shop, and 1 per­cent from “other.”

A ma­jor­ity of the pri­vate, fam­ily and “other” sales, as well as some of the gun-show sales, prob­a­bly were not from li­censed deal­ers. But gun shows make up a rel­a­tively small per­cent­age.

Mean­while, an un­pub­lished sur­vey of 2,000 firearm own­ers re­cently con­ducted by the GfK Knowl­edge Panel — a re­spected on­line sur­vey — might fi­nally up­date the two-decade-old statis­tic. Deb­o­rah Azrael, di­rec­tor of re­search at the Har­vard cen­ter, said the sur­vey in­di­cated that 70 per­cent of firearm own­ers pur­chased their most re­cent firearm, while 30 per­cent ob­tained it through other means (such as a gift, trade or in­her­i­tance). That’s pretty sim­i­lar to the 2004 sur­vey.

Azrael said that about twothirds of the firearm buy­ers re­ported that they went through a back­ground check, while about one-third of those who did not buy a firearm went through a back­ground check. That adds up to about 60 per­cent of all firearm trans­ac­tions — but as we noted be­fore, that’s dif­fer­ent from sales.

Azrael said fur­ther re­search will be needed to break down where the firearms were pur­chased, such as at a gun show, pawn shop or over the In­ter­net.

The Clin­ton cam­paign sup­plied nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of the 40 per­cent fig­ure be­ing cited by gun-con­trol ad­vo­cates, but it oth­er­wise had no com­ment.

The Pinoc­chio Test

By any rea­son­able mea­sure, Clin­ton’s claim that 40 per­cent of guns are sold at gun shows or over the In­ter­net — and thus evade back­ground checks through a loop­hole — does not stand up to scru­tiny.

As we demon­strated, the 40 per­cent fig­ure, even if con­firmed in a new sur­vey, refers to all gun trans­ac­tions, not just gun sales. A large per­cent­age of the gun trans­ac­tions not cov­ered by back­ground checks are fam­ily and friend trans­ac­tions — which would have been ex­empt from the uni­ver­sal back­ground checks pushed by Democrats. In­deed, many gun-show sales are made by li­censed firearm deal­ers — and 17 states even have that re­quire­ment, at least for hand­guns.

Clin­ton earns Three Pinoc­chios.

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