There is broad public support for expanding the rules on background checks for gun purchases. However, that support may be based in part on a media myth created by Mayor Bloomberg. The press and the President toss around the figure of 40% as the number of gun sales that are not subject to a background check, but the basis for that figure is ephemeral.
As a baseline for the conventional wisdom, let's turn to President Obama. From his press conference announcing his gun control initiatives:
First: It’s time for Congress to require a universal background check for anyone trying to buy a gun. (Applause.) The law already requires licensed gun dealers to run background checks, and over the last 14 years that’s kept 1.5 million of the wrong people from getting their hands on a gun. But it’s hard to enforce that law when as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check. That’s not safe. That's not smart. It’s not fair to responsible gun buyers or sellers.
And the White House website:
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.
It is fair to say that the 40 percent figure has been widely reported. But what is the source, and is it accurate?
Bloomberg’s office pointed us to a 1997 study by the National Institute of Justice on who owns guns and how they use them.The researchers estimated that about 40 percent of all firearm sales took place through people other than licensed dealers. They based their conclusion on a random survey of more than 2,500 households.
That was a 1997 study based on a telephone survey conducted in November and December of 1994; it was a time when passions ran high, following the Whackos in Waco, the 'assault weapons' ban, and the Gingrich-led Republican sweep of Congress in 1994. The study authors note the possibility of non-respondent bias, and we share their concerns - I am not sure that "Hi, I'm calling from the government and I want to ask about your guns" would have been viewed with equal equanimity across the political spectrum in 1994. As an example, the survey found that 35% of households owned guns; Gallup, covering the same time period, was around 50%.
In any case, the survey is now eighteen years old - surely the reality-based community hopes to make a stronger evidence-based claim than that? The survey asked about respondents' method of gun acquisition in 1993 and 1994; the Brady Bill with its instant background checks only went into effect in 1994 (it was a patchwork of state rules before then), so the survey does not even adress the current ground rules.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Chief Policy Advisor John Feinblatt today announced the results of an investigation into internet gun sales, which found a vast and largely unregulated market for illegal guns, with 62 percent of private sellers willing to commit a felony by selling firearms to people who likely could not pass a background check. The investigation probed 10 websites that had 25,000 guns available for purchase and investigators contacted 125 private online gun sellers located in 14 states. The investigation included sellers on Craigslist, which prohibits the sale of firearms in its site according to its posted policies. The investigators clearly noted they probably could not pass a background check during each interaction with a seller. Videos of the illegal sales, including where the investigator meets the seller and the weapon and cash is exchanged, and a report on online gun sales – “Point, Click, Fire” – are available at www.nyc.gov.
So what is proposed in order to thwart these people willing to ignore the current law?
“Congress has to take action to require background checks of all sales..."
And the people willing to sell illegally to a person who couldn't pass a background check will suddenly comply with this new requirement? Why?
This suggestion makes more sense, kind of:
...the websites who profit off of this dangerous unregulated online market can clean up their acts right now.
Well, yes - public pressure might force Craigslist to rethink its approach but given the power of modern search engines I suspect buyers and sellers will figure out other ways to meet online, or in the physical world.
Here is PolitiFacts final non-ruling on Mayor Bloomberg's claim:
Mayor Bloomberg said 40 percent of gun sales take place through gun shows or the Internet.
The best information on the informal gun market is based on a survey and is about 15 years old. Current regulations don’t allow direct tallies of sales of this sort. An undercover investigation found a great deal of internet activity, but it was sponsored by a mayor who seeks greater regulation. Groups opposed to greater regulation were asked to rebut the mayor’s assertion and did not respond.
Yeah, it seems like the editors got ahold of that doesn't it?