New study finds 1 in 5 US gun owners obtained firearm without background check

January 6, 2017 by Greg St. Martin, Northeastern University
Credit: Northeastern University

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).

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 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."

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 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.

Explore further: Study identifies three state laws that 'substantially reduce' gun deaths

More information: Matthew Miller et al. Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks, Annals of Internal Medicine (2017). DOI: 10.7326/M16-1590

Related Stories

Study identifies three state laws that 'substantially reduce' gun deaths

March 10, 2016
Gun-related deaths in the U.S. could be reduced by more than 80 percent if three laws implemented in some states were extended nationally, an analysis led by Boston University researchers shows. In a study published in The ...

Stronger gun laws tied to decreased firearm homicides

November 14, 2016
Stronger firearm laws are associated with reductions in firearm homicide rates, concludes a narrative review published in the November 14 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.

Broader background checks and denial criteria could help prevent mass shooting catastrophes

December 27, 2012
Garen Wintemute, a leading authority on gun violence prevention and an emergency medicine physician at UC Davis, believes broader criteria for background checks and denials on gun purchases can help prevent future firearm ...

Repeal of Missouri's background check law associated with increase in state's murders

February 15, 2014
Missouri's 2007 repeal of its permit-to-purchase (PTP) handgun law, which required all handgun purchasers to obtain a license verifying that they have passed a background check, contributed to a sixteen percent increase in ...

Recommended for you

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

Can muesli help against arthritis?

January 15, 2018
It is well known that healthy eating increases a general sense of wellbeing. Researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have now discovered that a fibre-rich diet can have a positive influence ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

peoplecantcauseclimatestochange
not rated yet Jan 11, 2017
Remember that it's just a survey. Nothing to build policy on. And no, the majority of Americans do not favor universal background checks. It should read that the majority of Americans SURVEYED do not favor...
Besides, as if someone who committed a criminal act in a state that requires such checks would actually admit to it, or believe that the survey was 100% anonymous. I mean they found the gun owner in the first place and gave him/her the survey. How stupid or naive do they think people are.

This reliance on surveys is way too serious. It assumes that people are telling the truth. I remember the government surveys we were given back in high school years ago. Most of us made answers up and usually we were having sex 8 times a week, with 8 different partners, etc. etc. etc.

If you really need it, a survey is better than nothing, but not by much.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.