Murky stats cloud gun control debate over background checks

Do we really know what percentage of guns are purchased without a background check?  

In the wake of the massacre at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school, mandating background checks on all gun sales has been one element of possible reform that has gained momentum. A bill that would create universal background checks is headed to the floor of the U.S. Senate. Here in Washington, an effort for such background checks appears to have stalled, but the debate continues and could be headed for the fall ballot.

Background checks are already conducted when one purchases a gun from a licensed firearm dealer; the legislation federally and at the state level would extend checks to private gun sales.

But how many guns are bought and sold privately?

The number thrown about by politicians is around 40 percent. But an interesting report by the Associated Press out today shows that statistic is stale.

From AP:

The claims that gun sales made without background checks comprise “more than,” ”as many as,” ”nearly” or “about” 40 percent of all gun sales are rooted in a poll looking broadly at gun ownership in America. Sponsored by the Justice Department through a grant to the Police Foundation, the poll’s principal relevance today is as a snapshot of the way things were when it was taken — 1994.

The research reported on the nature of gun acquisitions made in 1993 and 1994, asking people who had obtained guns then where the guns had come from and whether they thought the source was a federally licensed dealer. Transactions through licensed dealers were considered covered by the background check system, which was just then coming into effect.

Although the survey interviewed more than 2,500 Americans, just 251 had acquired guns during that time frame, a small sampling from which to make a general conclusion.

AP goes on to say that the “study’s researchers found considerable ambiguity and some apparent contradictions in the responses.”

“With a clear picture eluding them, they estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of the acquisitions were off the books and would not have been subjected to a background check,” AP said.

So the bottom line is we really don’t know how many people buy guns through private sales. Some data would certainly help.

But perhaps the numbers aren’t needed at all. Just because they pass a bill doesn’t mean criminals won’t get their hands on guns, some say; tighter regulations via background checks could thwart some guns from falling into the wrong hands, others insist.

Where do you fall?

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