Malcolm: The So Called Gun Show Loophole: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

This February 4, 2013 photo illustration in Manassas, Virginia, shows a Remington 20-gauge semi-automatic shotgun, a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a Colt .45 semi-auto handgun, a Walther PK380 semi-auto handgun and various ammunition clips with a copy of the US Constitution on top of the American flag.  (Credit: AFP/Getty Images) 

This opinion piece is part of a series on Guns in America that explores the use of firearms in our country and the debate over gun control. This is an editorially independent series sponsored by Tactical Firearms Training Secrets.

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There is a lot of misinformation circulating about background checks for gun ownership.

Under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act—which created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)—all federal firearms licensees are required to conduct a background check for all firearms transactions, even if they sell the firearm at a gun show. This is to make sure that the gun isn’t being sold to a person who is prohibited from purchasing a gun under Section 922(g) or (n) of Title 18 of the United States Code, which would include convicted felons, people who have been adjudicated to be severely mentally ill, and people who have been convicted of a domestic violence offense.

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), and scores of others have repeated the mantra that approximately 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted through private sales at gun shows and are not subject to a criminal background check. This has become known as the “gun show loophole.”

At a recent Senate hearing, Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson went so far as to say, “Allowing 40 percent of those acquiring guns to bypass background checks is like allowing 40 percent of airline passengers to board a plane without going through airport security.”

What gun control proponents never say, though, is that this oft-repeated statistic is based on stale data that was grossly exaggerated even when it was fresh.

As The Washington Post has pointed out, this 40 percent figure comes from a 1997 report by the National Institute of Justice, a research agency within the Department of Justice, and was based on a telephone survey sample of just 251 people who acquired firearms in 1993 and 1994. This was years before the NICS system went into effect. Of the 251 participants, 35.7 percent said that they didn’t or “probably” didn’t obtain their gun from a licensed firearms dealer. Because the margin of error was +/– 6 percentage points, it was rounded up to 40 percent, although it could just as easily and legitimately have been rounded down below 30 percent.

In addition, if you subtract people who said they got their gun as a gift, inheritance, or prize, the number dropped from 35.7 percent to 26.4 percent. And, in terms of how many people actually buy firearms at gun shows, the data from this same survey indicated that in 1994, only 3.9 percent of firearms purchases were made at gun shows.

Citing this data as evidence of how many firearms are currently purchased through private sales not subject to background checks is akin to citing data about current seat belt usage that is derived from a limited sample taken years before a mandatory seat belt law went into effect or before cars were even required to have seat belts. We all know that, according to a phrase popularized by Mark Twain, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Citing such limited and outdated data over and over again on a matter of this magnitude, however, is going too far.

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