PolitiFact: Sanders’ statistic on guns not accurate


Like many other politicians before him, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., repeated a false claim that 40 percent of guns are sold without background checks.

Three years after we first debunked this statistic, it’s still not true. It comes from a 20-year-old study by the National Institute of Justice that looked at gun owners’ responses to a 1994 national survey asking how they got their weapons.

The study found that 30 percent to 40 percent of all gun transactions were made through an “off-the-books” transfer in which a background check wasn’t required.

The finding has been cited widely by gun-control advocates. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe earned a Mostly False when he used it, and a Florida gun-control advocate earned a False in 2017 after the finding was diminished by new research.

The latest research suggests the percentage is just over half of what Sanders cited.

The sample size of the 1997 study was very small, with just 251 participants. Furthermore, the statistic stems from survey data that included firearms given as gifts or inheritances, not just sales. This is an important point.

When the authors of the NIJ study — Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago and Philip Cook of Duke University — adjusted the results to include only the guns sold (not given), the number sold without background checks declined to between 14 percent and 22 percent.

That statistic more closely resembles the findings in a relatively new 2017 study.

Researchers Matthew Miller, Lisa Hepburn, and Deborah Azrael published a study in the January 2017 edition of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine that was specifically undertaken to update the 1994 data.

The researchers asked 1,613 adult gun owners where and when they acquired their last firearm, including whether it was purchased, and whether they had either a background check or were asked to show a firearm license or permit.

The answer: 22 percent obtained their gun without a background check. That’s about half of the 40 percent figure that has gained wide currency for more than two decades.

In fact, Cook wrote an accompanying editorial in the journal, headlined, “At last, a good estimate of the magnitude of the private-sale loophole for firearms.”

In it, he wrote, “Even though I bear some credit (or blame) for the earlier estimate, I could not be more pleased to be done with it, given that it is based on data from a survey done more than 20 years ago and that, in any event, never directly asked participants about background checks.”

“It appears the number he cited may be outdated,” Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis told PolitiFact Florida in an email. “But whether it’s 40 percent or 22 percent of guns being acquired without a background check, millions of Americans still obtain guns without background checks. That’s absurd. No one should be allowed to purchase a gun without a vigorous background check.”

Our ruling

That statistic Sanders cited is outdated. It stems from a 20-year-old survey that has been overtaken by another study that shows the percentage of gun buyers who obtained their weapons without background checks is just over half the percentage in the zombie claim Sanders cited.

We rate this claim False.


Reader Comments ...

Next Up in National

45 years ago today – Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre”
45 years ago today – Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre”

This Saturday marks the 45th anniversary of the infamous ‘Saturday Night Massacre,’ when an embattled President Richard Nixon fired the special Watergate prosecutor, but only after both the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General refused to carry out the President’s orders, and resigned from their positions...
New York man arrested for threatening Senators over Kavanaugh
New York man arrested for threatening Senators over Kavanaugh

Federal prosecutors in New York announced the arrest on Friday of a man who allegedly threatened to murder and assault a pair of U.S. Senators for their support of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as police say the suspect placed a series of threatening telephone calls in which the man threatened to shoot the Senators...
Trump praises GOP Congressman who assaulted reporter
Trump praises GOP Congressman who assaulted reporter

Attorney General Sessions hails “aggressive campaign against leaks”
Attorney General Sessions hails “aggressive campaign against leaks”

As a former FBI agent was sentenced to 4 years in prison Thursday in Minnesota for disclosing classified information to the news media, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hailed the latest court moves against leakers in the federal government, saying the Trump Administration is waging what may be ‘the most aggressive...
Trump urges immigration focus as he starts latest campaign swing
Trump urges immigration focus as he starts latest campaign swing

Expressing confidence in recent days about the impact of his work for GOP candidates in the 2018 mid-term elections for Congress, President Donald Trump starts a swing out west on Thursday to help Republican efforts to maintain control of the U.S. Senate, as he tries to make the issue of illegal immigration more central to the...
More Stories