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

Entire floor at D.C. federal courthouse sealed off for mystery case
Entire floor at D.C. federal courthouse sealed off for mystery case

Journalists were kept away from a secret federal appeals court hearing on Friday in Washington, D.C., as officials sealed off an entire floor for arguments in a mysterious grand jury case which some believe could be related to the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. The case &ndash...
Congress passes plan to make lawmakers pay for sex harassment judgments
Congress passes plan to make lawmakers pay for sex harassment judgments

Facing outrage from voters that taxpayer money was being used to pay for sexual harassment settlements against members of Congress involving employees on Capitol Hill, the House and Senate on Thursday approved a package of reforms designed to force members of Congress to pay for any such judgments with their own money in the...
Federal deficit soars by $205 billion in November
Federal deficit soars by $205 billion in November

After starting the 2019 fiscal year with $100 billion in red ink, Uncle Sam added more than double that in the month of November, as the Treasury Department reported Thursday that the federal government ran a deficit last month of $204.9 billion, leaving the deficit at over $300 billion just two months into the new fiscal year...
House leaves town with no sign of deal to avoid partial shutdown
House leaves town with no sign of deal to avoid partial shutdown

With just over a week until funding runs out for part of the federal government, House GOP leaders said no votes would be scheduled until at least next Wednesday, with no indications of any active negotiations or solutions to the demand by President Donald Trump that he get $5 billion for his border wall in a year-end legislative...
Parent company of National Enquirer paid off woman for Trump
Parent company of National Enquirer paid off woman for Trump

As President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday by a federal judge, prosecutors in New York revealed that the publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, American Media Inc., had admitted paying $150,000 to a former Playboy model, in order to insure that her story...
More Stories