Almost all first-time gun purchases in 2012 were made at retailers or other venues where background checks are required, according to a study that suggests that most such sales are already subject to the strict checks that have become the centerpiece of the gun control debate.
About 7 percent of first-time buyers bought firearms at gun shows, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s survey, while 7 percent purchased their firearms from family members or friends.
Those two types of sales have become the focus for gun control advocates, who say every firearms transaction should be put through a background check to make sure guns aren’t ending up in the hands of criminals or the mentally unstable.
The data, though comprising a small sample, could provide fodder for those who say the vast majority of gun owners are responsible, law-abiding citizens who try to follow legal and safety rules, and that stricter regulations are unnecessary.
“Prior to purchasing a first gun, most have had some form of instruction, formal or informal,” said Laura Kippen, the author of the study. “After the purchase, approximately two-thirds of first-time gun buyers obtained some form of training for their gun.”
Other analysts said that figures focusing on first-time buyers do not capture the gun-owning population as a whole, and less than half of the people who own military-style, semi-automatic rifles — akin to the kinds used in mass shootings in recent years — buy them from the retailers who are subject to background checks.
“Probably the more experience you get with a gun, the more likely you are to engage in private transactions,” said Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University. “If you survey only first-time buyers, it will overestimate the number that goes to a gun store. I would not generalize [to] everyone who’s bought a gun.”
Only federally licensed dealers are required to perform background checks. In response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre in December, the Senate this year took up a bill that would have required background checks on all firearms sales conducted online and at gun shows. That proposal fell short.
The NSSF findings seem to contradict the claims of gun control advocates, including President Obama, who say as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are not run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
That figure stems from a 1997 National Institute of Justice study that sampled 2,568 households; just 251 people answered the question in the broad survey about where they obtained their guns.
Proponents of enhanced background checks also say that 80 percent of guns used in crimes are conducted through private sales that don’t require background checks.
The NSSF conducted its study to look at why first-time buyers made the purchases and their attitudes before and after buying the guns.
Still, the report had several limitations. All of the buyers it surveyed were at least 22 years old, even though federal law allows purchases by those as young as 18. The NSSF used a higher age threshold because state laws differ.
Other data suggest that first-time buyers don’t represent the gun-owning population as a whole. The 2004 national firearms survey found that the average individual owner had 6.6 guns.
Further, a 2010 report from the NSSF found that 40 percent of people who bought “modern sporting rifles,” such as the popular AR-15, purchased them at independent retailers.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Mr. Obama and other gun control advocates called for bans on military-style semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, but both of those proposals stalled early in the process. That left gun control advocates clinging to hope for enhanced background checks as the only significant gun restriction that might pass on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, drafted compromise legislation that would have expanded the required checks to all sales online and at gun shows, while exempting such private transfers as gifts between family members or transactions between friends.
That measure failed in the Senate in April, and furious lobbying efforts have ensued on both sides of the issue.
Some senators have indicated that they want to take up a modified version by year’s end, but with an August recess and fall budget fight looming, it’s unclear whether another run at gun legislation will fit into the mix.