WaPo Hits Obama For Peddling False 40% Background Check Myth on Gun Sales

Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler decided to not to be a lapdog for the Obama administration with his Pinocchio test concerning background checks for firearm purchases. On April 2, he awarded President Obama’s claim that 40 percent of gun sales don’t require a background check, which earned him three -- out of four possible -- Pinocchios from Kessler. 

Kessler explained that " there are two key problems with the president’s use of this statistic:

"The numbers are about two decades old, yet he acts as if they are fresh, and he refers to “purchases” or “sales” when in fact the original report concerned “gun acquisitions” and “transactions.”  Those are much broader categories of data.

As we noted before, the White House said the figure comes from a 1997 Institute of Justice report, written by Philip Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago.

This study was based on data collected from a survey in 1994, the same year that the Brady Act requirements for background checks came into effect. In fact, the questions concerned purchases in 1993 and 1994, and the Brady Act went into effect in early 1994 — meaning that some, if not many, of the guns were bought in a pre-Brady environment.

Digging deeper, we found that the survey sample was just 251 people. (The survey was done by telephone, using a random-digit-dial method, with a response rate of 50 percent.) With this sample size, the 95 percent confidence interval will be plus or minus six percentage points.

Moreover, when asked whether the respondent bought from a licensed firearms dealer, the possible answers included “probably was/think so” and “probably not,” leaving open the possibility the purchaser was mistaken. (The “probably not” answers were counted as “no.”)

When all of the “yes” and “probably was” answers were added together, that left 35.7 percent of respondents indicating they did not receive the gun from a licensed firearms dealer. Rounding up gets you to 40 percent, although as we noted before, the survey sample is so small it could also be rounded down to 30 percent.


Cook and Ludwig, in a lengthier 1996 study of the data for the Police Foundation, acknowledged the ambiguity in the answers but gave their best estimate as a range of 30 to 40 percent for transactions in the “off-the-books” secondary market. (The shorter 1997 study cited by the White House does not give a range but instead says “approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions” involved a licensed dealer.

The Washington Post should be commended for calling out the president for advocating an issue based on shoddy and outdated information.  Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the White House didn’t get back to Kessler for a comment concerning why they continue to peddle this falsehood across the nation.

Unlike Kessler giving Obama cover over the fact that he missed a good portion of his intelligence briefings last year, it’s true that about 11.5% of gun transactions are conducted without a background check since its mostly private sales, or guns being passed down from generation to generation.  As in most cases, most of parties involved in these transactions are law-abiding citizens honoring family tradition.  



Congress Crime Culture/Society Guns Washington Post Glenn Kessler Barack Obama