That Old NICS-Background Check Number Just Keeps Floating Around.

My friends at Harvard and Northeastern have just given us another tantalizing bit of data from their new survey on gun-owning Americans, in this case an estimate of how many guns are transferred from one person to another without a background check. And what they claim is that roughly one out of every five guns that were acquired over the last two years moved between one person and another without a NICS check. Which is roughly half the percentage of unchecked sales from the figure provided by Philip Cook who is given credit in today’s Trace for stating that “as many as 40 percent of gun sales are conducted without a background check” in 1994.

nicsExcept there’s one little problem.  This 40% estimate has been floating around and repeated by every gun-control advocacy organization lo these many years, but that’s not what Professor Cook actually said.  What Phil Cook actually said was, “We conclude that approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions involved an FFL and hence were subject to Federal regulations on such matters as out-of-State sales, criminal history checks, and recordkeeping.” And he couldn’t have said it because there was no background check system in 1994.  The current FBI-NICS system wasn’t up and running until late 1998.  Which is why the background check data published by the FBI begins in 1999.  Oh well, what’s the difference?  A year here, a year there – no big deal, right?

I bought my first gun from an FFL-dealer in 1976.  I had just moved from New Jersey to South Carolina, arrived on a Tuesday, traded my Jersey driver’s license for a South Carolina license on Wednesday, and bought a Ruger Mark I on Thursday.  I filled out the federal form, showed the dealer my driver’s license, gave him a hundred bucks and got the gun. All the dealer knew was that I said I had not committed a serious crime.  He didn’t even know whether I was a South Carolina resident because I could have moved to another state and not yet exchanged for a license somewhere else. So like Phil Cook said, I was ‘subject to Federal regulations’ when I bought that gun.  Big friggin’ deal.

And this is how allegedly reliable information floats around the gun world; a reputable scholar (if they gave a Nobel Prize in gun research I would nominate Phil Cook) is misquoted, what he said is then used to justify God knows how many attempts – some successful, some not – to widen the scope of background checks, and now we have the next, serious attempt to figure out how many gun transfers are caught by the background-check system, using what Phil Cook actually didn’t say to compare the progress we’ve made over the last twenty years.

To Professor Cook’s credit, he admits that he never directly asked participants about background checks, so we have actually no way of figuring out whether the new published data from Miller, Hepburn and Azrael should be a cause for rejoicing or not.  But before everyone jumps on the bandwagon and starts the New Year off by celebrating this bit of hopeful news, let me break it to you gently.

If you think the NRA’s ability to cast doubt on serious gun research was a factor in convincing a majority of Americans that having a gun lying around the house is a good thing, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Because it’s one thing when the argument is made by an organization like the NRA which is in business to help gun makers sell guns.  The first policy statement that (ugh) Donald Trump ever made on the campaign trail was a statement backing gun ‘rights’ and denying the need for expanded background checks.

The Gun-sense community isn’t going up against a former Congressional aide who sits in Fairfax, VA and tapes a video now and again.  The opposition is now be led by the Commander in Chief, who would just love to tweet that gun-control advocates don’t know the facts.  So what we say better be right.

CORRECTION:  The article in The Trace did not identify Professor Cook by name as the individual who first stated that 40% of gun transfers did not involve a background check. The article referred to ‘experts’ which I assumed were Cook and his co-author Jens Ludwig since they published their work, referred to above, in 1994.

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7 thoughts on “That Old NICS-Background Check Number Just Keeps Floating Around.

  1. “…So what we say better be right.”

    Mike, that is why I am such a pain in the ass in criticizing published papers that are not firmly grounded in defensible analysis and conclusions. When GVP research turns out to be bad stuff, it does not work in our favor in designing good policy.

  2. Agreed, gentlemen, about the need for solid research. However, as Mike’s more recent blog shows, federal funding for research has been blocked by gun lobby surrogates in Congress for 20 years. Thus, the NRA can claim that solid evidence is not available while, at the same time, doing everything it can to obstruct research.

    • Thomas, there are people studying violence on the Federal dime, but perhaps they are not focusing on guns alone as much as violence with guns being a tool of the bigger issue. Andrew Papachristos has received a National Science Foundation Early Career Award. His latest work in progress:

      Papachristos, Andrew V., Anthony Braga, and David Hureau. (forthcoming). “Social Networks and the Risk of Gunshot Injury.” Journal of Urban Health.

      Admittedly the topic, like climate change, is a political hot potato. I suspect my colleagues in the Earth Sciences might soon be facing the same problem as GVP researchers are facing now. That is why it is necessary to separate advocacy from science–one must not be questioned for bias or partiality. When someone sits on the board of a gun control organization and also is writing journal papers suggesting that statistics support various forms of gun control, all sorts of red flags go up. When I read something from advocates (for example, DRGO), I don’t assume impartiality. I expect the scientific method and nothing less from scientists.

      • Thanks, Khal. I will examine the study. Full objectivity, of course, is an ideal that can never be achieved, whether one is an academic or activist, although the latter may lean harder in one direction or be more forthcoming about his/her biases. The test of the merits of a study lies in its methodology and the transparency of the methods. The latter allows for the close scrutiny of a study as well as its replication.

  3. Why not give a lot of Federal dollars to the Roman Catholic Church to “study” the health effects of reproductive choice for women? Actually, there is a difference. The church would be more objective than what was pedaled off as research back when the Gov was paying for it. A “child” being up to 25? Check. Using the number of self defense inflicted deaths as the sole metric for the efficacy of gun based self defense? Absolutely.The way most “gun research” has been constructed, it is works to hide information rather than reveal it. Like mixing gold dust with dirt. Or, like blurring just how starkly GV overlaps specific neighborhhoods and communities by limiting comparisons to overlarge entities like states. Valuable info is turned into mush by this approach.

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