Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks: Results of a National Survey

Ann Intern Med. 2017 Feb 21;166(4):233-239. doi: 10.7326/M16-1590. Epub 2017 Jan 3.


Background: In 1994, 40% of U.S. gun owners who had recently acquired a firearm did so without a background check. No contemporary estimates exist.

Objective: To estimate the proportion of current U.S. gun owners who acquired their most recent firearm without a background check, by time since and manner of acquisition, for the nation as a whole and separately in states with and without legislation regulating private sales.

Design: Probability-based online survey.

Setting: United States, 2015.

Participants: 1613 adult gun owners.

Measurements: Current gun owners were asked where and when they acquired their last firearm; if they purchased the firearm; and whether, as part of that acquisition, they had a background check (or were asked to show a firearm license or permit).

Results: 22% (95% CI, 16% to 27%) of gun owners who reported obtaining their most recent firearm within the previous 2 years reported doing so without a background check. For firearms purchased privately within the previous 2 years (that is, other than from a store or pawnshop, including sales between individuals in person, online, or at gun shows), 50% (CI, 35% to 65%) were obtained without a background check. This percentage was 26% (CI, 5% to 47%) for owners residing in states regulating private firearm sales and 57% (CI, 40% to 75%) for those living in states without regulations on private firearm sales.

Limitation: Potential inaccuracies due to recall and social desirability bias.

Conclusion: 22% of current U.S. gun owners who acquired a firearm within the past 2 years did so without a background check. Although this represents a smaller proportion of gun owners obtaining firearms without background checks than in the past, millions of U.S. adults continue to acquire guns without background checks, especially in states that do not regulate private firearm sales.

Primary funding source: Fund for a Safer Future and the Joyce Foundation.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Firearms / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Firearms / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Ownership / statistics & numerical data*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States
  • Young Adult