Pale Background

Universal background checks aren’t universal. But such things are being proposed in Congress. Ignoring how poorly the laws are drafted, we have to ask the basic question, “Will universal background checks do any good?”

The answer is that conceivably 2% of crime gun transfers might get diverted, but the more likely number is zero.

High Level Takeaways

  • 37% of crime guns fall into the realm of those that “universal” background checks would affect.
  • Of those, 41% still come from unregulatable sources.
  • Assuming “intimate” partners would not do background checks, at most 2% of crime gun transfers would receive background checks … and that assumes all “friends and family” firearm transfers obey (huge assumption).

How the Bureau of Justice Statistics Tipped Us Off

Bureau of Justice Statistics - crime gun sourcesFor many years the Gun Facts project has been showing off this little graphic, compliments of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an agency of the federal government and a band of number nuts that we admire. It reports the source for guns used in crimes. Here are the important points, using the 2004 data:

  • A rock-bottom minimum of 40% of crime guns come from illegal sources.
  • About 11% come from retail sources that perform background checks already (though 1.4% come from gun shows and flea markets, and they likely have more than a few non-checked transfers).
  • 37% of crime guns are bought/borrowed/gifted between family and “friends,” and this is where “universal” background checks might have some effect.

It is that last bucket that causes calculation headaches. Among the reasons this has been problematic include:

  • What is a “friend”?: Is your fellow street gang member a “friend,” or your anarchist pal a “friend of a friend”? There is a big difference between your next-door neighbor (friend) and your “we once held up a liquor store together” friend.
  • Family: The Gambino Family is different than the Partridge Family. Background checks between members of the former would be quite rare.
  • Intimate people: Husbands, girlfriends, casual sex partners … a pretty wide swath of people who might be open to providing a gun on the sly.

Intent and compliance are unmeasurable variables here, and thus assigning a likelihood of compliance with background checks would be iffy. That being said, asking prisoners in state pens where they got their guns helps because the residents there tend to be criminally minded, and thus tend to find ways of breaking laws, which shows “intent.”

The Big and Ugly Dataset

Back in 2016, a survey of prison inmates 1was conducted and published by BJS. There are 24,848 data points in the survey which makes it rather robust … except that not all inmates answered all the questions. For example, 3,902 told surveyors how they obtained guns (not all prisoners used guns) but only 2,803 told the statisticians from where they obtained them. Regardless, there is enough data to parse and estimate that mysterious “family and friends” bucket of 37% of crime guns.

A Lot of Assumptions Need to be Made

The problem with surveys in general, and surveys of felons in particular, is that the respondents are not required to answer all questions. For example, only 41 of the 3,902 explained why they used a third party to obtain a gun despite at least 1,000 of them doing so through family, friends or intimate partners. However, they were more talkative about all third-party transfers, so we’ll run with that and make a few broad assumptions.

Source Background Checks Full Share Non-Intimate Share
Gun Store Currently Done 3% 17%
Pawn Shop Currently Done 1% 9%
Family Possible Compliance 0% 3%
Friend Possible Compliance 4% 25%
Black market Skipped 2% 10%
Street/Drug Skipped 4% 29%
Burglary Skipped 0% 1%
Internet Possible Compliance 0% 3%
Other Possible Compliance 0% 3%
Intimates Skipped 85%

What we see is both interesting and a bit troubling. A full 85% of third-party crime gun transfers occurred between intimates (spouse, crack whore girlfriend … quite a range). We have to incorporate this into the overall analysis since it is apparently the overwhelming source of third-party (and hence “friends and family”) transfers. We also have to make some broad assumptions about which of these sources might comply with a background check.

Herein, we run into trouble. Would 100% of crime gun transfers between intimate partners skip background checks? No, but what is the ratio? Since this survey was of prisoners and criminality is involved, among intimates the rate would likely be high. After all, the wife of an NRA member buying him the Colt he has wanted will unlikely result in him using it to rob you at the ATM. But the street thug’s transient and drug-addled girlfriend might be happy to run guns for him. For intimates then, we leaned toward assuming they would bypass background checks.

Other categories are less clear. You will see that 4% of the crime guns via third parties came from “friends.” In one scenario, Cousin Joey knows you are a felon hiding from the mob and gives you a gun for protection. That obviously bypasses a background check. But if your Uncle Bill sells you, a non-felon, a gun (which you later commit a crime with) he might well obey a “universal” background check law. Hence, we assumed that there is “possible” compliance for friends and family (though not intimate partners), and we thus know that some subset of these will be transfers without background checks.

Without Intimates With Intimates
Currently Done 26% 4%
Possible Compliance 33% 5%
Skipped 41% 91%
Max Crime Guns 12% 2%

When distilled, we see a fallout that confirms that “universal” background checks are weak. At most, 5% of the friends/family/intimates cluster would conduct background checks under a “universal” background check law, and when applied to the 37% of crime guns in the BJS’s cluster that such background checks might affect, that means at most 2% of crime guns might be stopped.

The Really Big Shift

Scroll back up to the top of this page, to the BJS table 14 which we opened this discussion with. There is a hidden-in-plain-sight reality in the two columns of data.

The left column shows the crime gun sources before the National Instant Check System (NICS) was launched, and the right column, after it became active. Notice that about 3% of gun acquisitions quit being made at retailers (where background checks occurred) and reappeared under “street” sources. In short, a number of people (likely prohibited) quit going to gun stores and instead scored their hardware from established black markets and other sources immune to background checks.

Because of this reality, even if the compliance rate for “universal” background checks were high, the 2% of crime guns that might be stopped via friends/family/intimate transfers would likely shift to black markets as well. If this holds true, then “universal” background checks could have zero effect.

Policy vs. Propaganda

Since it has been known for decades that a minimum of 40% of crime guns come from street sources, the entire push for “universal” background checks is an exercise in stupidity. It does not address the common, recurring, and majority source of crime guns. The effort is better diverted to fixing the street problem.



  1. Survey of Prison Inmates, United States, 2016, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2016

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