Expert Commentary

Who are gun owners and do they undergo background checks?

Millions of Americans acquire their guns without undergoing a background check, but a new survey suggests the proportion may be falling.

(Pixabay/public domain)

Millions of Americans acquire their guns without undergoing a background check, but a new survey suggests the proportion may be falling.

The issue: Almost 89 percent of Americans support criminal history background checks on gun buyers, but such investigations remain highly contested. Under the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (known often as the “Brady Bill”), the check is required at gun stores across the United States. But individual states set their own laws about private transactions, including at gun shows (“the gun-show loophole”). Some states have closed those loopholes with legislation. Others have passed laws that further deregulate gun access; so-called “right-to-carry” or “open carry” laws allow people to arm themselves in public places, including on college campuses.

Meanwhile, almost 16 million firearms entered circulation in the U.S. in 2013, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

A new study tries to determine how many were acquired after a background check.

An academic study worth reading: “Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks: Results of a National Survey,” in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 2017.

Study summary: A team of researchers led by Matthew Miller at Northeastern University designed a nationally representative, online panel survey of gun owners to inquire when, where and how gun owners obtain their weapons. They also collected demographic information on gun owners and asked explicitly about background checks. Prior to this study, the last estimate was carried out in 1994; it found that approximately 40 percent of gun owners had acquired firearms without a background check.

Miller and his colleagues conducted their survey in April 2015 and asked several follow-up questions in November 2015. All in all, they collected 1,613 qualified responses (active duty service members were ineligible). They coded individual exchanges and gun show purchases as private sales because they do not fall under the provisions of the Brady Bill.


Background checks:

  • Background checks have become more common in the last two decades.
  • Of gun owners who acquired a weapon (including gifts and inheritance) within the two years before the study, 22 percent did so without a background check (compared with approximately 40 percent in the 1994 study).
  • Of gun owners in this study who acquired weapons across all time periods, 42 percent acquired their gun without a background check.
  • 13 percent of guns were purchased without a background check (these were largely bought from friends and family).
  • Of private sales (not in a shop), 50 percent of guns are acquired without a background check.
  • In states that require background checks during private sales, 26 percent of these buyers did not undergo one; in states that do not regulate private sales, 57 percent did not undergo a check.


  • 81 percent of gun owners are non-Hispanic white (non-Hispanic whites account for 63.7 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the 2010 census).
  • 7 percent of gun owners are African-American, while African-Americans make up 12.6 percent of the total U.S. population.
  • The U.S. region with the highest number of gun owners is the southeast (21 percent of all American gun owners; 19 percent of the total population). That includes Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, the District of Columbia and West Virginia.
  • 84 percent of gun owners describe themselves as politically moderate (40 percent) or conservative (44 percent). 14 percent describe themselves as liberal.
  • 72 percent of gun owners are male.
  • Most have a spouse or domestic partner (71 percent) and no children at home (73 percent).
  • 19 percent of gun owners are veterans (by contrast, 8.3 percent of adults are veterans)

Helpful resources:

The ATF explains how the Brady Bill works, including its temporary and permanent provisions. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) describes how its instant background checks work.

The American gun debate is often heated, with advocates on both sides offering passionate opinions and competing data. The Gun Violence Archive is a non-profit organization that grew out of a project at It collates gun-violence statistics and claims to take no position on the issue. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the most visible lobbies for gun ownership and is vocally against background checks.

Other research:

A 2013 survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine found 89 percent of Americans — including 84 percent of gun owners — support background checks during “all gun sales.”

A 2015 study in the Annual Review of Public Health looks at efforts to keep guns out of the hands of “high-risk individuals” between 1999 and 2014 and specifically analyzes the so-called “gun-show loophole” in the Brady Bill.

A 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found a correlation between state firearm legislation and lower rates of gun deaths.

A 2017 study in JAMA Internal Medicine modeled how epidemics of gun violence can spread like pathogens in violent communities.

Journalist’s Resource has written about research on right-to-carry lawsbackground checks and mental illness, the online gun marketshooting spreescarrying weapons on campus and analyses of existing gun-control legislation.

We also profiled a controversial 2016 study in The Lancet arguing that three firearm regulations in the spirit of the Brady Bill, if applied nationwide, could cut gun deaths in the U.S. by over 98 percent without any type of ban.


Keywords: gun owners, right to bear arms, Second Amendment, gun-show loophole; universal background checks

About The Author