Obama Gets Three Pinocchios for Claiming that 40% of Gun Sales Happen Without Background Checks

Image Courtesy of Mazda

Last week and in just about every speech he delivers on the subject of gun control, President Barack tells two key untruths. The first is that the public is behind him. Public support for new gun laws is dropping fast, and skepticism that new gun laws will stop any determined mass killer is always justifiably high. By definition, criminals do not respect laws. The second untruth is that 40% of gun sales happen without any background checks. The president says this line, his bots at OFA tweet this line, it’s part of his schtick and one of his central arguments as he pushes to get some kind of gun law through a hostile House and a skeptical Senate.


The Washington Post’s fact checker takes up the second untruth today.

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.

Those dates alone render the data suspect. Much has changed since 1994. If it hadn’t, we’d hear the Family Research Council rely on polls to argue against gay marriage. We’re not hearing that, and we shouldn’t be hearing Democrats from Obama on down using miniscule poll data from 1994 to argue about any current reality.

Did I say “miniscule data?” Well, here’s why I said that.

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.


251 people surveyed nearly 20 years ago is still a valid enough statistic for the president to base one of his key arguments on it? Not in any sane world it isn’t.

Once you drill down into the wording of the questions and the size of the sample, the margin of error increases. The real number from that small, old survey is that between 30 and 40% of gun transactions happen without a background check. Transactions is an important word, because many of those are gifts — father gives son a rifle, that sort of thing. Do we really need a background check for that? The Obama administration doesn’t think so, as it has exempted such transactions from its own background check bill. even while it disingenuously conflates transactions with sales.

But it hasn’t stopped lying about the numbers, and the president himself uses “gun sales” in connection with the bogus 40% statistic. Either he or his speechwriters have to be aware of how weak a foundation they’re standing on, but the evidence is that they don’t care. The number is too useful to leave aside.

The Post’s bottom line: It’s a big lie.


Two months ago, we were willing to cut the White House some slack, given the paucity of recent data. But the president’s failure to acknowledge the significant questions about these old data, or his slippery phrasing, leaves us little choice but to downgrade this claim to Three Pinocchios.


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