Domestic violence (DV) perpetrators are banned from acquisition or possession of firearms under federal and some state laws. The primary mechanism for enforcing these laws are background checks conducted at the time of transfer (sales, gifts, trades) under either the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) or an equivalent state database.   

The NICS system was first launched in 1998. As of 2016, over 250 million background checks have been conducted, resulting in over 1.3 million denials. Of these, about 180,000 have been denied because of a history of domestic violence, according to statistics.   

This figure represents a significant number of DV offenders prevented from obtaining a gun. The weak link in the system, however, is the ongoing availability of guns outside of the background check system. By their very nature, these transactions are impossible to quantify definitively. Universal background checks for all firearm transfers are not the reality yet. Until they are, gun transactions between private parties do not require background checks under federal and many states’ laws. Therefore, the elusive statistic is: How many guns come into the wrong hands? 

The last survey into compliance rates for background checks was conducted in 1994. At that time, the estimate was that approximately 40% of gun transfers were conducted without a background check. Gun manufacturers have increased production since that time, and the numbers of background checks have also increased. The greater the percentage of transactions that occur without a background check, the greater the chance that a prohibited person will obtain a firearm.   

A more recent survey was conducted in 2015 by the survey group Knowledge for Growth, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in February 2017.  This study concludes that the current estimate of all transfers occurring without background checks is closer to 22%. Although not conclusive, the survey suggests that the rates for transfers without background checks is lower in states that have implemented their own background check system. Other factors are the increased reporting of disqualifiers to the NICS system by the states, and a trend toward purchasing from stores may also impact the compliance rate, since commercial vendors must conduct background checks. 

Twenty-two percent is still an alarming rate, particularly considering between 9,000 and 10,000 DV offenders were blocked from purchases by the federal (NICS) system alone for each of the study years, 2013-2015. Assuming that the same denial rate would apply to private transactions, that would still amount to approximately 2,000 DV offenders each year obtaining firearms illegally.   

The denial rate would no doubt be much higher for these transactions. Anyone who is disqualified by a background check could simply turn to a private seller and avoid detection. In fact, the authors point to a survey of prison inmates, 92% of whom obtained a firearm in this manner. 

The survey results suggest first that the background check system is effective in preventing guns from falling into the wrong hands. At the same time, the results also illustrate how even a statistically significant improvement like this, from 60% compliance to 78% compliance, still leaves a gaping hole in the background check safety net. It is not difficult to imagine the potential effect of requiring background checks for all firearm transfers.

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