A Non-Partisan Resource for Journalists

Who Owns Guns? Who Gets Background Checks?

This post came from JournalismResources.org:

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)

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