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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher February 4, 2013

40% of U.S. gun sales made by sellers who aren't required to do background checks, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says

The implicit call to arms made by Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. led to a nationally televised quarrel over guns between Clarke and one of his political rivals, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

The two appeared Jan. 29, 2013 on Piers Morgan's prime-time talk show on CNN. Clarke spoke about the Milwaukee radio ad he aired five days earlier, in which he urged citizens to consider taking a firearms safety course in order to protect themselves from crime.

Barrett, who defeated Clarke and eight other candidates in the 2004 mayoral election, criticized the ad and what he characterized as the sheriff's position on gun control.

"Right now, he is defending laws that have a loophole that allow those individuals -- those individuals who have criminal record, mental health records, that are involuntary or domestic violence orders -- to go buy guns on private sales," Barrett said of Clarke. "I need our sheriff to support the initiative that says that individuals who sell guns ensure that those guns are not being sold to criminals, they're not being sold to people of domestic violence orders and they're not being sold to people of involuntary mental judgment commitments.

"And I need that because 40 percent of the sales are occurring outside of gun dealers."

Barrett was making the point that many gun sales -- such as those done at gun shows or over the Internet -- don't involve a criminal background check of the buyer because only licensed firearm dealers are required to do the checks.

But if so many gun sales are done without creating a government paper trail, is it even possible to know what percentage of guns aren't sold by licensed gun dealers?

Let’s see if Barrett is on target.

Barrett's evidence

Barrett is a founding member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which supports background checks for all gun sales. The group, though, hasn't always been as bold in making the claim Barrett did.

In one statement, the group said "experts estimate" that "perhaps" 40 percent of all sales are made by unlicensed private dealers who aren't required to do background checks. In another statement, the group puts the figure at more than 40 percent, but characterizes it as an estimate.

Like Barrett, scholars and news reports often state the figure without citing a source.

When we asked for Barrett’s evidence, the mayor’s chief of staff, Patrick Curley, cited a December 2011 statement by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The statement attributes the 40 percent figure to the U.S. Department of Justice, but does not cite a particular source or study.

Curley also pointed out that in July 2012, when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said 40 percent of guns are sold without a background check, PolitiFact National rated it Mostly True.

But new information has since emerged.

Newer claims, different ratings

Less than a week before Barrett made his claim, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., made the same claim Bloomberg had.  

PolitiFact National rated Gillibrand’s claim Half True and at the same time changed the rating on Bloomberg’s claim to Half True.

Our colleagues said that after the Connecticut school shooting in December 2012, new criticism of the 40 percent figure emerged. Here are the highlights of what they found in assessing Gillibrand’s claim:

The 40 percent figure grew out of a 1997 National Institute of Justice study that found that 35.7 percent of respondents in a 1994 telephone survey reported obtaining their gun from somewhere other than a licensed dealer. People citing the study have rounded up the figure to 40 percent.

One of the authors of the study said he had "no idea" whether the 35.7 percent -- which he called a "very old number" -- was a reliable estimate for today.

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Two scholars said there is no way to know what the percentage is and one said the study was flawed. Two other experts said 40 percent is probably accurate.

Also in January 2013, The Washington Post Fact Checker reassessed a claim by President Barack Obama, who said "as many as" 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.

Initially, the Fact Checker did not issue a rating on the statement. But after further review, Obama was given "two Pinocchios" out of a possible four -- the Fact Checker’s rating for a statement that contains "significant omissions and/or exaggerations."

Our rating

Barrett said 40 percent of U.S. gun sales "are occurring outside of" licensed gun dealers.

Like others, Barrett made the claim without saying that the study he relies is from 1997. And expert opinion on the figure he cites is mixed, at best.

We rate the statement Half True.

Our Sources

CNN, Piers Morgan interview of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., Jan. 29, 2013

PolitiFact National, "Kirstin Gillibrand says 40 percent of guns sold today escape background check," Jan. 30, 2013

PolitiFact National, "Mayor Michael Bloomberg says 40 percent of guns are sold without a background check," July 25, 2012

Email interview, Mayor Tom Barrett chief of staff Patrick Curley, Jan. 31, 2013

Washington Post Fact Checker, "Update: Obama claim on background checks moved from verdict pending to 2 Pinocchios," Jan. 25, 2013

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, "A Plan to Prevent Future Tragdies"

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, letter, December 2012

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, statement, Dec. 14, 2011

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Tom Kertscher

40% of U.S. gun sales made by sellers who aren't required to do background checks, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says

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