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By Karen Lee Ziner July 20, 2014

Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley says there are roughly 20,000 guns sold yearly in R.I.

As the gun debate continues to roil the nation and Rhode Island, Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley wants to take guns out of the hands of criminals. But how?

Smiley, one of five Democrats vying for the seat, proposes  a supplemental 10-percent statewide sales tax "on the approximately 20,000 annual gun purchases in Rhode Island and on ammunition purchases." That in turn, would produce revenue to support community anti-violence efforts and other initiatives to part criminals from their guns.

Smiley unveiled his "Safest City Plan" at a December press conference.  A seven-page campaign brochure he mailed to voters in the last week of June includes a version of that plan that reiterates his gun tax proposal.

[A bill sponsored on Smiley’s behalf to impose the 10-percent statewide surplus gun tax failed to make it out of committee in the last General Assembly session].

So are there 20,000 guns sold a year in Rhode Island?

First, let’s look at the laws for buying a gun in the state: Statutes 11-47-35 and 11-47-35.2. Anyone wanting to do so must first fill out a state purchase application form with a Federal Firearms Licensee - i.e., a licensed gun shop. The application is run through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) data base.

The licensed firearms dealer sends a copy of the application to local or state police, and the attorney general’s department. They must later destroy the copies if no disqualifying information is found.

If approved, you must wait seven days before you buy your firearm - or firearms (more than one gun can be purchased per application.)

Smiley bases his claim on NICS Firearm Background Checks data.    

Here are the NICS statistics from 2010-2014:

2010: 14,835

2011: 17,271

2012: 24,050

2013: 26,666

2014: 10,140 as of June 30

"Looking just at the data for NICS Firearm Background Checks, you see that the Rhode Island figure has been steadily increasing in recent years, with 24,050 in 2012 and 26,666 in 2013," campaign manager Josh Block wrote in an email.

"It's also worth noting that these figures are for the number of people receiving background checks, and multiple guns purchased at the same time would still yield only one background check. Given these figures, it's clear that saying "approximately 20,000 annual gun purchases in Rhode Island" is an accurate, and frankly even a relatively conservative, estimate," Block wrote.

He said that number refers specifically to the number of guns sold.

Federal law prohibits the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. The FBI must destroy all approved gun purchase records within 24 hours.  

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"ATF does not gather or collect information pertaining to the number of guns sold," says Debora A. Seifert, public information officer for the ATF Boston field division.

The FBI notes that the NICS Firearm Background Checks "do not represent the number of firearms sold. Based on varying state laws and purchase scenarios, a one-to-one correlation cannot be made between a firearm background check and a firearm sale."

OK. But do those NICS statistics represent an approximate measure, as Smiley claims?

Short of tallying every licensed firearms dealer’s register in the state, no one can say precisely how many guns are sold every year in Rhode Island.

We turned to the Rhode Island State Police and attorney general’s office for some answers. We also called more than half a dozen local gun shop owners. In different ways, they suggested that, if anything Smiley’s estimated number is on the low side.

Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Atty. Gen. Peter F. Kilmartin, gave us a breakdown for the years 2010 through 2013, of the number of applications approved and denied.

The data reflect a consistent ratio between approvals and denials: on average, fewer than 1 percent are denied.

State police Major James M. Manni interprets the NICS data the same way as Smiley.

"Based on the number of NICS checks done - that’s factual that there are approximately 20,000 firearms sold in Rhode Island or even more" every year, said Manni, state police commander of inspectional services.

Take the 2013 figure of 26,666 firearms background checks for example, Manni says.

"Does that mean there were 26,000 guns sold? There could be more. You can buy multiple firearms" on one application, however he notes that "the vast majority are single sales."

Manni also noted that the numbers of applicants who are either denied a purchase -- or who ultimately decide not to buy a firearm -- are very small.

He said that In 2014, "in a six-month period, there were 10,140 NICS firearms background checks. So 2014 is on track for about 20,000" of those checks.  

Gun shop owners we spoke with also confirmed that very few applicants change their minds about buying a gun during the 7-day waiting period.

And they confirmed that it’s impossible to determine precisely how many guns are purchased in the state each year.

John Francis, owner of Competition Shooting Supplies, in Pawtucket, said  " Unless you went to each dealer, and had each dealer count through our records … there’s no way to know."

Our ruling

Brett Smiley says there are "approximately 20,000 annual gun purchases in Rhode Island."  

There is no official registry of yearly gun sales in Rhode Island; state law prohibits it.

But state and federal law enforcement officials cite the same statistics that Smiley does to back up his claim. Gun shop owners, and state police tell us that the majority of applications represent single sales.

Because Smiley was careful to approximate the number, we rate his claim as True.

Our Sources

"Safest City Plan," Brett Smiley for Mayor, accessed July 18, 2014

FBI, "NICS Firearm Background Check System," accessed July 18, 2014

FBI, Total NICS Firearms Background Checks by State, Nov. 30, 1998 - June 14, 2014

Interview and e-mails, Josh Block, campaign manager for Brett P. Smiley, July 9-18, 2014

Interview and e-mails, Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for R.I. Atty. Gen. Peter F. Kilmartin, July 9-18, 2014

Interview, State Police Major James M. Manni, July 16, 2014

Interview and e-mails, Debora A. Seifert, Special Agent/Public Information Officer, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Boston Field Division, July 16-18, 2014

Interview, Paul Connolly, owner, Bullseye Shooting Supplies, Woonsocket, July 16, 2014

Interview, John Francis, owner, Competition Shooting Supplies, Pawtucket, July 16, 2014

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Providence mayoral candidate Brett Smiley says there are roughly 20,000 guns sold yearly in R.I.

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