Fact Check: Joe Biden's Interview on Gun Control and Universal Background Checks

In a Feb. 25 interview with Anthony Licata, Editorial Director of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, Vice President Joe Biden outlined the Obama Administration's case for universal background checks for all firearms transactions.

In justifying this, Biden repeats a dubious claim he's questioned himself -- that an estimated 40 percent of all gun sales in the United States are conducted without a background check. There's one more important point concerning the proposed universal background checks system to ponder from Biden's comments: Biden dismisses with little comment growing fears, that a universal background check system could provide the administrative infrastructure for a federal gun registry.

**The 40 Percent Assumption **
During his Field & Stream interview, Biden claims "it's estimated 40 percent of all gun sales are ... sold other than through a licensed dealer in a physical facility" without a NICS background check.

The same statistic has been cited repeatedly over the last three months by Biden, President Barack Obama and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and, of course, accepted as Bible and verse by the mainstream media.

The problem is it's not true -- and Biden knows it, even drawing kudos from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler on Jan. 21 for "acknowledging that the information is suspect and may not be entirely accurate." On one hand, Biden admits the 40 percent statistic "may not be entirely accurate." On the other, he proceeds as if it is, in fact, entirely accurate.

According to The Washington Post, the contentious statistic (actually 35.7 percent) comes from a 1994 survey of 251 people that was cited in a 1997 Institute of Justice report. The report's claims were revived in a 2011 study by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office, which claimed that "40 percent of guns are sold through private sellers."

Most of the survey covered sales before the Brady Act instituted mandatory federal background checks in early 1994. Included in that 35.7 percent of sales or transfers conducted without background checks are firearms given as inheritances or as gifts among family members, which would remain exempt under Obama's universal background checks system.

According to economist and author John Lott, "unless you include family inheritances and gifts as 'purchases,' [the 40 percent claim] is simply false." He maintains the "true number of guns 'sold' without check is closer to 10 percent."

In a Jan. 17 National Review Online blog, John Fund writes that the "bogus 40 percent stat" is grossly exaggerated, as a review of firearms sales reveals.

"If you look at guns that were bought, traded, borrowed, rented, issued as a requirement of the job, or won through raffles, 85 percent went through Federal Firearm Licensees and would have been subject to a background check," Fund writes. "Only 15 percent would have been transferred without a background check."

"Rather than being 30 to 40 percent [the original estimate of the range] or 'up to 40 percent' [Obama's words], gun purchases without background checks amounted to 14 to 22 percent," according to Kessler's Jan. 21 "The Fact Checker" review of the 40-percent claim. Kessler notes another interesting fact that gets lost in the rhetoric and hyperbole: "Interestingly, while people often speak of the 'gun show loophole,' the data in this 1994 survey shows that only 3.9 percent of firearm purchases were made at gun shows."

Gun Registry Fears
In response to Licata's question about provisions to assure gun owners that a universal background system can't be "used to create a universal firearms owners list -- in fact, a registry," Biden is brief and dismissive.

"The existing system that exists right now is not able to be used for that purpose," Biden says. "There's no mechanism to use it for that purpose. When you purchase a gun, the serial number of that gun doesn't go down to the NICS. So, it is prohibited now to be used for that purpose."

Of course, what Biden is referring to is the 1986 Firearms Protection Act, which expressly prohibits the federal government from maintaining a national registry of gun owners and requires the FBI to destroy any record of a successful background check within 24 hours.

But are the record-keeping and privacy provisions in the FPA safe?

Hardly. In fact, right now, there are two pending bills in the House that propose doing away with the FPA's privacy protections.

According to a Feb. 26 National Review Online article by Charles C. W. Cooke, Illinois Representative Bobby Rush has again introduced the 'Blair Holt's Firearm Licensing and Record of Sale Act.'

Rep. Bobby Rush's bill, which would require all gun owners to possess a federal firearm license and allow the attorney general to create and oversee a national gun registry, was introduced in 2007 and 2009 to little notice but, this time, it is gaining more traction. In addition, Cooke reports, New Jersey Representative Rush Holt has introduced a bill that would "provide for the mandatory licensing and registration of handguns."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed semi-automatics firearms ban includes registration of "grandfathered" weapons.

Obama has already imposed a gun registry on 8,500 U.S. gun dealers in four border states by executive order, requiring them to report to the ATF when someone buys two or more semiautomatic rifles that are greater than .22 calibers and include a detachable magazine over any five-day span. Therefore, according to Robert Farago on thetruthaboutguns.com, Obama has already given "the ATF free license to trample on federal law (the Firearm Owners Protection Act) prohibiting any gun registry."

New York's newly adopted semi-automatic firearms ban creates a state gun registry, grandfathers-in existing firearms and does not rule out mandatory sale to the state and confiscation. "Confiscation could be an option," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a December radio interview. "Mandatory sale to the state could be an option. Permitting could be an option -- keep your gun but permit it."

In other words, a registry of semi-automatic firearms is a best-case scenario.

Then, of course, there's the troubling Jan. 4 National Institute for Justice report exposed by the National Rifle Association that clearly states that universal background checks "won't work without requiring national gun registration."

"The unfortunate truth is, in the absence of universal gun registration, a universal background check is all but meaningless," writes Dean Weingarten on the Daily Kos on Feb. 25. "This can't be overemphasized, so let's repeat it: In order for a universal background check to have any meaning, it requires gun registration and this is a problem. It is a problem because, as the gun community correctly argues, registration leads to confiscation."

Biden knows there is a legitimate concern among gun owners and civil libertarians about how the proposed universal background check system could easily devolve into a gun registry, fueling fears -- founded or unfounded -- of confiscation.

But he dismisses this fear with little elaboration. In this instance, what Biden doesn't say may be more significant than what he does say.