UMN researchers study loophole in firearms sales

The study found only 9% of firearms listings on one website included a background check.

Sarah Mai

Sarah Mai

Gwiwon Jason Nam

Recent incidents of gun violence have prompted researchers from the University of Minnesota and other schools to look into a common loophole in some firearms sales. 

A new study found that only nine percent of the 4.9 million firearms listings showed evidence of a background check on one online marketplace for private sales. Researchers said these findings show current background check policies may be ineffective for online sales. 

“There [have] been a lot of discussions recently about background checks and enacting laws and legislation at state and local and national levels that require background checks,” said Ashley Hernandez, one of the lead authors of the study and a Ph.D. student at the University’s School of Public Health. 

To study firearms sales in an unregulated market, the researchers analyzed firearm listings on Armslist.com, a major online market, based on whether sellers requested a background check. 

Federal law requires sellers who hold federal firearms licenses to run background checks on buyers. But this requirement does not apply to private sellers, including those online.

“This research demonstrates that online firearm marketplaces may create a significant loophole for policymakers looking to ensure that firearms are only sold to qualifying individuals,” said Coleman Drake, the other lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of Pittsburgh.

Even if a listing requires a background check, the researchers cannot verify if one actually took place. 

“That being said, we don’t know what happens whenever they do meet up. It’s possible that they run a background check. It’s also possible that, even though they list the background check, they don’t run it whenever they go for the sale,” Hernandez said.

Adam Schwartz, one of the researchers and graduate of the school’s Ph.D. program, emphasized that the motivation behind the research was not to advocate for specific policies or legislation. 

“What we wanted to do though is we wanted to see what’s the current state of how you can get guns legally in America,” Schwartz said. 

The researchers said the study highlights an area further regulation will not address if not implemented carefully. 

“As lawmakers begin to consider a policy on background checks and more stringent gun laws and regulations, they should really not leave out the online marketplace,” Hernandez said. 

Very few studies have been able to examine online firearms markets due to the difficulty of obtaining data and limited funding, according to the researchers. The team’s ability to scrape and study millions of firearms listings makes the research unique, Drake said.

In the future, they want to look at how geography plays a role in firearm sales. 

“We’d like to look at how that compares to state laws that are in place for private sells,” Hernandez said.

Aside from geography, Schwartz said another area of potential interest is looking at how the sales of different kinds of guns vary. 

The study found that background checks were included in 13 percent of handgun listings, eight percent of rifle listings and six percent of shotgun listings. 

Researchers also found only 11 percent of firearms regulated by the National Firearms Act, like machine guns, showed evidence of a background check.

“It’s extremely important to research guns and their impact, and that America should not shy away from doing such research,” Schwartz said.