According to some news reports out in the last day or so (see here and here), a bipartisan group of senators, including two pro-gun Republicans (Tom Coburn and Mark Kirk), one pro-gun Democrat (Joe Manchin), and one not-so-pro-gun Democrat (Chuck Schumer) are making genuine progress in coming up with legislation to approach universal background checks for gun purchases, to close what is commonly known as the "gun-show loophole," but would be more properly known as the private-sale loophole, that when one person sells another person a gun, no background check is required. Never one to pass up an opportunity to make a graph or two, I thought I'd offer some data on federally licensed gun dealers, since they're going to be key to solving this problem.
Despite the fact that around 90 percent of Americans in every poll support universal background checks, the NRA says that requiring checks in private sales will impose a terrible burden on law-abiding gun owners. So will it? Right now, if you buy from a licensed dealer (like a gun shop), you go through the instant background check system, which uses these newfangled machines called "computers" to perform a check that takes no time at all. After all, it's not like you're a woman who wants an abortion and needs 72 hours to contemplate what a terrible person you are! Nope, they'll do the check while you wait, and you'll be out the door with your new AR-15 before you know it. So how does this apply to private sales? Well, if I decide to sell one of my guns to my neighbor, we'd have to find a licensed gun dealer, who would then perform the background check for us. It might even involve a small fee—I'm guessing ten bucks would do it.
And it won't be hard to find one, no matter where you live. According to the most recent ATF statistics, in 2011 there were 123,587 federally licensed firearm dealers in America. Some of these are manufacturers and importers, but the largest numbers belong to gun shops (48,676), pawnbrokers (7,075), and licensed collectors (59,227). Collectors have a special license allowing them to buy and sell firearms across state lines, but they don't have to run background checks. So it's really the 55,000 gun shops and pawnbrokers, or 45 percent of the licensed dealers, who would be conducting the checks for private sales.
The ATF provides data on how all these licensees are distributed by state. The data aren't broken down by type, but if we're trying to figure out how far you'll have to go to find a place to get your background check, let's assume that the relative ratio of gun shops to collectors is roughly the same in every state (that assumption may not be correct, but it's all we've got). First, here are the raw number of licensees per state:
Shockingly, Texas has the most—nearly 9,000 federally licensed dealers in the Lone Star State. If we assume that 45 percent of them are gun shops or pawnbrokers, that means there are 4,000 places in Texas you can get a background check. At the other end of the spectrum, there are only 27 licensed dealers in the District of Columbia. Now let's look at how the dealers are distributed by population, using census numbers from 2011:
It turns out that Texas is actually in the bottom half, while Montana tops the list with an impressive 143 federally licensed dealers for every 100,000 people. Once again, D.C., which has had strict laws against private possession of firearms until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in D.C. v. Heller, brings up the rear.
So what can we conclude from this? If you need to find a gun dealer to get a background check every time you want to buy a gun from someone, it'll be easier in some places than others. But that may mean the difference between walking a few blocks and driving a few minutes. And unless you're going to be buying a gun every day, that doesn't seem like too much of a burden.
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