As Domestic Violence Hotlines See Increases in Calls, Many Gun Sales May Be Taking Place Without a Background Check or Before a Background Check is Completed
Advocates Urge Gun Owners to Practice Secure Storage to Prevent Unintentional Shootings and Gun Suicides
NEW YORK — A recent spike in Google searches related to buying or cleaning guns far exceeded increases in search activity after the mass shootings at Sandy Hook School and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, new research from Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund shows. Among other key findings of an analysis of Google search data:
- Between March 8 and April 11, Americans made approximately 2.1 million searches related to buying or cleaning guns, significantly more than would be expected if not for COVID-19.
- This represents approximately 40% more searches for both “buy gun” and “clean gun” than the spikes that occurred after the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida. These search terms were selected because a previous study found that Google searches using those exact terms significantly predicted firearm injuries and deaths.
- 49 states and the District of Columbia experienced an increase in these gun purchase and preparation searches.
“The current spike in gun sales is bringing new risks into American homes during a national crisis,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety. “We need to be talking about these risks and the steps that all of us, from gun owners to advocates to policymakers, can take to address them.”
“We are just starting to understand the severity of the collateral damage from coronavirus,” said Theodore Caputi, Marshall Scholar at the University of York, public health researcher and principal co-author of the report. “Past research has proven that surges in gun sales predict increases in firearm injuries and death. Now that we have observed this spike, we need to take the necessary safety precautions to reduce the risk to ourselves and our families.”
The report was also co-authored by John W. Ayers, Vice Chief of Innovation, Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Health, Department of Medicine, University of California San Diego; Mark Dredze, John C. Malone Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science, Johns Hopkins University; and Nick Suplina, Everytown’s managing director for law and policy.
“People buying guns right now need to recognize the risks they’re bringing home with them,” said Shannon Johnson, a gun owner and member of the Everytown Survivor Network whose father was shot and killed by a neighbor in 2017. “Responsible gun owners store our firearms locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition. Owning a firearm comes with serious responsibilities, and secure storage is critical.”
The increase in search activity raises questions about:
- How many gun sales are taking place without a background check
- How many gun sales are taking place before background checks are completed by public safety agencies experiencing staffing shortages and limited access to records
- How many domestic abusers are able to buy firearms from unlicensed sellers without a background check or before a background check is completed
- The full extent of increased risks of unintentional shootings, domestic violence shootings and gun suicides
While 22 states and the District of Columbia require background checks on all handgun sales, regardless of the seller, federal law only requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks on gun sales. That means people with felony convictions, domestic abusers, and people involuntarily committed to a mental health facility can avoid the very background checks designed to block them from getting guns by simply buying them from unlicensed sellers — including through sales arranged with strangers met online.
An Everytown investigation found that in 2018 alone, there were nearly 1.2 million ads for firearm sales that would not require a background check on one website, and that 1 in 9 prospective online buyers would not have passed a background check.
STRAINED BACKGROUND CHECKS SYSTEMS
Data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) shows there were over 3.7 million background checks in March 2020, 41 percent higher than in March 2019. The current spike in gun sales and staffing shortages at public safety agencies are raising the likelihood that law enforcement will not have enough time to complete each background check prior to a firearm being transferred.
Under federal law, a federally licensed firearms dealer may transfer a firearm to the purchaser if the NICS check has not been completed within three business days — a procedural loophole known as the “Charleston Loophole,” named after the loophole the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooter used to acquire his firearm. While the vast majority of background checks are completed on the spot, approximately 10 percent are delayed. And a background check that takes longer than three days is a strong indication that the potential buyer may ultimately turn out to be prohibited from having guns. An analysis of the past five years of NICS data shows that background checks completed after the three business day period are four times more likely to result in a denial than checks completed within three business days.
UNINTENTIONAL SHOOTINGS, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND SUICIDE
With domestic violence prevention hotlines reporting increases in call volume, experts are concerned about domestic violence during the pandemic. Women are five times more likely to be shot and killed by an abusive partner when a gun is present during an incident of domestic violence.
Suicide prevention hotlines are also seeing increases in calls, and experts are concerned about increased suicide risk during and after the pandemic. Access to a gun triples the risk of death by suicide.
With children self-quarantining in homes across the country, gun safety advocates are also concerned about unintentional shootings like a recent tragedy in New Mexico in which a 13-year-old allegedly unintentionally shot and killed his own cousin. Nearly 77 percent of unintentional shootings by children take place inside the home.