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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske August 13, 2019

Van Cleave in ballpark on criminals who had gun background checks

Beefing up background checks on gun buyers won’t reduce crime, says Philip Van Cleave, a Virginia gun lobbyist.

Van Cleave is president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. During an Aug. 8 interview on WRVA Radio in Richmond, he was dismissive of calls for stronger background checks in the wake of fatal mass shootings this year in Virginia and other states.

"Criminals don’t go through background checks," he said. "I think it’s like 3% go through a background check - 3%. Ninety-seven percent get the guns on the street."

We fact-checked Van Cleave’s claim. 

Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly and in Congress are calling for tighter background checks. Virginia and federal laws require all licensed gun dealers - those in the business of selling firearms - to run computerized checks to see if buyers have disqualifying criminal or mental health records. But gun sales between individuals not in the business - say, neighbors or hobbyists - are exempt.

President Donald Trump has recently said he supports stronger background checks, but has not specified what changes he favors. 

Van Cleave told us his 3% statistic comes from a 2016 survey of 24,848 state and federal prisoners by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The bureau reported its findings in January 2019. 

Of the inmates, 21% said they used or possessed a firearm while committing the crime that put them in prison, or about 5,200 of the sample, according to our calculation (the study did not break down its percentages into numbers of inmates). Of the prisoners who used or possessed a gun during the crime:

  • •43%, or about 2,240, said they got the firearm "off the street or underground market."
  • •25% - about 1,300 - said they bought or rented the gun from a relative or friend, or got it as a gift.
  • •6% - about 310 - said they stole the gun.
  • •10% - about 520 - said they bought the weapon at a retail outlet: a gun store, pawn shop, flea market or gun show. The rest got their guns by other means.

Now, let’s focus on the 10% who bought their guns from a retailer. They’re important because the researchers identify them as the prisoners who were likely to have taken criminal background checks before they got their guns.

Of that group of about 520 retail buyers, around 360 - or 69% - said they bought the gun using their own name. And about 350 of the retail buyers - or 67% - said they underwent a background check using their real name. (The survey doesn’t cite reasons why they passed the check, but perhaps they didn’t have criminal records at the time).

Here’s another way of expressing the finding: About 350 of 5,200 inmates who possessed or used a gun during their crime - or 6.7% - said they went through a background check, using their real name. 

Our ruling

Van Cleave said, "Criminals don’t go through (gun) background checks. I think it’s like 3% go through a background check."

He was referring to results from a 2016 survey of 24,848 state and federal inmates by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 5,200 of the prisoners said they possessed or used a firearm during their crime. Of that armed group, about 350 - or 6.7 percent - said they went through a background check to get the gun.

Van Cleave slightly understates the percentage of gun-toting criminals who went through background checks, but the gist of his claim - that very few of them did - is sound.

We rate his statement Mostly True.


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Van Cleave in ballpark on criminals who had gun background checks

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