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Have gun politics changed significantly in the last decade?
04:46 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

A primary topic on the minds of voters as Democratic candidates flocked to the Iowa State Fair this weekend was gun violence. Just a week removed from the twin shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, candidates discussed what they would do as President to address gun violence and how they would bolster gun control.

Here’s a look at the facts around their claims.


During a press gaggle at the fair, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee claimed that half of firearm-related deaths are suicides.

“We need to have gun owner responsibility,” Inslee said, “because you know why, almost half of the gun deaths are due to suicide.”

Facts First: Inslee is underestimating here. Suicides account for 61% of gun deaths over the past 17 years of available data.

According to the Center for Disease Control, from 2000 to 2017, there were 343,792 suicides using a firearm. Between the same time period, there were 216,600 homicides by firearms.


When asked Saturday if she thought Walmart should stop selling guns, California Sen. Kamala Harris said they should, before going on to insinuate that Walmart does not currently run background checks on people purchasing firearms.

“On the issue of Walmart, yeah they should stop selling guns. I do believe that,” Harris told reporters. “We need background checks and we need people to be, as I’ve said, responsible in the way that they’re selling guns.”

Harris then implied that Walmart does not run background checks when they sell firearms. “If they participate in background checks, then fine. But right now they’re not.”

Facts First: In accordance with federal law, Walmart runs background checks on everyone purchasing a firearm from its stores.

Anyone who is “engaged in the business of dealing in firearms (must) be licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF),” according to the ATF. A federal firearms licensee must also run a background check on all gun purchases.

When it comes to background checks, Walmart goes beyond what’s required.

While federal law states that if the background check is not completed in 3 days the buyer can purchase the firearm, Walmart will hold the weapon until the background check is completed.

It should also be noted that Walmart raised the age restriction to 21 in 2018 for any individual who wants to purchase a firearm or ammunition. In 2015, the company “ended the sales of modern sporting rifles including the AR-15,” according to a statement from Walmart, and only sells handguns in Alaska.

When asked to clarify Harris’ statement, her campaign told CNN Tuesday that the Senator “was referring to all gun sellers. She thinks that Walmart needs to use their market power to force universal background checks.”

Universal background checks and assault weapons ban

On Saturday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked if she was concerned with the political backlash she might face over her support for a ban on assault weapons. Warren said she was not worried and argued that a majority of National Rifle Association members support the measure.

“Today in America, huge majorities want to see us ban assault weapons, do background checks across this country,” Warren said. “In fact…a majority of NRA members want to see that. And that’s been true year after year after year.”

Facts First: Warren is speaking too broadly here. While some polls do show a majority of right-wing NRA members support mandating federal background checks for private sales, a majority of this group do not support banning so-called assault weapons.

According to 2017 polling from the Pew Research Center, 52% of Republicans or Republican-leaning people who claimed to be NRA members supported universal background checks – which would include gun sales from people who occasionally sell firearms (i.e. private sellers). Only 28% of this category supported banning assault-style weapons.

This polling, however, is incomplete and does not cover all categories of NRA members – nor does it verify that those polled were members of the NRA. Warren could be correct that a majority support a ban on so-called assault-style firearms, but there is no current polling to support that claim.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 63% of Americans support banning so-called assault weapons. In the same poll, 94% support imposing a universal federal background check.

Gun shows and online purchases

During his time in Iowa, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker argued that individuals who want “to do harm” can, without universal background checks, purchase firearms online or at gun shows.

“I don’t care if you are a gun owner or not, we can unite as Americans and say it is outrageous that we now still live in a country where someone who wants to do harm, who seeks to do terrorist acts can go on the internet or to a gun show and buy a weapon,” Booker said Saturday at the “political soapbox” event sponsored by the Des Moines Register. “We need universal background checks.”

Facts First: While Booker mentions gun shows and internet sales specifically, these channels are subjected to the same regulations that apply to all gun purchases.

So-called private sellers are people who might occasionally sell a firearm as part of a hobby or to liquidate some of their firearm collection but don’t sell guns to turn a profit.

It is illegal for a private seller to sell a firearm to an individual who is not legally permitted to own a gun under state or federal law. In most states however, these sellers aren’t required to run a background check on the buyer.

Universal background checks have been enacted by 14 states, and Washington, DC. These local laws require private sellers to run a background check on all buyers.

In these instances, private sellers will transfer the firearm to an FFA dealer who, for a fee, will run a background check on the buyer before giving that person the firearm.

Private sellers cannot sell to individuals in other states without first going through a Federal Firearms Licensed (FFA) dealer and a background check.

Online gun sales

The world of online gun sales is equally complicated, and can be broken into three categories: guns bought online from FFA dealers, guns posted online from private sellers but purchased face-to-face, or guns purchased online from private sellers and then shipped to the buyer.

Whenever someone is purchasing a firearm from an FFA dealer, online or otherwise, they must legally go through a background check, regardless of where the weapon is initially purchased.

In some states, private sellers are permitted to mail shotguns or rifles to a resident of that same state. Handguns cannot be mailed in any state, and have to be shipped via a private contract carrier.

In 2017, agents at the Government Accountability Office attempted to purchase firearms online and found “that private sellers GAO contacted on gun forums and other classified ads were unwilling to sell a firearm to an individual who appeared to be prohibited from possessing a firearm.”

The vast majority of the agency’s 72 attempts to purchase firearms online from private sellers were unsuccessful.

A Quinnipiac University poll in 2015 found that 3% of gun owners polled said they purchased their firearms from online sellers.

Gun shows

Private sellers at gun shows are subjected to the same regulations – they cannot legally sell firearms to those who are not permitted to own one. And if they are selling guns to make a profit, the seller would likely need to get an FFA license and put buyers through a background check. (Again, some states do not allow private sellers to sell guns without submitting buyers to a background check through an FFA dealer.)

It should be noted that at gun shows, sellers must rent space to display their goods, which could limit those who sell guns at the event to people who are trying to turn a profit and would therefore be required to have an FFA license.

The regulation around gun shows and internet purchase is the same as everywhere else. These places might provide a better system for private sellers to advertise their guns, but the federal regulation is no different than if you sold the firearm to your next door neighbor.