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Selling a gun to a stranger without a background check: acceptable behaviour?
  1. David Hemenway1,
  2. Deborah Azrael1,
  3. Matthew Miller2
  1. 1 Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2 Department of Health Science, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to Professor David Hemenway, Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, 677 Huntington Avenue, Room 309, Boston, MA 02115, USA; hemenway{at}


Objective One way that guns get into the wrong hands is via gun sales without a background check. While the large majority of Americans support laws requiring universal background checks, no prior study has assessed whether Americans think it is acceptable behaviour to sell a gun to a stranger without a background check, whether or not there is a law against it.

Methods We sponsored a nationally representative survey of over 3900 American adults, oversampling gun owners, using an online panel provided by the survey firm Growth for Knowledge.

Results Over 72% of American adults agree or strongly agree with the statement that ‘whether it is legal or not, it is NOT acceptable to sell a gun to a stranger without a background check’ and 11% disagree or strongly disagree. Subgroups less likely to agree are young adults, men, conservatives, those with less than a high school education and gun owners.

Conclusion Reducing the number of guns sold without a background check could help reduce the flow of guns to felons. Changes in normative attitudes and behaviours, as well as changes in law, could help accomplish this goal. Most Americans, including gun owners, believe selling a gun to a stranger without a background check is not acceptable behaviour.

  • firearms
  • background check
  • norms

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  • Contributors DA took the lead on creating the survey instrument and all authors contributed. MM and DA did the data analysis. DH wrote the initial draft of the paper and all authors edited and approved the paper.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval Northeastern University.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement We are currently sharing data from the survey with researchers in many universities, including many graduate students. Data will be made publicly available through the University of Michigan archives in a couple of years.

  • Correction notice This paper has been amended since it was published Online First. Owing to a scripting error, some of the publisher names in the references were replaced with ’BMJ Publishing Group'. This only affected the full text version, not the PDF. We have since corrected these errors and the correct publishers have been inserted into the references.