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As the gun debate grinds on, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the loophole exempting private sales from background checks in many states — including Minnesota — merits more serious attention.

The so-called “gun show loophole” has actually become a bit of an anachronism. Sales at gun shows still occur and as long as they are private sales — not by a federally licensed firearms dealer — no background check is required. But that’s not really where the action is. As with most everything these days, online sales have taken off. Some sites function essentially as online gun stores. For a price, they’ll ship the firearm of your choice ... to a federally licensed firearms dealer who will obtain a background check before releasing the gun to the buyer. So far, so good.

Then there are sites such as Armslist.com, which amounts to an open-air marketplace where private sellers and buyers can meet. That drew the attention of a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota, who examined a decade’s worth of posts on the site — more than 4 million between 2008 and 2018 — to determine where sellers voluntarily indicated the need for a background check. Some sellers stated they required proof of a permit to purchase or permit to carry. Most did not.

Coleman Drake, now an assistant professor with the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, was part of the team that determined fewer than 10% of the 4.9 million posts appeared to require a background check. The results, which were published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, examined listings for 2.4 million handguns, 1.6 million rifles and more than half a million shotguns nationwide offered for sale on the site.

“We tried to search each listing for evidence suggesting the seller would need a background check,” Drake said. “The results indicate that this is a potentially large loophole on private sales. The policy implication for lawmakers is that if the government wants meaningful regulation of firearms sales, the online market needs to be included.”

Drake was careful to note that the research does not conclude that the remaining 90% of sales did not have background checks done, just that there was no indication of the seller requesting it. But it should be noted that there is no federal law requiring it. For a private local sale, it’s as easy as a buyer and seller making contact, meeting somewhere and conducting the exchange, often in cash.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board has repeatedly argued for expanded background checks and other reasonable reforms that are supported by the vast majority of Americans — including a majority of gun owners, who are as appalled as anyone else at the mass shootings and gun violence that regularly overtakes the headlines. The explosion in the number of online private sales makes universal background checks imperative. The inconvenience is trivial compared to the potential for keeping guns out of dangerous hands.

The difficulty the U researchers encountered also points to the need for more data, research and analysis of what amounts to a public health threat. Drake said the researchers — all doctoral students at the time — put the study together on their own time because no research money was available.

The scarcity of funds dates back to the mid-’90s, when Congress caved to the gun lobby and prohibited federal funds from being used to advocate for gun control. That effectively quelled federal research for years. In 2018 Congress allowed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume gun violence research — with the proviso that it would not lobby for gun control. It also allocated no money for such research.

“We did this work because gun violence represents a huge public health problem,” Drake said. “It’s an area that deserves significant research funding proportionate to the severity of the problem.”

Research has the potential to replace the heat of emotion with the light of knowledge and facts — something this debate desperately needs.