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Background Checks


Federal law requires licensed firearms dealers to perform background checks on prospective purchasers and maintain records of all gun sales[1]. Background checks reduce the diversion of firearms from legal to illegal users and prevent people at high risk of engaging in violence from purchasing guns - effective strategies in reducing gun violence.

Eighteen states and D.C. have extended the background check requirement beyond federal law to at least some private sales[2]. These states utilize effective polices such as instituting background checks at the point of sale for all transfers of all classes of firearms (including purchases from unlicensed sellers), requiring gun owners to obtain a permit issued after a background check, requiring a background check whenever a firearm is sold at a gun show.

For more information on how background checks work and reasons for denial please click here.

Four things you should know about background checks:

  • 1.Background checks are effective at keeping guns out of the hands of prohibited persons. Since its inception in 1994, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has blocked more than 2.8 million permit applications and gun sales to felons, the seriously mentally ill, drug abusers, and other dangerous people who are prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms. In 2014 alone, nearly 15 million applications were subject to background checks, and 193,000 (1.3%) were denied, including about 91,000 denied by the FBI and about 102,000 denied by state and local agencies. But because an estimated 22% of gun transfers occur without a background check, more comprehensive gun background checks are necessary to curb gun violence and gun trafficking.
  • 2.The strongest laws require a background check at the point of sale for every gun transfer. Permit to purchase laws require individuals to obtain a permit or license to purchase a handgun (from both licensed retail dealers and private sellers) that is contingent upon passing a background check and, in some cases, completing safety training. In Connecticut, permit to purchase laws were associated with a 40% reduction in firearm homicide rates and a 15.4% reduction in firearm suicide rates during the first 10 years that the law was in place. Missouri’s repeal of a permit-to-purchase law was associated with a 16% increase in homicide rates, amounting to 55 to 63 additional homicides per year, and a 16% increase in firearm suicide rates.
  • 3.Laws requiring background checks on all gun purchasers are widely supported by the American public. For example, 92% of Americans support a measure requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers. In fact, even 72% of NRA members and 83% of gun owners nationally support requiring criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun. 
  • 4.Federal law only requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks, which means that millions of guns are exchanged each year, privately between individuals in person, online, or at gun show, without background checks. Closing this loophole is an important way to reduce gun violence and protect public safety. In addition, state and federal agencies should ensure the background check database is complete by records to the national background check databases.

Recently Funded Research                                                                          

Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals Through Effective Firearm Sales Laws by Daniel Webster, Jon S. Vernick, Emma McGinty, and Ted Alcorn; published in in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis Pages 109-122

  • The 2007 repeal of Missouri’s permit-to-purchase law increased the diversion of guns to criminals.
  • States which regulated all handgun sales by requiring background checks and record keeping, not just those made by licensed dealers, diverted significantly fewer guns to criminals in other states.
  • Nearly 80% of handgun offenders incarcerated in state prisons reported purchasing or trading for their handgun from an unlicensed seller who, in most states, was not legally obligated to ensure that the purchaser passed a background check or to keep a record of the transaction.

Effects of the Repeal of Missouri’s Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides by Daniel Webster, Cassandra Kercher Crifasi, and Jon S. Vernick; published in the Journal of Urban Health 2014, 91:2:293–302. DOI: 10.1007/s11524-014-9865-8

  • Missouri's 2007 repeal of its permit-to-purchase law, which required all handgun purchasers to obtain a license verifying that they have passed a background check, contributed to a sixteen percent increase in Missouri's murder rate, which translates to increases of between 55 and 63 homicides per year in Missouri.

Association Between Connecticut’s Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Law and Homicides by Kara Rudolph, Elizabeth Stuart, Jon S. Vernick, and Daniel Webster; published in the American Journal of Public Health 2015, 105:8:e49-e54. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.302703

  • Permit-to-purchase law was associated with a 40% reduction in Connecticut’s firearm homicide rates during the first 10 years that the law was in place. By contrast, there was no evidence for a reduction in non-firearm homicides.

Effects of Changes in Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Laws in Connecticut and Missouri on Suicide Rates by Cassandra Crifasi, John Speed Meyers, Jon S. Vernick, and Daniel W. Webster; published in Preventive Medicine 2015, 79:43–49. /

  • Permit-to-purchase law was associated with a 15.4% reduction in Connecticut's firearm suicide rates during the first 10 years that the law was in place.
  • Missouri’s repeal of a permit-to-purchase law was associated with a 16.1% increase in firearm suicide rates.
  • Evidence that PTP laws were associated with non-firearm suicide rates was mixed in Connecticut and negative in Missouri.

Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks: Results of a National Survey by Matthew Miller, Lisa Hepburn, and Deborah Azrael; published in the Annals of Internal Medicine 2017;166:233-239. doi: 10.7326/M16-1590

  • One in five (22%) U.S. gun owners who obtained a firearm in the past two years did so without a background check.
  • The share of gun owners who acquired firearms via private sale without background checks was significantly larger (57%) in states without laws regulating such purchases than in states with legislative regulations (26%).

[1] 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(t), 923(g)

[2] Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence -

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