Last Updated: March 17, 2023
The topic of gun ownership has been the subject of many heated debates for years now. Whether you’re pro-gun or not, the fact still remains that you can currently be the legal owner of a firearm. However, this doesn’t mean that you can just walk into a store and buy a gun like you would buy a package of chips.
Not everyone can own a gun. You first need to pass an intense screening process in order to be able to purchase a firearm from licensed dealers. This is where background checks for guns come in. They are easily performed but can have an immense impact on the decision of whether to sell a weapon.
What Is a Background Check for Guns?
Let’s start with a little bit of history.
America’s concern about gun control was triggered by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. JFK’s tragic death was a wake-up call that made people realize the importance of gun control and intensified the discussion on the topic. This resulted in the passing of The Gun Control Act in 1968. This act prohibited fugitives, substance abusers, and people convicted for domestic violence or other crimes from buying guns.
However, it wasn’t until 1993 that gun control background checks became a mandatory part of the process of purchasing a weapon. With an act called The Brady Law, named after Reagan’s assassinated press secretary, all weapon retailers and sellers with an FFL (Federal Firearms Licence) must run a mandatory background check before selling a weapon. The background checks are done through the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Background checks serve to identify any questionable past behavior or actions that might make a person unsuitable to own firearms.
And that brings us to today. The Brady Law is still in action, and all federally licensed gun retailers must run a criminal records check before selling a weapon. That said, not all gun sellers are licensed.
Are Background Checks Required for All Gun Purchases?
According to the respondents of a 2017 survey, 22% of them had obtained a weapon in the past two years without getting a background check beforehand. This means that they bought their weapons from private, unlicensed sellers who aren’t required to run background checks. This phenomenon is referred to as the “private sale loophole” because it allows people with a criminal record to obtain weapons, and it has been an issue in US gun legislation for years.
People have been fighting for universal background checks before the purchase of guns that apply to both licensed and unlicensed sellers (at least to some extent) in an effort to improve gun regulation. In states where unlicensed sellers also run background checks, sellers usually meet their buyers at a gun dealer. The gun dealer is the one who runs the background check, and the sale is conducted at their store.
At this time, universal background checks are only required by 22 states and the District of Columbia. Still, the ultimate goal of universal background check supporters is for the US federal law to require universal background checks in all states.
What Does a Background Check for Guns Include?
After submitting your application to a licensed firearm retailer, a background check for gun control needs to be carried out. If the check triggers any red flags, a three-day window is activated during which the FBI investigates the matter further and decides whether you are eligible to own a firearm.
A background check looks through relevant criminal records, juvenile delinquency records, mental health records, warrants, and protective order information. The application to buy a firearm will be denied if any of these red flags show up during the background check:
- Criminal convictions with a sentence longer than one year
- Misdemeanor sentences with sentences longer than two years
- Felony or misdemeanor arrest warrants (fugitives)
- Mental illness diagnosis that resulted in involuntary commitment, being found unfit to stand trial, or not guilty due to insanity
- Illegal residence in the US (immigrants)
- Dishonorable discharge from the military
- Active restraining order for harassment, threats, or stalking
- Domestic violence convictions
- Renouncement of US citizenship
- Use of illegal substances
If any of these things show up on a gun background check, the FBI will launch a more in-depth investigation to determine the applicant’s eligibility to own a firearm. However, the odds are not in their favor.
How Do Gun Background Checks Work?
The whole process begins with a person initiating an application for the purchase of a firearm. They are required to provide identification and fill out an ATF form. The seller (if they are a Federal Firearms Licensee) is then required by federal law to run a NICS check and inform the FBI of the attempted purchase.
The NICS check can take up to three business days to show whether the interested buyer is eligible to own a firearm. If this deadline is missed, the sale goes through by default.
And that brings us to yet another nightmare in this country’s gun legislation:
The “Default Proceed” Rule
Although most background checks for guns are done in a matter of minutes, some cases may require further investigation. This delays the process, causing the three-day deadline to expire before the results are complete. Due to the “default proceed” rule, when this happens, the sale is automatically authorized.
This has been a hot topic of discussion since there are many instances when a person who would have otherwise been rejected got to own a weapon due to delays in the screening process. This person then went on to harm other people with the purchased weapon, causing a tragedy that could have been avoided had the results arrived on time.
Effectiveness of Background Checks
Before we dive into a more detailed explanation on whether increased background checks for guns actually help reduce gun violence, let us give you a spoiler beforehand – research results are inconclusive.
Disappointing, right? We would love nothing more than to give you a definitive yes/no answer, but, gun control is a tricky issue that, unfortunately, isn’t black and white.
Let’s look at research results.
We mentioned The Brady Law from 1993. It was a significant law that made background checks a requirement before all firearm purchases (at licensed sellers, that is). Well, a few years later, in 2000, a study was conducted to determine whether the implementation of the Brady Law affected homicide and suicide rates. The study analyzed National Center for Health Statistics data between 1985 and 1997. The results? The Brady Act was associated with reduced rates of suicide for people over the age of 55, but there wasn’t an overall homicide and suicide rate reduction.
Many studies show a positive impact of gun control background checks. However, the researchers always highlight that it’s hard to determine the relationship between cause and effect.
Yes, the number of homicides and suicides might have reduced significantly, but that isn’t necessarily due to increased background checks, as there are other factors in play. These factors are also tricky. Individual-level data is often missing. During the aftermath of a gun-related incident, it’s often unknown who owned the firearm, for how long they have owned it, and whether a background check was done before purchase.
All that aside, if we choose to look positively, several studies suggest that background checks for guns do have a positive effect on reducing gun-related homicides and suicides:
A 2012 study analyzed state-level data for homicides and suicides in the US from 1996 to 2005. The research concluded that increased background checks resulted in fewer homicide and suicide deaths. Homicides had a 13% drop, and suicide rates dropped by 9%. They also remarked that including restraining orders and fugitive status in the background checks resulted in a significant reduction in the overall homicide rates. Moreover, checking for mental illness records also significantly lowered both homicide and suicide rates.
The positive effect of background checks is also reinforced by a 2019 study that concluded that universal background checks were associated with a 14.9% reduction in the overall homicide rates.
So, this begs the question – do universal background checks work? Well, we haven’t come across any studies that show an increase in gun-related homicides or suicides due to more background checks being conducted, so at least that’s certain.
Research on the topic is either inconclusive or in favor of universal background checks. So, yes – background checks can have a positive effect on gun control. It would be great if more research is done on the topic in the future, which will help us understand the correlation even more clearly.
States That Perform Universal Background Checks for Guns
Currently, a universal background check is required in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Here are the specifics of that rule, taken from the Giffords Law Center:
|California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington + the District of Columbia||Require universal background checks at the point of sale for all sales and transfers of all classes of firearms, whether they are purchased from a licensed or an unlicensed seller.|
|Maryland and Pennsylvania||Require background checks for handguns but not for long guns, like rifles and shotguns.|
|Hawaii, Illinois, and Massachusetts||Require all firearm purchasers to obtain a permit issued after a background check.|
|New Jersey||Require all firearm purchasers to obtain a permit, issued after a background check.
If purchasing from an unlicensed seller, the sale must go through a federally licensed firearms dealer.
|Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, and North Carolina||Permit and background check requirement for handgun purchases but not for long guns.|
We hope that universal background checks will be a statewide requirement one day. Until then, it’s still possible for prohibited buyers to avoid a background check even in these states by simply buying a gun in a neighboring state with looser background check gun laws.
Background Checks for Guns in Other Countries
The US may be the most popular country when it comes to discussions about gun regulation, but we shouldn’t forget about other countries as well.
Americans aren’t the only ones who can own guns, even though they are on the top of the list for most guns owned per capita. The Falkland Islands come in second on the list, followed by Yemen, New Caledonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Canada, Uruguay, Cyprus, and Finland to complete the top 10 list.
However, gun ownership regulation differs for each country. A country’s civilians can massively own firearms without it negatively impacting the safety of others. Each country has its own gun regulation laws, so let’s take a look at how firearm purchases are made in other countries, focusing on whether a state background check is required or if there are any states that don’t require background checks for purchasing guns.
|Country||Firearm purchase process|
|Mexico||You need to confirm that you don’t have a criminal record and confirm your employment status and salary.
After that, a background check looks through your criminal and employment history and checks whether you currently own any firearms.
If you pass the background check, you can buy a gun at an authorized store in Mexico City, even though Mexico has a thriving gun black market which may be more tempting for some.
|Canada||To buy a gun in Canada, you need to prove that you’re a gun collector or practice at a shooting range.
You need to pass a safety test, have two references, and be subject to a background check that looks through your criminal record, mental health status, as well as any instances of domestic violence or addiction. If you pass this, the gun sale goes through.
|Germany||You need to prove that you have good knowledge about guns and that you will provide adequate storage for your gun.
You will then pass a firearm background check for criminal history, drug addiction, and mental health issues.
Meet all permit requirements (which might require an additional background check), and the gun is yours!
|Australia||It’s necessary to prove that you have a valid reason to own a gun (you’re part of a hunting/shooting club or you’re a gun collector).
Finish a course on gun safety and use, and make sure you can store your gun safely.
Pass a background check of your criminal history, domestic violence, and arrest history.
Apply for a permit and get your gun after a minimum of 28 days.
|Russia||You either need a hunting license or proof that you need a gun for self-defense.
Prove you can handle and take care of a gun and obtain a doctor’s note confirming that you’re mentally stable.
Apply for a license and pass a background check. That’s it.
|China||Give a reason why you want to own a gun and arrange its future storage at a gun range or pastoral area since the law prohibits citizens from storing guns at home.
Show that you can use and take care of a gun and pass a background check regarding your criminal record, any mental illness records, and domestic violence history.
|Yemen||Step 1: Go to a gun store.
Step 2: Buy a gun.
Yemen has a high gun ownership rate, which, unfortunately, is poorly regulated, and gun purchase laws are unenforced.
|New Zealand||New Zealand also requires a background check to buy a gun.
Go through a background check that will evaluate your criminal and medical records, also considering mental health and domestic violence history.
Get vouched for by character references and interviews from a partner or next of kin.
Prove you have adequate storage for your gun and take a course for gun safety.
Gun control continues to be a relevant topic of discussion among Americans as well as residents of other countries. The debate about the control of gun purchases intensifies each time a massive gun-related incident is reported.
Universal background checks are a good step towards better gun regulation and creating a safer environment for both gun owners and non-gun owners by preventing potentially dangerous individuals from owning firearms.
The general rule is that a background check usually goes back 7 years, which is the case with many background check sites. However, this doesn’t always have to be the case. In some circumstances, the check can go much further back.
It depends on the country you live in and whether you’re buying the gun from a federal licensed or unlicensed seller. If you’re buying from a licensed seller, a background check is required in all US states, but only 22 states require a background check for gun purchases from unlicensed sellers.
According to US law, a background check isn’t a mandatory part of the gun purchase process when buying from private sellers; it’s only a requirement for federally licensed sellers. However, more and more states are enforcing background checks for guns that would cover all sellers. In the states where this still isn’t the case, people can buy their guns from private sellers to avoid background checks.