This fact sheet contains updates.
What is a firearm background check?
A firearm background check is the process by which a gun seller determines whether a prospective buyer is legally eligible to purchase a gun. Under both federal and state laws, certain individuals are barred from gun possession for reasons such as violent felony convictions or history of domestic violence.1 The FBI operates the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to conduct background checks.2 In addition, some states elect to conduct firearm background checks through their own state system, functioning as what is known as a “point of contact” for these checks.3
What is the current law on background checks?
Under current federal law, licensed gun dealers are required to conduct a background check before completing any gun sale. However, this requirement does not apply to anyone who is not a licensed gun dealer, meaning that private individuals are free under federal law to sell guns without first conducting a background check or taking any steps to verify that the prospective buyer is legally eligible to buy or possess a gun.4
To date, 22 states and the District of Columbia* have acted to partially or fully close this gap in the law and require background checks for at least some sales by private sellers.5
Why is the background check loophole a problem?
The lack of universal background checks undermines the effectiveness of nearly every other gun safety law. The private sale loophole allows individuals who are prohibited from buying guns to easily evade that law and buy as many guns as they want online, at a gun show, or anywhere else, with no questions asked and no records kept of the sale. This gap in the law also enables gun trafficking, as it allows secondary market sales to take place outside the notice of law enforcement and regulatory authorities. Finally, the failure to require universal background checks frustrates efforts to trace guns used in crimes—a crucial investigative tool that helps solve cases of homicide and other violent gun-related crimes.6
How will requiring universal background checks reduce gun violence and illegal gun trafficking?
Universal background checks are a crucial foundation for a strong and effective system of gun laws. The experiences of states that have closed the background check loophole provide evidence that this is an effective policy to help reduce gun violence and illegal gun trafficking. For example, when Connecticut implemented a law requiring individuals to obtain a permit and undergo a background check before buying a handgun, gun homicide rates in the state fell 40 percent.7 Missouri took the opposite approach and repealed a similar law, leading to a 25 percent increase in gun homicide rates.8 Similar beneficial effects have been seen on gun trafficking. A 2009 study found that intrastate gun trafficking was 48 percent lower in states that required background checks for private handgun sales than in states that did not.9
Universal background checks wouldn’t have prevented some recent mass shootings, so why is this a top priority?
One hundred and three* people are killed with a gun every day in the United States, and hundreds more suffer devastating gunshot injuries.10 While mass shootings tend to gain the most media attention, the reality is that many communities—particularly communities of color—suffer a daily toll of gun violence that often goes unrecognized.11 There is no single policy solution that will end gun violence in this country; this public health crisis requires a comprehensive approach that includes policy, research, and investment in community-based programs.12 However, universal background checks are a foundational element of that comprehensive approach upon which the effectiveness of other policies rests. Enacting this law is a crucial first step in strengthening the nation’s gun laws and saving lives.
*Author’s note: This fact sheet may be periodically updated to account for new policy developments.