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Fact Sheet

Require Background Checks for All Gun Sales

A glaring gap in the federal law allows individuals to buy a gun without a background check and with no questions asked.

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A man in Florida fills out background check paperwork as he purchases a handgun, January 2016. (Getty/Joe Raedle)
A man in Florida fills out background check paperwork as he purchases a handgun, January 2016. (Getty/Joe Raedle)

Under current federal law, some individuals are prohibited from buying and possessing guns for reasons such as prior felony conviction, history of domestic abuse, or involuntary commitment for mental health treatment. Licensed gun dealers are required to conduct a background check for every gun sale in order to ensure that they are not selling guns to prohibited purchasers.

However, a substantial gap in the law allows unlicensed sellers—such as private individuals who sell guns online, at gun shows, or anywhere else—to sell guns without first conducting a background check. This means that prohibited purchasers can easily evade the law by buying guns through private transactions.

  • A 2017 study found that 22 percent of gun owners who obtained their most recent gun within the past two years did so using a transaction that did not include a background check. The same study also found that 50 percent of gun owners who acquired their most recent gun through a private sale—rather than from a licensed gun dealer—within the past two years did so in a transaction that did not include a background check.1

Universal background checks are an effective way to help reduce gun violence and gun trafficking.

  • When Connecticut implemented a law requiring individuals to obtain a permit and undergo a background check before buying a handgun, gun-related homicides in the state fell 40 percent. When Missouri repealed a similar law, its gun homicides rose 25 percent.2
  • A 2009 study found that intrastate gun trafficking was 48 percent lower in states that required background checks for private handgun sales.3

So far, 19 states and the District of Columbia have acted to require background checks for all handgun sales.4


  1. Matthew Miller, Lisa Hepburn, and Deborah Azrael, “Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks: Results of a National Survey,” Annals of Internal Medicine 166 (4) (2017): 233–239, available at http://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2595892/firearm-acquisition-without-background-checks-results-national-survey.
  2. Kara E. Rudolph and others, “Association Between Connecticut’s Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Law and Homicides,” American Journal of Public Health 105 (8) (2015): 49–54, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4504296/; Daniel Webster, Cassandra Kercher Crifasi, and Jon S. Vernick, “Erratum to: Effects of the Repeal of Missouri’s Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides,” Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 91 (3) (2014): 598–601, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4074329/.
  3. Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, and Maria T. Bulzacchelli, “Effects of State-Level Firearm Seller Accountability Policies on Firearms Trafficking,” Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 86 (4) (2009): 525–537, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2704273/.
  4. Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Universal Background Checks” (2017), available at http://lawcenter.giffords.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/background-checks/universal-background-checks/.

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People protest gun violence in Washington, D.C.

Gun violence in the United States is a public health crisis.

It goes beyond the mass shootings that grab the nation’s attention. Every day, gun violence takes lives from communities all across the country in the form of suicides, unintentional shootings, and interpersonal conflicts that become fatal due to easy access to guns.

Yet this violence is not inevitable. In 2018, the Center for American Progress released a comprehensive analysis of actions that could be taken to reduce gun violence in America. There is no single, simple solution to reducing gun violence in this country. But these commonsense reforms offer a starting point.