What Are Universal Background Checks? Here Is A Breakdown

Jan 10, 2019
Originally published on January 9, 2019 9:10 am

Lawmakers this week are reintroducing federal legislation that would require background checks on nearly all gun purchases — what they call “universal background checks.” But what are universal background checks? Let’s take a look at what they would — and would not — entail.

What’s Required Now

Generally speaking, federally-licensed firearms dealers — like pawn shops, gun stores and retailers such as Walmart — are required by law to run a background check before selling a firearm.

That often involves the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which handles all background checks for 29 states. Other states use their own background check system or a combination of the two, usually relying on the FBI for rifles and shotguns while running handgun purchases through the state system.

Check how your state handles background checks

Someone who is not a federally-licensed gun dealer can sell a gun without running a background check on the buyer. Such purchases can happen at gun shows or flea markets, or be arranged through an online ad on websites such as Armslist.

Currently, if a gun is sold across state lines, or within state lines to an out-of-state resident, the gun must first be transferred to a licensed dealer, who is required to run a background check before handing the firearm over to the purchaser.

However, federal law forbids private sellers from knowingly selling to a prohibited buyer. If they don’t ask, and the buyer doesn’t tell, then the seller likely won’t be prosecuted for an illegal transaction.

Firearms given as gifts between friends and family are generally treated in the same way as private sales. So if you give your brother a rifle for his birthday, assuming you are both in the same state, there’s no need to complete any paperwork.

What Would Change With Universal Background Checks?

Universal background checks would require most private purchases to run through the same background check process required for licensed dealers.

Private transactions at gun shows or through websites like Armslist would still be possible, but more complicated. Citizens could still buy and sell guns, but they would likely have to transfer the weapon to a licensed dealer to run a background check before completing the transaction.

Most universal background check proposals include exemptions for transferring guns between family members, and for borrowing guns.

Because these private-party gun sales are generally unregulated, it’s not known how many transactions would be affected by a new law requiring universal background checks. In 2017, researchers surveyed 1,613 gun owners and found that about 22 percent of gun purchases in the previous two years were made without a background check.

Would Requiring Universal Background Checks Actually Reduce Gun Violence?

In 2018, the RAND Corporation released a major analysis of 13 gun policies. The study did not involve original research, but rather evaluated existing research to figure out whether there’s any consensus on the effectiveness of various gun policies.

The analysis found “moderate evidence” that universal background checks reduce firearm suicides, which account for roughly 60 percent of gun deaths in the U.S. There is also “moderate evidence” that the existing dealer background checks reduce firearm homicides. Researchers found that current research on the effect of private-seller background checks — the kind which would be implemented under the proposed legislation — is inconclusive.

Also in 2018, Johns Hopkins University researchers studying urban areas found that universal background checks were actually associated with an increase in firearm homicides if the checks were not also accompanied by a permitting system.

Typically called “permit to purchase,” such systems require gun buyers to apply for a permit from local or state law enforcement officials before purchasing a gun. Proponents argue permit to purchase laws help prevent straw purchases — when one person buys a gun on behalf of someone else — because they force the person buying the gun to directly interact with law enforcement officials.

The Johns Hopkins researchers said their findings warrant more study. They also theorized that the increased homicide rate wasn’t caused by the implementation of universal background checks, but the other way around.

“It is possible that states experiencing historically high rates of firearm homicide,” the researchers wrote, “were more likely to implement [universal background checks] to reduce violence. If these states then experienced slower declines in firearm homicide compared to states that did not pass these laws, [universal background checks] would appear harmful.”

What’s Next?

Perhaps the most reliable statistic surrounding universal background checks is the degree to which the general public supports them.

As Politifact wrote in 2017, polls consistently show more than 80 percent of Americans support requiring background checks for all gun sales. Even about 75 percent of National Rifle Association members support such measures, according to surveys.

Nonetheless, it seems unlikely the latest proposal for universal background checks will become law.

In 2017, a similar proposal introduced by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) drew 210 co-sponsors — 14 of them Republicans — but never made it to a vote.

With Democrats now in control of the U.S. House, passage in that chamber seems likely. But the legislation would need significant Republican support to make it through the Senate.

Of course, state legislators across the country are free to enact their own laws. According to the Giffords Law Center, 10 states and the District of Columbia currently require universal background checks.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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