Expert Commentary

Universal background checks and gun permits: What the research says

Federal law doesn't require background checks for private gun sales. Many 2020 Democrats favor background checks for all gun purchases. Can universal background checks curb gun violence? Here's what the research says.

(M&R Glasgow / Creative Commons)

In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, the Journalist’s Resource team is combing through the Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms and reporting what the research says about their policy proposals. We want to encourage deep coverage of these proposals — and to do our part to help deter horse race journalism, which research suggests can lead to inaccurate reporting and an uninformed electorate. Our criteria for the proposals we’re covering is simple: We’re focusing on proposals that have a reasonable chance of becoming policy, and for us that means at least 3 of the 5 top-polling candidates need to have indicated they intend to tackle the issue. Here, we explore what the research says on universal background checks and permit-to-purchase gun legislation.

Candidates favoring universal background checks

Michael Bennet*, Joe Biden, Cory Booker*, Pete Buttigieg,* Julián Castro*, John Delaney*, Tulsi Gabbard*, Kamala Harris*, Amy Klobuchar*, Bernie Sanders*, Tom Steyer*, Elizabeth Warren*, Marianne Williamson*, Andrew Yang*

Candidates favoring gun permits

Cory Booker*, Pete Buttigieg*, Julián Castro*, Kamala Harris*, Amy Klobuchar,* Bernie Sanders*, Tom Steyer*, Elizabeth Warren*, Marianne Williamson*, Andrew Yang*

What the research says

In general, academic studies do not show that background checks alone for firearm purchases substantially reduce firearm deaths.

Instead, a growing body of research suggests that universal background checks can be effective when combined with licensing strategies, such as permit-to-purchase. Under permit-to-purchase regulations, a gun buyer must pass a background check to obtain a permit to purchase a firearm.

Key context

There are two markets for legal gun sales in America. One market is regulated. The other isn’t.

When candidates favor “universal background checks,” they want all legal gun buyers to be subject to a criminal and mental health background check. Today, for certain gun sales, sellers do not have to run a background check on customers. This is sometimes called the “gun-show loophole,” though people buying from federally licensed dealers at gun shows still need to pass a background check. Private sales between people who live in the same state, such as private sales at gun shows or online, do not require a background check — though roughly a dozen states require background checks for all types of gun sales.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 was the first federal legislation that aimed to track firearm commerce. It established the federal licensing system for firearms dealers. The act applies to people who sell guns as a business.

The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 confined the federal government’s authority in enforcing the GCA. For example, the FOPA limits how often federal agents can inspect gun dealers for violations. The FOPA also makes clear that private sales are precluded from regulation. A person who engages in “occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms” doesn’t need a federal license.

The national instant criminal background check system was established in 1998 as part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act — sometimes called the Brady Act, Brady Bill or Brady Law — which President Bill Clinton signed in 1993. The act was named for and championed by James Brady, onetime press secretary to President Ronald Reagan. Brady was shot in the head in March 1981 during an assassination attempt on Reagan. Brady lived with physical disabilities for the rest of his life. His death in 2014 was ruled a homicide.

The Brady Law imposed a five-day waiting period before a licensed dealer could transfer a handgun to a buyer. This provision expired, as intended, in 1998. A permanent provision that went into force that year established the federal background check system that now exists. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is responsible for enforcing federal gun control legislation. The FBI runs background checks.

There are 36 jurisdictions in which sellers contact the FBI directly for checks. In 13 states, state agencies conduct checks by electronically accessing the NICS, as the national instant criminal background check system is often called. The rest of the states have a mix of checks that either the state or FBI conducts, depending on the type of gun being purchased.

Federally licensed and private vendors both sell at gun shows. The most recent analysis of how gun owners got their firearms was published in 2017 in the Annals of Internal Medicine and included 1,613 adult gun owners who took a nationally representative, web-based survey. This survey found 22% of participants obtained firearms within the last two years without a background check. News outlets and academic researchers regularly cite this survey as the best available recent estimate. The analysis was primarily funded by organizations that support stricter gun control, but the authors note in their paper that the “funders did not play a role in the design, conduct, or reporting of the research or in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.”

A Pew Research poll from October 2019 finds 93% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans “favor background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows.” Support for other proposals, like assault weapons bans, tend to fall along partisan lines, with Democrats more widely supportive than Republicans, according to Pew.

The ATF keeps an updated list of state gun laws. Eleven states and the District of Columbia require background checks for all commercial firearm transactions, and Nevada will join the list in early 2020, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that provides technical assistance on gun control policy to legislators and advocates. Background check records are destroyed within 24 hours after the check is completed. This period was previously 90 days, but the Department of Justice shortened the period to no more than 24 hours in the mid-2000s. Five states allow municipalities to enact their own gun laws.

The FBI has completed roughly 328 million firearm background checks since 1998. It conducted about 26 million last year. There are 12 reasons the FBI denies gun sales. From November 1998 through October 2019, the FBI denied nearly 1.7 million gun sales. More than half of those denials were because the potential purchaser had been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison, or a misdemeanor punishable by more than two years.

If the FBI cannot complete a background check within three days, a federally licensed dealer may — but isn’t required to — complete the sale. From 2006 to 2015, there were roughly 6,700 guns sold to people with domestic violence records after the FBI did not meet the three-day deadline, according to an analysis from the Government Accountability Office, an independent nonpartisan congressional watchdog. Several states allow the three-day federal deadline to be extended. In Utah, a gun purchase can’t happen until an NICS background check is completed.

The number of firearms sold after the three-day deadline to people who should have been denied has doubled in recent years, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. The U.S. Senate hasn’t taken up a bill the House passed earlier this year that would extend the deadline to at least 10 days.

Gun buyers who are denied on the regulated gun market may turn to the unregulated market. Some three-quarters of people incarcerated for gun crimes got their firearms from someone who did not legally have to conduct a background check, according to a 2017 review of research and state gun laws published in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics.

To recap, some legal gun sales are regulated while other gun sales are unregulated. Between one-fifth and one-quarter of legal gun sales are unregulated, according to the latest research. A gun store owner has to be federally licensed, run background checks on customers and record firearm sales. Someone selling a gun online doesn’t need to run a background check or record the sale. Licensed and unlicensed vendors sell side by side at gun shows. Another bill the U.S. House passed in early 2019 would require background checks for private sales, but that bill hasn’t moved in the U.S. Senate since March.

Formative findings

One of the first studies to look into the Brady Law was published in August 2000 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The authors analyzed firearm homicides and suicide rates from 1985 to 1997 in the 32 states that did not have comparable legislation. As a control, they also analyzed those rates in the 18 states that already had similar legislation. The authors found homicide and suicide rates didn’t change much after the law was passed. Only the rate of firearm suicides for people aged 55 and older declined. This relationship was particularly evident in states with waiting periods and background checks, as opposed to only background checks. In a blog post, the authors characterize the Brady Law as having a “useful — but modest” effect on keeping guns out of the hands of people who the federal government prohibits from having them. They note that the secondary gun market is unregulated, as it remains today.

A task force of doctors from government agencies and academia in 2005 published a comprehensive literature review in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on whether firearm laws reduce violence. The authors found four studies, including the one mentioned above from JAMA, that explored background checks. They note that the suicide reduction observed among people age 55 and older seems linked to waiting periods and not necessarily to felony restrictions. Yet another early study, published in the American Journal of Public Health and mentioned in the literature review, found that denying handgun sales to felons was associated with a 20% to 30% lower risk of those felons committing new gun-related or violent crimes.

The JAMA and AJPH studies aren’t necessarily contradictory. They simply take different approaches. The JAMA study looked at violence that happened before and after the Brady Law. The AJPH study tried to peer at the other side of the coin — at violence that didn’t happen.

Recent research

There is not much recent, federally-funded research on gun violence. In 1996, Congress passed legislation that prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” That means there is little federal funding to examine gun violence on a national scale.

In February 2019, researchers writing in the Annals of Epidemiology examined California’s longstanding background check law. The authors looked at elements of the law that require criminal background checks for almost all gun sales in the state and prevent nearly everyone convicted of violent misdemeanors from buying a firearm for a decade. There was no association between these laws and changes in the firearm homicide rate in California, according to the paper. The authors note incomplete data and potential lack of enforcement could affect their findings.

Another study from July 2018, published in Epidemiology, likewise found no apparent association between repeals of comprehensive background check laws in Indiana and Tennessee and changes in firearm suicide and homicide rates in those states.

One study from 2016 published in The Lancet analyzed firearm-related deaths in all states from 2008 to 2010. This study considered how different gun control laws — 25 in all — affect firearm death rates. The study was cross-sectional, meaning it offered a snapshot in time. The authors found that federally-mandated, universal background checks — sometimes called comprehensive background checks — could reduce firearm deaths in the U.S. by 57%. But behavioral scientists at RAND Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and analysis organization, took exception to the paper, citing “a number of serious analytical errors that we suspected could undermine the article’s conclusions.”

RAND authors Terry Schell and Andrew Morral write: “Our corrected analyses found no statistically significant evidence for any of the article’s major conclusions.” The lead author of The Lancet paper, Bindu Kalesan, and her co-authors responded, describing Schell and Morral’s analysis as “a skewed reading of the evidence, and a singular view of common sense.”

The research is clearer that background checks can reduce gun violence when those checks are done in tandem with permit-to-purchase programs. A June 2018 study in the Journal of Urban Health found that for large, urban counties, permit-to-purchase laws were associated with a 14% drop in firearm homicides. Comprehensive background checks alone, meanwhile, were associated with increases in firearm homicide in large urban areas. Ten states and the District of Columbia have permit-to-purchase laws, according to the authors. This permitting process, “may include a more thorough background check which law enforcement can take 30 days or more to complete,” they write.

Connecticut passed a permit-to-purchase law in 1995. Over the next decade, the law was associated with a 40% drop in firearm homicide rates, according to August 2015 research in the American Journal of Public Health. In Missouri, firearm homicide rates increased 23% in the three years after Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase requirement in 2007, according to an April 2014 study in the Journal of Urban Health.

“Given the body of evidence on the effectiveness of licensing laws and the increasing levels of support among the population, including gun owners, policy makers should consider handgun purchaser licensing as a complement to [comprehensive background check] laws,” conclude Johns Hopkins University researchers Cassandra Crifasi, Alexander McCourt and Daniel Webster in their June 2019 white paper on permit-to-purchase programs.

Further reading

Gun Control: National Instant Criminal Background Check System Operations and Related Legislation

Congressional Research Service, October 2019

The gist: “This report provides an overview of federal firearms background check procedures, analysis of recent legislative action, discussion about possible issues for Congress, and related materials.”

No Silver Bullet: Firearm Laws and Pediatric Death Prevention

Lois Lee and Judy Schaechter. Pediatrics, August 2019.

The gist: “As meaningful as universal background checks appear, there is no single silver-bullet policy that will lead to significant reductions in pediatric gun deaths throughout the pediatric age range. Rather than the effect of 1 law, it is more likely that the synergistic effects of multiple laws targeting different aspects of firearm regulations will be required to substantially decrease firearm fatalities in the United States.”

Media Coverage and Firearm Acquisition in the Aftermath of a Mass Shooting

Maurizio Porfiri, Raghu Ram Sattanapalle, Shinnosuke Nakayama, James Macinko and Rifat Sipahi. Nature Human Behaviour, Letters, June 2019.

The gist: “Our results demonstrate that media coverage may increase public worry about more stringent firearm control and partially drive increases in firearm prevalence.”

Few Individuals Denied Firearms Purchases Are Prosecuted and ATF Should Assess Use of Warning Notices in Lieu of Prosecutions

U.S. Government Accountability Office, September 2018.

The gist: “Federal and selected state law enforcement agencies that process firearm-related background checks through the [NICS] collectively investigate and prosecute a small percentage of individuals who falsify information on a firearms form (e.g., do not disclose a felony conviction) and are denied a purchase.”

Effects of Policies Designed to Keep Firearms from High-Risk Individuals

Daniel Webster and Garen Wintemute. Annual Review of Public Health, January 2015.

The gist: “Mounting evidence indicates that certain laws intended to increase the accountability of firearm sellers to avoid risky transfers of firearms are effective in curtailing the diversion of guns to criminals, in particular the more rigorous [permit-to-purchase] handgun laws, comprehensive background checks, strong regulation and oversight of gun dealers, and laws requiring gun owners to promptly report lost or stolen firearms.”

Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Fatalities in the United States

Eric Fleegler, Lois Lee, Michael Monuteaux, David Hemenway and Rebekah Mannix. JAMA Internal Medicine, May 2013.

The gist: “A higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state, overall and for suicides and homicides individually.”

State Background Checks and Firearms Homicides

Rick Ruddell and G. Larry Mays. Journal of Criminal Justice, March-April 2005.

The gist: “The large number of firearms circulating within the United States makes it likely that a motivated — but ineligible — person could obtain a firearm over the long-term in the secondary firearms market. Effective state background checks, however, may temporarily frustrate an unauthorized person from obtaining a firearm that, in turn, may contribute to lower firearms homicide rates.”

Subject experts

Philip Cook, professor emeritus, Duke University.

Cassandra Crifasi, assistant professor, Johns Hopkins University.

Gretta Goodwin, Homeland Security and Justice director, Government Accountability Office.

Bindu Kalesan, assistant professor, Boston University School of Medicine.

Louis Lee, senior associate in medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital.

Jens Ludwig, Crime Lab director, University of Chicago.

Matthew Miller, professor, Northeastern University.

John Vernick, professor, Johns Hopkins University.

Daniel Webster, professor, Johns Hopkins University.

Garen Wintemute, Violence Prevention Research Program director, University of California Davis.


*Dropped out of race since publication date.

About The Author