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What You Need to Know about Background Checks for Guns

What You Need to Know about Background Checks for Guns

There are several ways to buy guns in the US. You can buy them from a licensed retail outlet, a gun show, online, and through a private sale.

Background checks are only required if you purchase a gun through a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL), which includes retailers (anyone from Walmart to mom and pop shops) and some individuals. You do not need to undergo a background check if you buy a gun online, through a gun show, or through some private sales. You can check the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to see FFLs in your state.

Many states also have additional laws about gun background checks, so be sure to check them before purchasing a gun.

History of Gun Background Checks

The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This act prohibited certain people from buying guns, such as fugitives, people convicted of crimes that were punished by a prison sentence of a year or more, substance abusers, and people convicted of domestic violence crimes.

The 1968 act also required retailers and individuals selling firearms to obtain a Federal Firearms License (FFL) and meet certain requirements.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (commonly known as the Brady Law) was later passed in 1993 after press secretary Jim Brady was shot during an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. The Brady Law requires all FFLs to run background checks on people purchasing guns, through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

How a Background Check for Guns Works

If you decide to buy a gun from an FFL, you have to fill out a 4473 Form (also called a Firearms Transaction Record). After you fill out the form, the person selling you a gun will run your information through NICS, which is maintained by the FBI.

Running a background check through NICS takes about 30 seconds. If there is nothing on your record that prohibits you from buying a gun, you can go ahead with your purchase. You will not be allowed to purchase a gun if something in your record disqualifies you.

Under the Brady Law, if there's something in your record that needs further investigation, then the FBI has three business days (not including the day they run your initial background check) to get back to you. If the FBI doesn't either approve or deny you after three business days, then you can go ahead and buy a gun.

What Disqualifies You from Buying a Gun?

According to the FBI, you cannot purchase a gun if you...

  • Were convicted of a crime that carried a sentence of more than one year, or a misdemeanor that carried a sentence of over two years
  • Are a fugitive (i.e. there's a felony or misdemeanor warrant for your arrest)
  • Are an addict
  • Are diagnosed mentally ill, which can include being involuntarily committed, found not guilty by reason of insanity, or found unfit to stand trial
  • Reside in the US illegally
  • Are dishonorably discharged from the military
  • Had a restraining ordered issued against you (i.e. found guilty of harassing, stalking, or threatening a partner or the child of your partner)
  • Were convicted of domestic violence (i.e. convicted of using or threatening to use a deadly weapon against a spouse, former spouse, parent, guardian of the victim, etc.)
  • Have renounced your US citizenship

What Else Do You Need to Know About Background Checks for Guns?

It's important to note that in addition to federal laws, each state also has its own gun background check laws. Make sure you check your state's laws about who can own a gun and what the background check process looks like.


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