This article is part of the Guns & America explainer series. You can read other entries here.
Under current federal law, licensed dealers are required to run background checks on all gun purchases prior to making sales. But this law does not apply to private gun transactions between individuals — either in person or online — potentially providing a practical “loophole” for prohibited persons to obtain firearms.* While polls show widespread support for universal background checks, there is mixed evidence that requiring UBCs for all gun sales would prevent or reduce gun violence.
What Are ‘Universal’ Background Checks?
About 1 in 5 gun transactions in the U.S. occur without a background check, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern University. And another study also from 2017, by the Department of Justice, found that only about 1.5% of the millions of gun background checks run by the FBI annually result in denials.
A federal universal background check law would require all firearm purchasers to pass a criminal records check done by either a state background check system or the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is administered by the FBI. The aim is to identify a larger number of individuals who should be barred from buying a gun by increasing the categories of transactions that require a background check.
Read more: What Are Universal Background Checks?
How Do They Work?
In a state with a universal background check law, a criminal background check is done every time a gun sale is initiated — whether it’s in person at a federally licensed dealer, online, at a gun show or between individuals. If the purchase is made online, the vendor sends the firearm to a licensed dealer, who then runs a background check before completing the sale. The check looks for criminal convictions, a history of mental illness and other factors that would bar someone from buying a gun.
If the purchase is made at a gun show, either the state police is on hand to run the background checks before sales are completed or the seller has a background check set up with NICS at their booth before any sale can be completed.
Proponents of universal background checks argue they reduce gun violence by identifying more prohibited purchasers and prevent gun violence that could be perpetrated by criminals who are able to purchase weapons. Some gun rights groups, however, oppose expanding background checks as unnecessary government intrusion, because they argue most criminals get their guns from family, friends and “black market” street purchases, which would continue to occur. Some also argue UBCs are unconstitutional because such laws might lead to the establishment of a federal gun registry in order to track purchases outside of dealers.
Are UBCs Effective?
Research is mixed as to whether universal background check requirements can reduce gun violence. Some studies have found that UBCs can reduce gun violence and violent crime generally. But other research has found that these policies haven’t led to reductions in gun violence, even after being in place for several years.
The RAND Corporation recently completed a meta-analysis of 18 different gun control policies and found “moderate” evidence that universal background checks decreased both violent crime (including homicides) and suicide rates. A similar, 2017 review of academic literature on gun policies by Harvard University found that more comprehensive background check laws were associated with lower rates of firearm homicides.
But other research has found different outcomes. The state of California has had a comprehensive background check law on the books for 10 years. Researchers at UC Davis School of Medicine have studied gun violence in CA during that period and found there was no change in the number of gun homicides or gun suicides. The researchers use the term “comprehensive background check” instead of universal background check. And another study by the same authors found that the repeal of comprehensive background check laws in Tennessee and Indiana had no effect on gun homicides or suicide rates in either state.
Johns Hopkins School of Public Health looked at comprehensive background check laws in large, urban counties in the U.S. and found they were actually associated with an increase in firearm homicides in those counties. That study found “no benefit” of a CBC law without an accompanying permit-to-purchase law.
So, while the research is mixed on the ability of UBC laws to prevent or reduce gun violence by themselves, several studies have shown that coupled with other gun laws, there can be a documented effect. For example, a 2016 review of gun policy studies in 10 countries by researchers at Columbia University found that countries that combined several gun control laws — licensing/permit requirements, minimum age restrictions, and background checks, for example — had success decreasing gun violence.
The Future of Universal Background Checks
As of May 2020, more than a dozen states have a universal background check law on the books. And in February 2019, the Democrat-led House of Representatives passed a federal universal background check bill that would require a background check for all gun sales, regardless of the platform. The law exempts transfers between family members, however, and some temporary transactions like lending a gun for hunting. So far, the U.S. Senate hasn’t taken up the House’s UBC bill, nor has it proposed one of its own.
At the federal level, we’ve seen a focus on UBCs because unlike other gun control proposals, they don’t involve banning the purchase of specific weapons or ammunition and enjoy bipartisan support, even from gun owners. But barring a change in Republican control of the Senate and/or the presidency, this legislation is unlikely to move forward.
Update, June 29: This story has been updated to reflect that prohibited persons cannot legally acquire firearms.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.