The Need for Universal Background Checks

The Need for Universal Background Checks

The article below was written by Thomas Gabor, LWVF member and author of the just-released book, Confronting Gun Violence in America. His book has been endorsed by leading academics, women’s groups, law enforcement officials, interfaith groups, and journalists. It has been’s #1 new release in criminology.

The Need for Universal Background Checks

Research provides considerable support for the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence’s aim of expanding background checks to all firearm transfers. Background checks are a critical part of screening individuals to determine their suitability for gun ownership. Federal law specifies some prohibited categories (e.g., minors, the mentally defective, and felons convicted for serious crimes) and these prohibitions have been upheld even by the current gun-friendly US Supreme Court (Heller decision, 2008). The gun lobby resists expanded background checks even though such checks accomplish what the gun lobby says is needed; policies that prohibit “real” criminals from gaining access to guns. It is through proper screening of prospective gun buyers that we can keep guns from falling into the wrong hands.

Currently, our system of screening buyers has some serious defects. One major flaw is that 40% of gun transfers are private and require no background check at all. For those sales conducted through licensed dealers, the only requirement with regard to a background check is that the dealer contact the FBI, several databases are checked, and the sale can usually proceed in a matter of minutes. If there is an alert on the file and the FBI does not complete the check in 3 business days, the sale must proceed. This provision led to the issuing of a Glock handgun to Dylann Roof, the mass shooter in Charleston, South Carolina, as the FBI could not find his complete file within 3 days.

The existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has blocked 2.4 million sales since 1998, so such checks have prevented many prohibited persons from buying firearms. However, we need to close the loopholes that allow these individuals from buying guns on the private market. It has been found that 1 in 30 people who post ads seeking to buy firearms on, an online firearms marketplace, have prohibiting criminal records. This is four times higher than those who try to buy from licensed dealers. In addition, some individuals who are actually dealers pose as private sellers. Nearly a third of ads on were posted by high-volume private sellers who posted five or more ads over an eight-week period. Pretending to be private sellers can get them around licensing requirements and the need to conduct background checks.

Offenders who use guns in crime overwhelmingly obtain their guns through private sales. A survey of state prison inmates in 13 states who were convicted of gun offenses found that nearly all (96.1%) of those inmates who were already prohibited from possessing a gun at the time of the crime obtained the firearm through an unlicensed private seller. According to an undercover investigation conducted by the City of New York, 62% of private online firearm sellers agreed to sell a firearm to a buyer even after the buyer had told the seller that he or she probably could not pass a background check. One study by The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) found that during a 29-month period, unlicensed sellers were involved in about one-fifth of illegal trafficking investigations nationwide and were linked to nearly 23,000 trafficked guns.

Research shows that in states with more expansive background check laws—over 18 states require checks for private handgun sales—48 %fewer women are fatally shot by their intimate partners, 49 % fewer police officers are murdered with handguns, and 49 % fewer suicides are committed with guns. In addition, states without universal background check laws have been found to export 30 % more guns that are used in crime across state lines.  Another study found that states conducting background checks for restraining orders and fugitive status had fewer homicide and suicide deaths.


Repeated polls have shown that over 90% of the American public supports laws requiring background checks on all gun purchasers, regardless of whether they buy weapons from licensed dealers or private sellers. A survey conducted for the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2013 found that 84% of gun owners and 74% of NRA members also support requiring a universal background check system for all gun sales.


I would recommend that:

  • All firearm transactions be conducted through licensed dealers.
  • A mandatory waiting period of 10 business days be imposed for the delivery of any firearm. This provides for a “cooling-off” period for individuals bent on committing a homicide or suicide and gives authorities more time to conduct background checks.
  • Ensure that the states have sufficient resources to forward all information relevant to a thorough background check to the FBI’s NICS.
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