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Gun debate 101: Time for 'universal' background checks on buyers?

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Those in the gun business – manufacturers, importers, dealers – must obtain a federal license, and all licensees are already required to run a background check before selling a firearm to a buyer.  This is true whether the licensee is selling firearms from a store or at one of the thousands of gun shows held each year across the United States.

However, after an individual has bought a gun, he or she is free to sell it to another – a relative, a friend, or a stranger – without obtaining a background check on that new buyer. These so-called “private sales” sometimes occur at gun shows, leading reformers to decry the “gun show loophole.” These private sales are the target of any move to require “universal” background checks.

How often do background checks prevent a gun sale?

More than 100 million background checks have been run in the 14 years the NICS has been in place. As of the close of 2012, sales have been denied 987,578 times, the FBI reports.

The top reason for a federal denial – 577,814 instances – is that the prospective gun buyer had been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year (or a misdemeanor punishable by more than two years). In 143,852 cases the basis for denial pertained to domestic violence – either a restraining order or a misdemeanor conviction. Mental health, believed to be pertinent in the Virginia Tech massacre, the Colorado movie theater shooting, and the slaughter of innocents in Newtown, Conn., was the reason for an NICS denial in 10,180 cases.

Of course, it’s impossible to know whether denied individuals were subsequently able to obtain firearms through a private sale or theft.

What share of gun sales is private, without background checks?

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