Why have background checks?
The idea is to keep firearms out of the hands of known criminals, fugitives, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and domestic violence perpetrators. To that end, Congress established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which became operational in late 1998, to check the names of prospective gun buyers against databases that track the above classifications. The system is managed by the FBI.
Where and when are checks required?
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.