Expanded Background Checks

The most dangerous gap in federal firearm laws today is by far the background check loophole. Although federal law requires licensed firearm dealers to perform background checks on prospective purchasers, it does not require unlicensed sellers to do so. A 2017 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine estimated that 22% of US gun owners acquired their most recent firearm without a background check. In other words, millions of Americans buy firearms, no questions asked every year.

According to the US Department of Justice, because federal law fails to require background checks by every person who sells or transfers a gun, “individuals prohibited by law from possessing guns can easily obtain them from private sellers and do so without any federal records of the transactions.” Additionally, because federal law does not require private sellers to inspect a buyer’s driver’s license or any other identification, sellers tare not required to confirm that a buyer is of legal age to purchase a firearm. “The private-party gun market,” a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine observed, “has long been recognized as a leading source of guns used in crimes.”

According to recent national polling data from Quinnipiac, support for expanded background checks is almost universal, 97 – 2 percent, including 97 – 3 percent among gun owners. Even in Tennessee, a “red” state with a high percentage of gun owners, polling done by both Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State University in 2015, indicate the majority of Tennesseans support expanding background checks to all gun sales, with one poll indicating 83% support and the other at 84%.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is responsible for processing background checks for licensed dealers. Each year, they issue a report detailing how many checks they processed, including how many were denied. While some denials may be successfully appealed, every year thousands of individuals who are legally prohibited from purchasing firearms are prevented from doing so.

The question then becomes, what do those individuals do? While some may choose not to pursue buying a gun, others will seek out private sellers and will obtain a gun without a background check. Gun exchanges, such as Armslist.com and various Facebook groups make it easy to find a private seller, negotiate a price online, then meet in person and exchange cash for a firearm, no questions asked. Or, the prohibited purchaser may go to a gun show to buy a gun without a background check. Although official gun show vendors are required to have a federal firearms licenses and can only sell to people who have successfully passed a background check, private sellers are also allowed to sell firearms. It is not uncommon to see them walking around gun shows, carrying a firearm with a “for sale” sign taped to it, or standing around the periphery. In Tennessee, obtaining firearms in this way, from private sellers and without a background check is legal.

Expanding background checks will have no impact whatsoever to the vast majority of gun owners, the majority of which not only support universal background checks, but who also buy their firearms from licensed dealers. Twenty other states have already passed some version of expanded background checks, and that number is likely to climb as public demand for better gun laws continues to grow, nationally and in Tennessee.

Gun violence prevention organizations and public health researchers are not the only groups who favor closing the background check loophole. Law enforcement has long called for this issue to be addressed. In May of 2018, the Major Cities Chiefs Association gathered in Nashville to discuss measures to prevent gun violence. They released a “Firearms Violence Policy” press release. The first policy statement states: “Establish a strong system for universal background checks to cover all firearm purchases, with no exceptions.” At their 2015 meeting, one of the superintendents said of expanded background checks, “This is a no-brainer, this is the simplest thing in the world.”

Considering the life-saving potential of expanded background checks, and the fact that so many Tennessee voters want to see them passed, Safe Tennessee is recommending that our state join the 20 other states in passing this legislation.

Read our full report on Expanded Background Checks here.