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Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research

Background Checks

Background checks are designed to prevent people prohibited from purchasing guns.

Prohibited purchasers include felons, fugitives, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill. Federal law -- the Brady Act -- requires federally licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks on prospective gun purchasers. Private sales are exempt from federal law however 20 states have laws which require unlicensed sellers to conduct background checks on some or all firearms purchasers. Center research has examined the impact of background checks on numerous outcomes, including trafficking, shootings, and firearm suicides.

Key Statistic

State universal background checks — along with other state laws designed to increase gun seller and purchaser accountability — significantly reduce the number of guns diverted to the illegal market, where high risk groups often get their guns. States without universal background check laws have 30 percent higher levels of exporting across state lines guns that were later recovered from criminals.[1]

“States that have passed background checks without a permit or licensing component have not experienced reductions in violence. This is likely due to a number of factors, including enforcement, implementation and not having a licensing or permit component.”

– Daniel Webster, Center Director

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[1] Webster et al. Effects of state-level firearm seller accountability policies on firearms trafficking.  Journal of Urban Health 2009; 86: 525-537; Webster et al.  Preventing the diversion of guns to criminals through effective firearm sales laws. Pages 109-122 in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis.