The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021 (H.R. 8) would save lives and protect our communities from gun violence by requiring a background check on all gun sales—not just in brick-and-mortar stores, but rather in all places guns are sold today. Background checks are the foundation of any effective effort to reduce gun violence in this country, and these laws enjoy broad public approval, with polls showing that 93 percent of American voters support requiring background checks on all gun sales—including 89 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of gun owners.1https://www.everytown.org/documents/2021/01/everytown-giffords-gun-safety-memo.pdf/ As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has intensified our country’s gun violence crisis, it’s now more important than ever for Congress to take swift action by requiring a background check on all gun sales.
A loophole in federal law creates endless opportunities for individuals with dangerous histories to easily acquire guns, with no questions asked.
- For decades, the federal background check system has been instrumental in ensuring that people who are prohibited from having a firearm—such as those with felony convictions, certain domestic abusers, and fugitives from justice—are not able to purchase from a licensed gun dealer.
- Since the inception of the background check system in 1994, background checks have largely worked as intended, with more than 3.5 million illegal sales denied over the past 26 years.2Data from 1994 to 2015 obtained from Karberg et al., “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2015.” Data from 2016 to 2019 were obtained by Everytown from the FBI directly. Though the majority of the transactions and denials reported by the FBI and BJS are associated with a firearm sale or transfer, a small number may be for concealed carry permits and other reasons not related to a sale or transfer. In 2019 alone, nearly 170,000 sales were denied—37 percent of them to people with felony convictions.3Data obtained by Everytown from the FBI directly pursuant to a FOIA request. The data represents denial transactions from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) from January 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019. The numbers include denials issued by state agencies that serve as Full/Partial Points of Contact for firearm background checks.
- However, federal law requires a background check on a prospective gun buyer only when the seller is a licensed gun dealer, leaving all other sales—such as unlicensed gun sales negotiated over the internet—unregulated and with no background check required.
- Since the introduction of the federal background check system twenty-five years ago, the internet has emerged as a massive, unregulated marketplace—with tens of thousands of anonymous gun purchases made through websites such as Armslist.com (“Armslist”), the self-proclaimed “largest free gun classifieds on the web.”
In too many tragic homicide cases, prohibited purchasers have been able to arm themselves simply because the law didn’t require a background check.
- H.R. 8 could have saved a woman who was shot and killed in January 2018 in Appleton, WI by her husband, who was able to purchase the firearm from a seller he met online, despite his prohibiting felony conviction.4Alison Dirr, Appleton Post-Crescent, “Five years apart, Armslist was source of guns in high-profile domestic violence cases,” Sep. 19, 2018, available at https://bit.ly/2Pu4YI9.
- It could have saved a woman, her husband, and six children—aged 6 to 13—who were all killed by her former partner in August 2015 near Houston, TX. Despite an extensive prohibiting criminal history, the killer was able to buy a gun from a stranger he met online.5Miya Shay, ABC, “Family massacre suspect reportedly details how 8 killings were planned, executed,” Aug. 12, 2015, available at https://abc7.ws/2PQLeKC.
- And it could have saved the life of a woman who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in May 2016 in North Las Vegas, NV. The killer, who also seriously injured her two children in the shooting, was prohibited due to a restraining order against him, but was able to purchase a firearm from an unlicensed seller.6Kimber Laux, Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Report reveals details about North Las Vegas day care shooting,” June 17, 2016, available at https://bit.ly/2q3gvim.
Dramatic research shows the scale of this gaping loophole, as the vast market for no-questions-asked online gun sales has soared during the Covid pandemic.
- Each year, a whopping 1.2 million online ads offering firearms for sale are listed on Armslist that would not legally require a background check to be completed.
- Each one of those posts is an opportunity for a prohibited purchaser to acquire a gun. And research shows prohibited purchasers actively seek out these unregulated ads: One in nine people looking to buy guns from unlicensed sellers would fail a background check, a rate seven times higher than the denial rate at gun stores.7Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Unchecked: An Investigation of the Online Firearm Marketplace. February 2021. https://bit.ly/3ufNKio.
- Throughout the pandemic, demand for guns from the online marketplace has dramatically increased. The surge in demand at gun stores has been well documented, but research shows the surge extends to sales that can take place with no background check. The average number of posts on Armslist between March and September 2020 by people looking to purchase a firearm in states that do not require background checks on all sales doubled over the same period in 2019.8Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. Undeniable: How Long-Standing Loopholes in the Background Check System Have Been Exacerbated by COVID-19. December 2020. https://bit.ly/2M7E9ZJ.
Congress can blunt the dangers of the online gun marketplace by requiring background checks on all gun sales—without creating burdens for gun buyers.
- Under H.R. 8, unlicensed sellers would meet their buyers at a licensed gun dealer, who would run a background check using exactly the same process already used for sales from their own inventory.
- An investigation found that, among unlicensed sellers on Armslist, 84 percent of those in states with background checks laws stated the sale would require a check, while only 6 percent of those in states without those laws indicated they would require a background check.9Everytown for Gun Safety. Unchecked: Over 1 Million Online Firearm Ads, No Background Checks Required. February 2019. https://every.tw/2UXjYwf.
- Requiring background checks on all gun sales would not be burdensome to law-abiding Americans. In fact, 99 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a gun dealer—so it’s easy and convenient to get the background check done.10Everytown analysis of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) dealers and U.S. population. Data on licensed gun dealers were obtained from the ATF through November 2018 here: https://bit.ly/2SPLs9O . Data on census block groups were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau here: https://bit.ly/2BCfBzw . Distance was calculated between the centroid of each census block group and each licensed dealer to determine the closest dealer.
- Twenty-two states and D.C. already require background checks for all handgun sales—either via point-of-sale background checks, as part of a purchase permit, or both.11Eleven states require only a point-of-sale check for sales by unlicensed handgun sellers (CA, CO, DE, NV, NM, NC, OR, PA, VA, VT, and WA), seven states require only a background check on those sales pursuant to a purchase permit (HI, IA, IL, MA, MI, NE, and RI), and four states and DC require a background check at both occasions (CT, DC, MD, NJ, and NY). Thirteen of these states have enacted or improved those background checks laws since the Sandy Hook massacre.12CA, CO, CT, DE, MD, NV, NJ, NM, NY, OR, VA, VT, and WA.
- Today, more than half of Americans are covered by these comprehensive state background checks laws.13U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July, 2017. (2017). Available here: https://bit.ly/2ui5jTR. Data for 2017 used.
Evidence shows that requiring background checks on all gun sales would save lives and make American communities safer.
- State laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales—by point-of-sale check and/or permit—are associated with lower firearm homicide rates,14Siegel M, Boine C. What are the most effective policies in reducing firearm homicides? Rockefeller Government Institute. 2019. lower firearm suicide rates,15Fleegler EW, Lee LK, Monuteaux MC, Hemenway D, Mannix R. Firearm legislation and firearm-related fatalities in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2013; 173(9):732-740. and lower firearm trafficking.16Webster DW, Vernick JS, Bulzacchelli MT. Effects of state-level firearm seller accountability policies on firearm trafficking. Journal of Urban Health. 2009. 86(4):525–537; Federal law bars felons from having firearms, but does not bar misdemeanors outside the domestic violence context. Webster DW, Vernick JS, McGinty EE, & Alcorn T. Preventing the diversion of guns to criminals through effective firearm sales laws. In Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. 2013.Vol. 9781421411118, pp. 109-121.
- A 2019 analysis found that states with laws requiring background checks for all gun sales are associated with 10 percent lower homicide rates.17Siegel M, Boine C. What are the most effective policies in reducing firearm homicides? Rockefeller Government Institute. 2019.
- State laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales are associated with 48 percent lower rates of gun trafficking in cities18Webster DW, Vernick JS, Bulzacchelli MT. Effects of state-level firearm seller accountability policies on firearm trafficking. Journal of Urban Health. 2009. 86(4):525–537. and 29 percent lower rates of gun trafficking across state lines.19Federal law bars felons from having firearms, but does not bar misdemeanors outside the domestic violence context. Webster DW, Vernick JS, McGinty EE, & Alcorn T. Preventing the diversion of guns to criminals through effective firearm sales laws. In Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. 2013.Vol. 9781421411118, pp. 109-121.