What Are Background Checks?

Our schools, communities, and public places are less safe when firearms are sold without background checks. That’s why Sandy Hook Promise supports legislation that expands the requirement for background checks.


What are background checks?

Background checks are a tool to help keep guns from getting into the hands of individuals who may harm themselves or others. To do so, background checks identify individuals who are prohibited by federal law from purchasing and owning a firearm, such as convicted felons and domestic abusers.

Background checks have been shown to help save lives. Since the federal background check requirement became effective in 1994, more than 3 million illegal gun sales have been stopped by a background check.1


What is not working with the current background check system?

Currently, federal law only requires background checks when the gun seller is a licensed dealer. Unlicensed private sellers, including those who make sales at gun shows and engage in internet sales, aren’t required to perform background checks on the people they sell guns to. This loophole gives prohibited people a safe and easy way to buy guns. In 2015, 22% of Americans who had acquired a gun in the two years prior reported doing so without a background check.2

State laws that have closed the private sale loophole – also known as the stranger–to–stranger loophole - and expanded background checks for all handgun sales are associated with lower rates of firearm homicides, suicides and gun trafficking.3


Is there support for universal background checks?

Yes. More than 90% of Americans support universal background checks, including roughly 89% of Republicans and 87% of gun owners.4


How long do background checks take?

At least 90% of NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) background checks provide an answer almost immediately.5 The average processing time for an electronic NICS check is 107 seconds.6


Are background checks accurate?

The FBI’s quality control evaluations suggest that background checks are accurate approximately 99.3 to 99.8% of the time.7 Background checks rarely provide false-positive results.


Which states have expanded their background check laws?

As of January 2020, 21 states (CA, CO, CT, DE, HI, IA, IL, MA, MD, MI, NC, NE, NJ, NM, NV, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, and WA) and DC have passed legislation to extend the federal background check requirement to cover at least some forms of private sale.8


How can we pass background checks?

H.R.8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, passed in the House of Representatives in February 2019. Now, we need action from the Senate.

Call your senators and ask them to bring S.42, the Background Check Expansion Act, to a vote!

Send an email to your senator or dial 1-844-693-6324 to give them a call now to demand action.

Email Your Senator


1. Karberg JC, et al., “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2015—Statistical Tables,” US Department of Justice: Bureau of Justice Statistics (2017).

2. Miller M, Hepburn L, Azrael D. Firearm acquisition without background checks: results of a national survey. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2017; 166(4):233-239

3. Webster D, Crifasi CK, Vernick JS. Effects of Missouri’s Repeal of Its Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides. J Urban Health. 2014 Jun; 91(3):598-601.

4. Quinnipiac University. U.S. Voters Oppose Trump Emergency Powers On Wall 2-1 Quinnipiac University National Poll Finds; 86% Back Democrats' Bill On Gun Background Checks. March 6, 2019.

5. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services. National Instant Criminal Background Check System Celebrates 20 Years of Service. November 30, 2018.

6. Federal Bureau of Investigation. About NICS. (n.d.).

7. Office of the Inspector General, “Audit of the Handling of Firearms Purchase Denials Through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System,” US Department of Justice, September 2016.

8. Giffords Law Center. Universal Background Checks. (n.d.).