Do Background Checks on Firearms Really Work?

Blossom Paravattil and Sarah Miller, RN

September 2010

You have probably heard that to buy a gun in the United States, you must first be cleared by a background check. The law that requires this is called the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. This law requires background checks to be performed by the FBI, police, a sheriff’s office, or other law enforcement agency on individuals who purchase a gun from a federally licensed firearm dealer. A dealer is not allowed to sell a person a firearm if a background check shows that the buyer is under indictment or has been convicted of a crime punishable by more than 1 year in prison; is a fugitive from justice; is unlawfully a user of a controlled substance; has been judged to be mentally unable to make his or her own decisions; has been admitted to a mental institution; was dishonorably discharged from the armed services; has renounced U.S. citizenship; is subject to a restraining order; or has been convicted of domestic violence.

This makes sense. A person who has committed violent crimes in the past is more likely to use a gun to commit future violent crimes. It may make a difference, though, whether background checks are done by the FBI or a local agency like a police department or sheriff’s office. Local agencies have all the same information as the FBI, but may also have additional information that is not reported to the FBI and therefore is not in the FBI database. Each state decides whether local law enforcement or the FBI will do background checks within that state.

Twenty-nine states require that the background check be done by a state or local law enforcement agency, while 21 permit background checks by the FBI.    Which is better?  A 2008 study by researchers from the Injury Research Center was conducted to find out whether the additional information available to local law enforcement agencies made a difference in keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

The researchers compared rates of gun-related suicides and homicides between areas where background checks were performed by local law enforcement agencies and areas where they were performed by the FBI between the years 2002 and 2004. They found that areas where background checks by local law enforcement agencies were required had 27% lower rates of gun-related suicides and 22% lower rates of gun-related murders.[i]

Are local law enforcement agencies more careful than the FBI, or do they have additional information that helps them prevent guns from getting into the hands of people who will use them to commit crimes or hurt themselves?  One problem with the 2008 study is that the researchers did not look at or take into account gun control laws within the states. It is possible that states that require background checks by local law enforcement agencies also have stricter gun control laws.

For example, some states only allow customers to purchase one gun per month. This prevents people from purchasing guns in bulk and re-selling them to people who would otherwise not be able to get them.  Many states also prohibit the selling of certain types of automatic weapons and very lightweight guns such as “Saturday night specials,” which tend to appeal to criminals.

Such laws could account for the difference in suicide and homicide rates. The researchers who did the study speculate that states requiring local background checks are also states where stricter gun control laws are valued. Therefore, these states probably have stricter gun control laws than states that only require an FBI background check.

More research is needed to conclude which policies are most important at preventing firearm-related deaths, but the results suggest that stricter gun-control laws may help.


[i] Sumner, SA; Layde, PM; & Guse, CE; Firearm death rates and association with level of firearm purchase background check; American Journal of Preventive Medicine,