So what is a gun background check?

I’ve been hearing all about the ongoing debate in the Senate where Republicans are threatening to filibuster a bill to expand background checks on gun purchases. When polled, virtually everyone said they wanted universal background checks. But what are these background checks, and what happens right now?

Mostly doing some oldschool Wikipedia research, I found that background checks are colloquial speak for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (abbreviated NICS because neither anyone in Congress or the FBI can use spell check). Ever since the 1993 Brady Bill, all firearms sales from licensed sellers (all companies who sell across state lines must have a government issued FFL license) must utilize NICS prior to the sale. Private sellers who do not have a license (because they don’t sell across state lines, which is still completely legal) do not have to do background checks at the point of sale, unless there are stricter rules in that particular state.  The exact same rules apply to gun shows meaning licensed sellers must still perform a NICS check while private sellers do not, unless required by that state.

Reasons NICS would not approve someone include:

  • Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
  • Is under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
  • Is a fugitive from justice
  • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance
  • Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution
  • Is illegally or unlawfully in the United States
  • Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions
  • Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship
  • Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner
  • Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence

So to summarize what I see: we already have a lot of background checks in place, although you can get around them. People who are buying guns illegally, especially if they are connected to organized crime are probably going to find a way anyway. Does this bill have a possibility to cause damage? Certainly; it adds more bureaucracy that can make life more difficult for law-abiding citizens, it’s impossible to regulate every gun sale, and it could easily end up putting private citizens making a simple property transaction through massive legal trouble. We could also point out that many laws that can put people in jail for over a year are terrible laws, that often target minorities (or are only enforced in ways that target minorities).  There is absolutely no reason to think laws in the future wouldn’t be used to target citizens in similarly unjust ways, and this bill would make it harder for those people to defend themselves. Of course, most of those problems I’ve laid out are already present in the current system, but they would certainly be made worse.

Is this is a big deal either way? No. Could Congress be focusing its effort on more important things like cutting the defense budget or reforming entitlements instead of arguing over something largely irrelevant? Definitely. If they weren’t doing this would they probably be doing something more sinister like making the CFAA worse? Yes.  So let them squabble.

  • Ron Swanson couldn’t have sad it better himself! But in all seriousness I like this a lot–very clear, well written, and many valid points