Skip to content

Updating federal and state laws to require background checks on all gun sales is a common-sense way to keep guns out of the wrong hands and keep our communities safe. That is why:


93 percent of American voters support requiring background checks on all gun sales, including 89 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of gun owners.

Everytown & Giffords Gun Safety Memo

Last updated: 3.25.2021

How do background checks work?

Background checks are the foundation of any effective effort to reduce gun violence and keep guns out of the wrong hands. Since federal law began requiring these background checks in 1994, over 4 million sales to prohibited purchasers have been blocked.1Connor Brooks, “Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2016-2017,” (US Bureau of Justice Statistics, February 2021), Data for 2018 through 2020 were obtained by Everytown from the FBI directly. Though the majority of the transactions and denials reported by 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.

What is the background check loophole?

Federal law does not address gun sales by unlicensed sellers (e.g., non-dealers who sell guns online or at gun shows). This loophole enables people with felony convictions, domestic abuse restraining orders, and/or prohibiting histories of mental illness to buy guns with no questions asked. 

Thankfully, 21 states and Washington, DC, have enacted laws that require background checks for all handgun sales at the point of sale and/or as part of a purchase permit.2Eleven states require only a point-of-sale check for sales by unlicensed handgun sellers (CA, CO, DE, NV, NM, OR, PA, RI, VA, VT, and WA), six states require only a background check on those sales pursuant to a purchase permit (HI, IL, MA, MI, NC, and NE), and four states and DC require a background check at both occasions (CT, DC, MD, NJ, and NY). But the loophole still exists in 29 states.

29 states have the Background Check Loophole

Last updated: 4.23.2021

Why does closing this loophole matter?


22 percent of Americans report acquiring their most recent gun without a background check.

Miller M., Hepburn L., and Azrael D., “Firearm Acquisition Without Background Checks: Results of a National Survey”. Annals of Internal Medicine. (2017).

Everytown’s research into—the largest online gun marketplace, which did not exist when the federal background check law was enacted 25 years ago—found that prospective online buyers are seven times more likely to fail a background check than other firearm purchasers or permit applicants, suggesting that prohibited buyers seek out opportunities to skip a background check.3Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, Unchecked: Over 1 Million Online Firearm Ads, No Background Checks Required. New York: Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, February 2019, Advertisements for firearms for sale were posted online by investigators in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee, all of which currently do not require background checks on unlicensed online sales. Investigators then conducted telephone, text, or email communications with prospective buyers who responded to these advertisements until they were able to verify the identity of 439 individuals—over 100 individuals per state. Using a variety of public record databases, investigators reviewed the criminal histories of each of these prospective buyers to determine whether the prospective buyers were prohibited from purchasing firearms under federal or state law. 

How do we close this loophole?

Under a point-of-sale background check law, unlicensed sellers must meet their buyers at the location of a licensed gun dealer, who runs a background check using the same process already used for the sale of their own inventory. This is convenient because:


Nearly 90 percent of FBI background checks are completed immediately.

“National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) 2018 Operations Report”. FBI. (2019).


There are nearly 59,000 licensed gun dealers across the country. That’s four times the number of McDonald’s and nearly twice the number of post offices.

Federal Firearms Listings. ATF. (2020). “Top 100 Retailers 2019.” National Retail Federation, United States Postal Service, “Sizing It Up,” Postal Facts,

99% of Americans live within 10 miles of a gun dealer—so it’s easy and convenient to get the background check done.4Everytown 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: . Data on census block groups were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau here: . Distance was calculated between the centroid of each census block group and each licensed dealer to determine the closest dealer. 

Percent of Population within 10 Miles of a Gun Dealer by State

District of Columbia100.0%
New Hampshire99.9%
New Jersey100.0%
New Mexico91.4%
New York99.8%
North Carolina99.9%
North Dakota93.0%
Rhode Island99.7%
South Carolina99.4%
South Dakota91.6%
West Virginia98.9%

Does closing this loophole make us safer?

In January 2018, a woman in Appleton, Wisconsin, was shot and killed by her husband, who purchased a firearm from a seller he met online, despite his prohibiting felony conviction.5Alison Dirr, “Five Years Apart, Armslist Was Source of Guns in High-Profile Domestic Violence Deaths,” Post Crescent, September 19, 2018, A background check requirement for unlicensed sales could have saved her. States that go beyond federal law and require background checks for unlicensed sales are associated with a 10 percent lower homicide rate,6Michael Siegel and Claire Boine, What Are the Most Effective Policies in Reducing Gun Homicides? Albany, NY: Rockefeller Institute of Government, March 2019. as well as lower rates of firearm suicide7Eric W. Fleegler, Lois K. Lee, Michael C. Monuteaux, David Hemenway, and Rebekah Mannix, “Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Fatalities in the United States,” JAMA Internal Medicine 173,no. 9 (2013): 732-740. and gun trafficking.8Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, and Maria T. Bulzacchelli, “Effects of State-Level Firearm Seller Accountability Policies on Firearm Trafficking,” Journal of Urban Health 86, no. 4 (July 2009): 525–537. Federal law bars felons from having firearms but does not bar misdemeanors outside the domestic violence context. Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick, Emma Beth McGinty, and Ted Alcorn, “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals Through Effective Firearm Sales Laws,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, 109-121. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

States that go beyond federal law and require background checks for unlicensed gun sales are associated with:

↓ 10%

States that go beyond federal law and require background checks for unlicensed gun sales are associated with 10 percent lower homicide rates.

Siegel M., and Boine C. “What Are the Most Effective Policies in Reducing Gun Homicides?”. Rockefeller Institute of Government, (2019).

States that go beyond federal law and require background checks for unlicensed gun sales are associated with markedly lower rates of firearm suicide.

Fleegler EW., Lee LK., Monuteaux MC., Hemenway D., Mannix R. “Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Fatalities in the United States”. JAMA Intern Med. ;173(9):732–740. (2013).

States that go beyond federal law and require background checks for unlicensed gun sales are associated with markedly lower rates of gun trafficking.

Webster D. W., Vernick J. S., & Bulzacchelli M. T. “Effects of state-level firearm seller accountability policies on firearm trafficking”. Journal of urban health : bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 86(4), 525–537. (2009). Webster D., Vernick J., McGinty E., Alcorn T., “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals Through Effective Firearm Sales Laws”. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, 109-121. (2013).

Background Check Stories

These stories provide a few illustrations of tragedies that could have been prevented if a background check was required when the shooter bought their gun. While they do not cover every case, these stories provide important examples of why legislation to require a background check on all gun sales is crucial.

Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.

The Latest