Background checks for gun purchases are supposed to be a filter, allowing ordinary people to purchase guns while screening out those prohibited from possessing guns. The best thing about background checks is that they protect honest gun sellers from inadvertently selling to a prohibited person. But the reality is that the system offers few other benefits:

  • The first problem with background checks is that someone intending to break the law can easily evade the check. They can execute a “straw sale,” by sending someone with a clean record to make the purchase. Alternatively, they can talk to the same person who sells them Oxycontin and other controlled goods without a prescription. They might go to a gun show and look for an individual willing to sell a gun without going through a dealer, but gun shows tend to be thick with law enforcement. Few guns used in crime have been found to have come through a gun show.
  • The second problem with background checks is that they are based on history. In the United States we fortunately have no Pre-Crime Bureau, as envisioned in dystopic science fiction. We cannot reliably predict who will commit a crime. The Orlando killer (we make a point not to repeat names of mass shooting perpetrators) was a licensed armed security guard and passed the required checks to buy his guns. Some killers, such as the Tucson killer who shot Gabby Giffords, bought guns legally and behaved erratically enough to concern friends. But the mental health system lacked a way to flag them. Still others simply steal their guns, as did the Newtown killer.
  • The third issue with background checks is that they steal scarce law enforcement resources to execute paperwork without having any real effect. The National Instant Check System referred fewer than 4,000 checks for further investigation in 2011, out of over 140 million checks.


Background checks sound so easy and straightforward, but in practice are more complex and less effective than anyone could hope.

Chris Knox is the communciations director of The Firearms Coalition, a grassroots organization that advocates for Second Amendment and other constitutional rights.