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Gun debate 101: Time for 'universal' background checks on buyers?

Expanded background checks may well be among Vice President Biden's recommended gun policy reforms in response to the Newtown school shootings. They'd be aimed at closing the 'gun show loophole.' Here's what that would mean.

By Cheryl SullivanStaff writer / January 12, 2013

A man fires a handgun at Sandy Springs Gun Club and Range, in Sandy Springs, Ga., on Jan. 4. In Connecticut and Colorado, scenes of the deadliest US mass shootings in 2012, people were less enthusiastic about buying new guns at the end of the year than in most other states, according to an Associated Press analysis of new FBI data.

Robert Ray/AP

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Vice President Joe Biden, after a week of meetings with almost every imaginable stakeholder in the Great American Gun Debate, is no doubt crafting the list of gun policy recommendations he is expected to deliver to President Obama on Tuesday. Among them, by most accounts, will be a proposal for “universal background checks” on prospective gun buyers.

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The vice president himself was almost effusive regarding that notion, saying early Thursday that “there is a surprising, so far, recurrence of suggestions that we have universal background checks.”

But wait, you say, aren’t gun buyers already required to undergo criminal background checks? And what, skeptics ask, do such checks have to do with preventing massacres like the one last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which the shooter himself never even bought a gun?

Here’s a background-check primer to help you understand the current law of the land, how it might change, and what a reform would – and wouldn’t – accomplish.

Why have background checks?

The idea is to keep firearms out of the hands of known criminals, fugitives, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and domestic violence perpetrators. To that end, Congress established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which became operational in late 1998, to check the names of prospective gun buyers against databases that track the above classifications. The system is managed by the FBI.

Where and when are checks required?

Those in the gun business – manufacturers, importers, dealers – must obtain a federal license, and all licensees are already required to run a background check before selling a firearm to a buyer.  This is true whether the licensee is selling firearms from a store or at one of the thousands of gun shows held each year across the United States.

However, after an individual has bought a gun, he or she is free to sell it to another – a relative, a friend, or a stranger – without obtaining a background check on that new buyer. These so-called “private sales” sometimes occur at gun shows, leading reformers to decry the “gun show loophole.” These private sales are the target of any move to require “universal” background checks.

How often do background checks prevent a gun sale?

More than 100 million background checks have been run in the 14 years the NICS has been in place. As of the close of 2012, sales have been denied 987,578 times, the FBI reports.

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