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The Concept of Background Checks in the United States

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1800 words Published: 11th Dec 2020

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Every year, there are mass shootings that happen throughout the country. German Lopez, author of the article “Mass Shootings since Sandy Hook, in one map”, says that after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, more than two thousand mass shootings occurred. This year alone, there has been more than 300 mass shootings that resulted in many casualties (Lopez). Throughout the years, many people have pleaded for stricter gun control in order to save innocent lives. A type of gun control that is used are background checks. The concept of a background check is important in the United States because of its origin, the laws that have to do with it, how it helps prevent gun violence, and how it can cause potential gun violence.

A background check is essentially a procedure that involves searching up an individual’s history of criminal activity, employment, education, and financial records. Every time a gun transfer happens, a background check needs to take place. However, many decades ago, this was not the case.

Before the year 1968, many people, excluding children, were able to obtain a gun without major issues (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”). If the individual was not involved in any criminal acts and was able to pay for the firearm, there was no problem (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”). In the 1960s, many assassinations of well-known people, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, occurred throughout the United States. These assassinations forced the government to act.

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The Gun Control Act of 1968 basically put restrictions on firearms (“Gun Control Act”). This act had a list of people who were ineligible to buy guns and ammunition. The list contained indiviuals who had a conviction of an offence not associated with business, a mental illness, and/or a user of banned substances (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”). Anytime someone wanted to acquire a gun, they were required to take a questionnaire (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”). The questionnaire consisted of various of yes or no questions (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”). A question would ask the person taking the questionnaire if he/she is a criminal (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”).

The problem with these questionnaires were that although they had to be completed, the gun seller did not need to authenticate them. The Gun Control Act of 1968 needed support to help protect people from others that purchased and used firearms illegally. As a result, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives was formed in 1972 to do that job (“The History, Role and Mission of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives”).

Several years later, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan nearly got assassinated. James Brady, the press secretary to President Reagan, was shot alongside Reagan and two others. Everyone but Brady healed from their injuries. Brady received brain damage and became paralyzed for life due to his injuries. Eventually, after more than a decade, President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Act in 1993. According his article, “The Brady Bill Became Law 25 Years Ago On This Date”, Eric Revell mentioned that the Brady Act, also known as the Brandy Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, forced background checks on those who wanted to buy a gun. The people who did these background checks were the sellers (Revell). These sellers were licensed by the federal government (Revell). In addition, the Brady Act prevented specific people who distributed or gained guns across country or state limits (Revell). The list included those who was convicted due to a misdemeanor case, a fugitive from justice, an illegal immigrant, or an individual who relinquished their American citizenship (Revell).

The Brady Act eventually led to the conception of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) (“About NICS”). The NICS was announced by the FBI in 1998. It uses Federal Firearm Licensees to check if someone is eligible or barred from being able to purchase a firearm (“About NICS”). More than half of the 50 states use the NICS (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”). For example, Connecticut is a state that uses the NICS. Tom Price, the author of the CQ Researcher article “Gun Violence”, says that Connecticut passed a law that states that those who wished to buy a firearm had to get a permit and had to go through a background check (9). This means that both private and public sellers are required to perform background checks on potential buyers. As a result, the state had a massive decrease in gun murders and suicides (Price 9). Missouri is another state that uses the NICS. Several years ago, Missouri vetoed a law that was nearly identical to Connecticut’s law (Price 9). Like Connecticut, they also require public sellers to complete background checks on customers. However, it is not a necessity for private sellers to do the same task. Ever since, the percentage of gun violence that led to murders and suicides has expanded (Price 9).

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The NICS works with the two other systems. They are the Interstate Identification Index and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). John Pike, author of the article “National Crime Information Center (NCIC)”, states that the NCIC contains data that relates to criminal justice. The Interstate Identification Index essentially contains a collection of history relating to criminal activity (“Interstate Identification Index Law and Legal Definition”). These three systems make sure whether an individual is permitted to acquire a firearm. Since the NICS has been formed, they have completed almost a half a billion background checks (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”). Out of those checks, only around a million of the background checks have been rejected (“Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot Buy a Firearm”).

Even though a lot of American citizens support background check for gun sales, there is a huge problem that ultimately leads to gun violence and ultimately death. There is “a dangerous loophole” that allows sellers, who are unlicensed, to sell guns without carrying out background checks. As a result, these firearms can end up in the wrong hands (“Universal Background Checks”).  A survey, made by a couple of researchers from Harvard and Northeastern, states that, between the years 2015 and 2016, around 20 percent of gun owners got a gun without the involvement of background checks (Price 9). For example, in 2019, a man in Texas injured more than 20 people with a gun (“Universal Background Checks”).  He also, unfortunately, killed about 7 other people (“Universal Background Checks”). This is because the man was able to purchase a firearm from a seller who did not need to run a background check.

There are instances where a state can fail to provide key information of an individual to the NICS. In 2007, there was a student, attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, named Seung-Hui Cho. He was a senior undergraduate student who murdered more than 30 teachers and students with two guns. He also injured around 17 others. He then used the last bullet on himself and, ultimately, committed suicide. Some people, at the time of the shooting, might have assumed that he bought the guns from an unlicensed seller. According to the CNN article “Campus killer’s purchases apparently within gun laws”, Cho bought a pistol in February 2007 and then another pistol the next month. He bought both weapons from a licensed dealer (“Campus killer’s purchases apparently within gun laws”). The problem was Cho had a mental illness but since the state of Virginia botched the opportunity to mention that to the NICS, Cho passed all his background checks with no issues (Price 8).  Virginia ultimately caused the deadliest school shooting in America’s history to happen at one of their most prestigious universities.

There have been cases where background checks have been extremely helpful. At the same time, there have been instances when they have caused unfortunate injuries and deaths due to gun violence. Regardless, background checks have changed the outlook of gun violence in the eyes of many American citizens.

Works Cited

  • Price, Tim. “Gun Violence.” CQ Researcher, 27 July 2018, pp. 1-23.
  • “Gun Background Checks: How the State Came To Decide Who Can and Cannot                                                       Buy a Firearm.” Ammo, www.ammo.com/articles/background-checks-guide-history-nics-how-they-work. Accessed 13 November 2019.
  • Revell, Eric. “The Brady Bill Became Law 25 Years Ago On This Date.” Countable Corporation, 29 Nov. 2018, www.countable.us/articles/16346-brady-bill-law-25-years-ago-date.
  • Lopez, German. “Mass Shootings since Sandy Hook, in one map.” Vox Media, www.vox.com/a/mass-shootings-america-sandy-hook-gun-violence. Accessed 13 November 2019.
  • “Gun Control Act. ATF, www.atf.gov/rules-and-regulations/gun-control-act. Accessed 13 November 2019.
  • “The History, Role and Mission of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.” Federal Law Enforcement, www.federallawenforcement.org/atf/what-is-atf/. Accessed 13 November 2019.
  • “About NICS.” Federal Bureau of Investigation, www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/nics/about-nics. Accessed 14 November 2019.
  • Pike, John. “National Crime Information Center (NCIC).” Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org/irp/agency/doj/fbi/is/ncic.htm. Accessed 15 November 2019.
  • “Interstate Identification Index Law and Legal Definition.” USLegal, definitions.uslegal.com/i/interstate-identification-index/. Accessed 15 November 2019.
  • “Universal Background Checks.” Giffords Law Center, lawcenter.giffords.org/gun-laws/policy-areas/background-checks/universal-background-checks/.Accessed 16 November 2019.
  • “Campus killer's purchases apparently within gun laws.” CNN, 19 Apr. 2007, www.cnn.com/2007/US/04/19/gun.laws/index.html.


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