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Background checks at gun shows required for licensed dealers, but not private sellers

President Biden last week discussed gun control measures he wants passed but didn’t accurately frame how background checks at gun shows work.
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
A Glock 29 10mm pistol hangs on display with other Glock hand guns at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade show, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

President Joe Biden on April 8 announced a half-dozen executive orders focused on gun control measures he believes would help limit gun violence in the United States. During his speech, Biden said people who buy firearms at a gun show don’t have to pass a background a check.

That claim was met with strong critique from some people on social media, saying Biden’s statement was false.

THE QUESTION

Are background checks required for people who buy guns at gun shows?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

Background checks are required at gun shows for purchases from federally licensed firearms dealers. But, not every seller at a gun show is a federal firearms licensee, which can lead to the private sales of guns without a background check.

WHAT WE FOUND

During his April 8 speech announcing plans to impose new regulations on gun ownership, Biden said, “Most people don’t know: If you walk into a store and you buy a gun, you have a background check. But you go to a gun show, you can buy whatever you want and no background check.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) defines a dealer in firearms as “a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.” People who purchase a gun from a federal firearms license dealer must undergo a background check, regardless of where the gun sold, according to the ATF.

Kris Brown, president of Brady United Against Gun Violence, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control measures, said the federal firearms license dealer sends the buyer’s name, identification and related information to the FBI. The FBI then runs that information through various databases to determine if the buyer is eligible to purchase the gun. There are several reasons a person may not be allowed to buy a gun, including being convicted of a crime that led to imprisonment for a year or more, according to the ATF. The background check process takes seconds most of the time, Brown said.

The ATF’s definition of a federal firearms license dealer doesn’t cover everyone who sells a gun, though. The agency says people don’t need to become a federal firearms license dealer if they make “occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms.”

That leaves the door open for the private sale of firearms by unlicensed sellers, who typically don’t have access to background checks, according to the ATF.

“Although it’s legal under federal law for a private seller to sell a firearm to a resident of his or her own state, private sellers have no way of checking to see if the buyer is legally able to possess a firearm,” the ATF says.

Brown said this is where some sales at gun shows can go unchecked. A study published in 2017 in the Annals of Internal Medicine said that 22% of gun owners reported buying their most recent firearm without a background check.

Some states have passed their own background check laws that go beyond federal law. According to Brady United Against Gun Violence, 22 states and Washington D.C. have expanded background checks “to at least some private sales.”

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