Criminal Justice

Should the government put universal background checks on all gun sales?

Recent tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting revived the debate on gun control and its loopholes, questioning the necessity to extend the background-check system to all gun sales, including private sales and gun shows.

Rise of the Issue

So long as crimes are committed with firearms, Americans will ask what can be done to avoid such tragedies. One proposal that continues to gain traction is universal background check laws. Current regulations require that background checks be conducted when an individual attempts to buy a firearm from a licensed gun dealer. Universal background check regulations would extend the background check to all types of sales, including licensed gun dealers and unlicensed dealers such as non-dealers who sell guns at gun shows or online. 

On one side of the debate, proponents argue that current laws are insufficient as they fail to require a background check for the private transfer of firearms. Supporters say that extending the legislation to all gun sales would mitigate current gun violence prevention loopholes, reduce gun violence, and instill trust in the public. On the other side of the debate, opponents argue that universal background checks are likely unconstitutional as they would apply to the private transfer of firearms. They also state that universal background checks would not prevent gun violence because criminals would find other means of obtaining a firearm. 

A recent poll found that 88% of the respondents somewhat or strongly support requiring background checks on all gun sales, while only 8% of the respondents somewhat or strongly oppose the measure.

Issue Timeline


The Gun Control Act of 1968 is Enacted

In response to the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the federal law imposes stricter licensing and regulation on the firearms industry. It specifically regulates interstate and foreign commerce in firearms, including “prohibited persons”, importation, and licensing provisions.


The Firearm Owners Protection Act is Signed

Based on the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Act revises many provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968, loosening the regulations on gun sales, transportation, and possession.


The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act is Passed

Named after James Brady who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, the Brady Act requires firearms dealers to undertake the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) on prospective buyers prior to the sale. The law aims to prevent selling firearms to people prohibited under the Act.

Dec. 14 2012

The Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre

The shooting, killing 26 people, shed light on gun control legislation loopholes. The shooter was able to purchase a weapon online after failing a background check at a licensed arms dealer. The massacre renewed the debate about gun control and its loopholes, specifically questioning the private sale exemption.


Fix NICS Act of 2017 is Signed into Law

In the wake of the Sutherland Springs church shooting perpetrated by a gunman who was prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing firearms, the bill addresses the deficiencies of the NICS and encourages federal and state agencies to cooperate and streamline the background check process.

Micro Issues



Supporters and opponents have opposing views on whether establishing a universal background check on all gun sales is constitutional or in conflict with the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.


Private Sale Exemption

Proponents say the transfer of firearms between private parties without a background check allows otherwise ineligible parties to obtain firearms, while opponents argue that a private sale is a transfer of property between two private citizens and any additional regulation would violate the freedom of association.


Gun Violence

Proponents suggest universal background checks can deter gun violence by making sure those ineligible to possess a firearm are unable to obtain one, while opponents state that criminals who would use guns would find other illegal ways to obtain a firearm.


Mental Health

Proponents argue additional background checks are needed to check into the mental health of those trying to obtain a firearm. Opponents, though, say no clear line can be drawn for when a person’s mental health should disqualify them from obtaining a firearm.

Pro Arguments


Extending background checks to all gun sales mitigates private sale loopholes.

Universal background checks would be able to identify individuals with felony convictions, domestic abuse restraining orders, and people ineligible to possess firearms for mental health reasons and stop them from purchasing a gun on private sales.


Universal background checks reduce gun violence.

Studies have shown that states with laws requiring background checks for all gun sales are associated with lower firearm homicide rates, lower firearm trafficking, and lower firearm suicide rates.


Background checks can instill confidence in the public.

The public can be more confident that guns are not getting into the hands of those who should not have them if every purchase must go through a background check.


Expanding background checks creates jobs.

Because an administrative agency would need to implement the legislation, jobs would be created to enact and enforce universal background checks.


Universal background check regulations do not conflict with the Second Amendment.

Expanding background checks to all gun sales is consistent with the U.S. Constitution and does not violate the Second Amendment.

Con Arguments


Certain aspects of universal background check laws may violate the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has taken an increasingly favorable approach to the Second Amendment, making it more likely that some provisions in universal background check regulations would be unconstitutional.


Criminals can still obtain guns illegally.

Extending background checks to all gun sales would not prevent ineligible parties to access firearms as criminals would still be able to obtain a firearm through illegal channels.


Law-abiding citizens are penalized by the delay caused by background checks.

Since it can take time for a background check to return, especially if there is a mandatory waiting period, and criminals will not follow the law, it is the law-abiding citizens who would be unable to protect themselves.


Universal background check regulation is an invasion of privacy.

Universal background checks would require all firearms transactions in the United States to be recorded and to go through the NICS, invading people’s privacy.


A universal background check system would be expensive to implement.

Because universal background checks would have to be completed for private purchases and transfers, there would have to be a large amount of infrastructure in place to not only create the system but enforce it as well.