To hear proponents of universal background checks talk, one might get the impression that under current laws would-be gun buyers simply walk into a gun store, grab a gun, and walk out–no questions asked.
But the truth is, someone who walks into a gun store has to fill out forms provided by the ATF and then submit to a federal background check via the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
The creation of NICS was mandated with the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, and was “launched by the FBI on November 30, 1998.” Since that time, gun buyers have either been allowed to buy a gun or have been denied that opportunity based on whether they passed the background check or not.
According to the FBI, “NICS is all about saving people and protecting lives, by not letting guns and explosives fall into the wrong hands.”
Here’s how the process works out in real life–When you walk into a gun store to purchase a handgun, rifle, or shotgun, you provide the gun store employee with a valid, government issued ID. If you’re buying a handgun, the purchase must be happening in your state of residence.
In other words, if you live in Louisiana, you can only buy a handgun in Louisiana, if you live in Kentucky, you can buy a handgun in Kentucky, etc. Rules on rifles and shotguns aren’t this way–you can be a resident of one state and buy a rifle or shotgun in another.
Once you’ve provided proper ID you must fill out ATF form 4473. This form requires the buyer to answer questions about his or her criminal history, his or her mental health history, his or her drug use history, and his or her immigration/legal alien status (when applicable). The buyer has to provide very precise answers about his or her name, his or her residence of record, his or her city of birth, and his or her personal description. The would-be buyer is also asked to provide a social security number and affirm that he or she is the actual buyer of the firearm in question.
Once the form is filled out, the gun store owner places a call to the FBI which performs a NICS check on the would-be gun purchaser.
If the answers on form 4473 are as they should be and the background check doesn’t show a criminal record, the would-be buyer is allowed to purchase the gun and take it out of the store.
Exceptions to the this process are concealed carry permit holders, who still have to correctly fill out form 4473 but don’t have to go through a background check in many states. The reason for this exception is that individuals possessing such permits have to go through a FBI background regularly to maintain their permits, so there’s no real advantage to subjecting them to one every time they buy a 9mm Glock or a .22 caliber Marlin rifle.