Background check: what it really takes to buy a gun

In most states, background checks at a gun store can take a few minutes. In Maryland, checks for buyers of semiautomatic weapons are much stricter. Bob Arthur owns Shooters Supply in Berlin, Md.

Since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers have been revisiting the issue of background checks for gun buyers, debating what information you should have to give the government to buy a gun, and what the government should be able to do with that information. There's that old saying, "Follow the money." I decided to follow the guns. Or try to.

The first gun -- a pump-action Remington 870. It's the most popular shotgun ever made.

Bob Arthur owns Shooters Supply, in Berlin, Md.

"It has that distinctive sound that everybody knows," he says. "You can get them in long barrels, short barrels. This one has an 18.5-inch barrel. It's compact, so that you can keep it in a closet and it'd be ready for quick use."

To buy one, I would need to fill out a 4473 -- a six-page form from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

I'd have to write my name and address. My Social Security Number is optional. And there's half a page of "yes or no" questions.

"Have you ever been convicted in any court of a felony, or any other crime, for which the judge could have imprisoned you for more than one year, even if you received a shorter sentence including probation?"

"Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?"

Arthur has to write down the type of gun -- the make and model and the serial number. Then, he calls the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, in Clarksburg, W.V., and he gives them only the most basic information: name, address, driver's license number.

"They give me a 'yay' or 'nay,' and out the door you go," he says. "It's quick and easy. And we take credit cards."

That form, the 4473, won't go anywhere. By law, Arthur has to hold onto it for 20 years. That means, the FBI doesn't have anything close to a complete record of what guns are sold.


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If that shotgun were used in a crime, here's what would happen:

Law enforcement would contact Remington with the serial number. Remington would refer them to the distributor that bought it. The distributor would tell law enforcement it went to Shooters Supply. And only then, would Bob Arthur have to thumb through his records, to show that form to investigators.

In most states, that's it. That's the background check.

But this is Maryland, and say you want to buy a semi-automatic, like the AK-47 on the wall, or the Colt Officer's Model in the glass case. That would require additional paperwork.

First, you need to show Arthur your certificate from a firearms safety training course. (You can take one online in 30 minutes.) Then, there's a form that lets the Maryland State Police check for any record of a mental disorder or violent behavior.

"It's just four more pages of paperwork," Arthur says. "It's just red tape."

On another form, you have to list current and past employers, and three personal references. And the state does keep track of what you buy.

According to Arthur, "They get the make, the caliber, the type, the finish, the barrel length, the model, the serial number, and what country of origin it was from."

You do this in quadruplicate. Arthur mails one copy to Maryland State Police Headquarters.

State Police Headquarters is in Pikesville, outside of Baltimore. The Licensing Division is across the street. Sgt. Marc Black says he can't take me inside, but he can tell me what happens here.

Several investigators go through applications, checking 16 databases. By law, the State Police have seven days to do this. But according to Black, investigators have been "extremely busy."

"There is an increase in applications for firearms," he says. "We are working around the clock to take care of those increases."

If Bob Arthur doesn't hear back from the State Police after seven days, Maryland law says he and the customer don't have to wait any longer. He can hand over that Colt pistol.

Right now, Arthur says a state background check takes a month.

Now, keep in mind that, in most states, everything I have just described only applies to gun sales by licensed dealers. If you buy a firearm from someone else -- a friend, someone you met online, odds are there would be no background check, no paperwork, and no record a transaction took place.

Advocates for universal background checks say they would ensure fewer guns end up in the hands of people who shouldn't have them, and more data would make it easier for law enforcement to trace how criminals get guns.

"If we retained centralized information, even if just on the gun itself, then ATF could follow the gun, not the purchasers -- no personal identification is given up here, from that first retail purchaser through the most-recent retail purchaser," Garen Wintemute says. He heads the violence prevention research program at UC Davis.

That is possible under state law in California, where Wintemute lives. But that is not possible nationwide.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
Log in to post9 Comments

Clearly more gun laws do not appear to be the answer, since existing ones are not enforced. Yet it makes people feel good to think they have done something about gun violence and they may get more votes from the all too prevalent low-information voter. There must be a way to uphold the constitution and make gun sales reasonable....

NJ Grant

We know that the vast number of crimes are not committed with firearms acquired legally and most gun laws only serve to inconvenince law abiding citizens. That said the curent National Criminal Instant Background Check System (NICS) should be bolstered and have mental illness records put in, this should be done before anymore laws are passed. Also under the current system we need to prosecute those who misreprenst themselves on the forms (of the 72,659 individuals denied under the NICS in 2010, only 62 were prosecuted). This means that that prohibited persons uncovered by the NICS, are given a defacto opportunity to acquire firearms from illegal sources. Finally gun violence in America is largely a law enforcement issue; Both New York and Chicago have " tough" gun laws, so tough in Chicago that they were deemed unconstitutional. Chicago, however, has a much higher murder rate...perhaps because New York has had an agressive stop and frisk policy for suspected criminals?

A couple of corrections...

QUOTE:" The most recent owner of that firearm is accountable for its use in such crime until proof otherwise vindicating that owner can be produced."

Answer: This isn't actually so. No person can be "accountable" (i.e. charged with) a crime if there isn't any evidence that they actually committed it. Having owned a gun, once, doesn't make you liable for a crime committed with it later. You can be interviewed as part of establishing a chain of custody, but that's more likely to be a dead end than lead to some conviction. And certainly not of YOU.


Answer: Federal law doesn't provide any requirement or even suggestion that this must be, or should be, done. And most people you meet for a private sale would not take kindly to you photocopying all their personal information. I certainly wouldn't.

The law says the seller must not, "know or have reason to know" that the purchaser is a prohibited person, or a resident of a different state. That's it. And that's plenty enough.

You forgot to mention that the same Maryland State Police background check is needed for handgun sales between private individuals. Individuals who seldom sell guns must somehow know about the procedures.

Why are the states with already strict gun laws the ones making them stricter?

Since 1986, by US Federal Law, all firearms sold in the United States must have a unique serial number permanently stamped or engraved in the frame, chassis, or largest part of the mechanism.

When any weapon is found to be used in a crime, that serial number is called-in to the manufacturer to determine which FFL licensed dealer or distributor purchased it, and the chain of ownership is traced as far as possible. The most recent owner of that firearm is accountable for its use in such crime until proof otherwise vindicating that owner can be produced. ANY REASONABLE PRIVATE SELLER OF A FIREARM WILL PHOTOCOPY THE SUBSEQUENT PURCHASER'S ID AND GET A SIGNED BILL OF SALE - THEREBY ELIMINATING THE "GUN SHOW LOOPHOLE".

Less than 5% of criminals get their weapons at gun shows, the vast majority of untraceable guns are given or sold to them by a friend or relative... and this will continue to be the case regardless of the imposition of mandatory background checks!

I think it is interesting to note that the article's use of Maryland's excessively stringent gun purchasing process as a positive example to be compared to other states' less stringent requirements... makes no mention that Maryland has the 3nd highest rate of gun violence of the 50 states (source: StateMaster.com).

In America, where we believe that human nature is basically one of good intentions, the philosophy of our system of justice operates on the principle of "innocent until proven guilty by a court of law". This philosophy has granted Americans with freedoms which were at one time unmatched. And, in spite of that freedom, basic human-nature has shown that only about 15% of the public cannot ever be trusted. This is why an affidavit is used to verify eligibility for firearms purchases, and the government is prohibited, BY LAW and BY CONSTITUTION from collecting evidence on an individual without due process (unreasonable search and seizure).

This precept is a Fundamental Principle of our Society. - JB

How do you "follow the gun" without knowing who owns it at any given time? They said nothing that expanded upon their concept beyond "no personal information is given up." I'd like to know how in the world they can pull that off. It amounts to firearm registration by default.

Recently a US DOJ study on the effectiveness of proposed gun control measures was leaked (Google: nij gun control memo). In that memo, a study is cited that looked at California's universal background checks for firearm transfers. What did they find? That the universal background checks were essentially useless. Guns were NOT imported to California in significant numbers from neighboring states as is often alleged by gun control advocates. Instead guns were purchased locally for illicit purposes.

So here is an Obama administration study that demonstrates that universal background checks don't work. So why do we need more stringent background checks if they don't work?

I agree that we need to work on preventing violence in our society. However, adopting policies that we already know don't do anything to reduce violence seems to distract us from the real work of violence prevention.

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