How Do I Get My Background Check for a Firearm Purchase?

By Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., Registered Investment Adv ; Updated May 31, 2017
Man filling out questionnaire

In most cases, you receive a state or federal background check questionnaire when you buy a gun from a federally-licensed gun dealer. The dealer then submits the form online or by phone. You'll usually be approved within a few minutes of submission.

State Background Checks

The first thing to do if you're planning to buy or sell a gun in your state is find out if your state has specific requirements for a state-conducted background check. Do an internet search for " (Your State) gun sale requirements" and "(Your State) gun sale background check requirements." These requirements vary widely from state to state. Some states – California, for example – add requirements to the federal National Instant Background Check System requirements; others do not. Some states with their own background checks require coordination with NICS – California, Connecticut and six others – while 18 states have no such requirement.

If your state (Texas, for example) has no specific state requirements, your background check will come from the NICS, a division of the FBI. Otherwise, in states that require a check and have their own requirements, you'll fill out the state's form.

The NICS Background Check

Many gun purchases, but not all, require the buyer to undergo a background check by the NICS. Typically, a NICS background check process begins when you buy a gun from a federally-licensed gun dealer who will require you to complete Form 4473, a questionnaire supplied by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The questionnaire requires basic identification information and includes16 questions related to criminal record, drug addiction, mental health and domestic violence. A copy of the questionnaire is included in this article's Resources section.

Immediately after you've completed the questionnaire, the gun dealer forwards this information to the NICS either online or by phone. In over 90 percent of all applications, approval is immediate. In a few instances, the check may take longer, usually because the information supplied conflicts with information in the NICS' extensive criminal history databases.

Exemptions and Pitfalls

Some guns sales are exempt from state and federal background check requirements. In many states, buying a gun from a private party at a gun show is exempt from the requirement. In other states, as in California, you may be exempt from the NICS check in theory, but the State of California allows private party sales at gun shows only when they go through a licensed dealer – a Catch 22, because sales by licensed dealers require the NICS check.

The NICS background check process also has some inherent weaknesses. The dealer has no obligation to check the identification submitted by the customer buying the gun. Some states do not report criminal records to the NICS, which means the criminal records NICS database, although extensive, is incomplete.

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.