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Universal firearm background checks

Health Factors: Community Safety
Decision Makers: Local Government State Government Federal Government
Evidence Rating: Some Evidence
Population Reach: 100% of WI's population
Impact on Disparities: No impact on disparities likely

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Federal law requires licensed firearm dealers to conduct background checks of potential handgun purchasers’ criminal histories via the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) which includes fugitive status, court restraining orders, and some information regarding severe mental illness. States can also require unlicensed dealers (i.e., private sellers) to perform background checks and keep records of firearm sales via universal background checks. Universal checks are often adopted with other efforts to strengthen background checks such as expansions to other types of firearms, additional qualification criteria, and regulations that require licenses to purchase or own firearms (GLC).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes

Reduced homicide
Reduced suicide

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that universal firearm background check laws reduce firearm homicide and suicide (Santaella-Tenorio 2016). On average, states with universal background check laws have lower firearm homicide (Fleegler 2013) and suicide rates than states without such laws (Fleegler 2013, Anestis 2015b). Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.


United States

As of October 2015, thirteen states require universal background checks for all types of firearm sales and six states (Iowa, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania) require universal checks for handguns only (USA Firearm Training).

Most states prevent local governments from enacting gun laws via state preemption legislation (Grassroots Change); as of 2015, only seven states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York) allow local governments to enact gun laws.


Wisconsin does not require universal background checks (GLC).

Implementation Resources

Everytown-Gun law navigator - Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (Everytown). Gun law navigator. Accessed on June 26, 2018
Firearms research - Firearms Research. Prevalence, patterns, and prevention of firearm violence. Accessed on September 20, 2016
GLC - Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (GLC). Save lives from gun violence. Accessed on June 18, 2018
JHCGPR - Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research (JHCGPR). Reducing gun-related injuries and deaths. Accessed on September 23, 2016
RAND-Firearm law database - Cherney S, Morral AR, Schell TL. RAND state firearm law database. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018. Accessed on June 26, 2018
US DOJ-ATF - US Department of Justice (US DOJ). Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Accessed on March 1, 2017

Citations - Description

GLC - Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (GLC). Save lives from gun violence. Accessed on June 18, 2018

Citations - Evidence

Anestis 2015b* - Anestis MD, Anestic JC. Suicide rates and state laws regulating access and exposure to handguns. American Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(10):2049-2058. Accessed on September 30, 2016
Fleegler 2013* - Fleegler EW, Lee LK, Monuteaux MC, Hemenway D, Mannix R. Firearm legislation and firearm-related fatalities in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2013;173(9):732-740. Accessed on September 30, 2016
Santaella-Tenorio 2016* - Santaella-Tenorio J, Cerda M, Villaveces A, Galea S. What do we know about the association between firearm legislation and firearm-related injuries? Epidemiologic Reviews. 2016;38(1):140-157. Accessed on October 5, 2016

Citations - Implementation

GLC - Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (GLC). Save lives from gun violence. Accessed on June 18, 2018
Grassroots Change - Grassroots Change. Connecting for better health. Accessed on October 29, 2018
USA Firearm Training - USA Firearm Training. Everything you need to know about universal background checks. Accessed on September 30, 2016

Page Last Updated

September 22, 2016

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