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Comprehensive 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 require collection and review of a broader set of disqualifying criteria (e.g., in-state criminal records of misdemeanor convictions, domestic violence restraining orders, juvenile court records, and histories of substance abuse or mental health issues), expanding prohibitions on purchase. Comprehensive checks can be adopted with other efforts to strengthen background checks such as universal background checks and regulations that require licenses to purchase or own firearms (GLC).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes

Reduced homicide
Reduced suicide
Reduced intimate partner violence

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that comprehensive background checks reduce firearm homicide and suicide, as well as intimate partner homicides (Webster 2015, Santaella-Tenorio 2016). Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects (Lang 2016).

Comprehensive background check laws can decrease homicide and suicide rates more than the narrower requirements of the federal background check (Sen 2012). Prohibiting firearm possession by those with domestic violence restraining orders via comprehensive checks can reduce intimate partner violence rates (Webster 2015). Comprehensive background checks may protect against fatal violence by keeping firearms from high-risk individuals (Swanson 2016); adding checks for mental health concerns may reduce firearm suicide rates more than checks of criminal history alone (Sen 2012).


United States

As of October 2015, seven states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington) require comprehensive checks, searching in-state mental health records of prospective purchasers during the background check process. Three states (Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin) prohibit firearm sales for individuals with juvenile court records and two states (Massachusetts and Wisconsin) prohibit firearm sales for individuals with domestic violence protective orders against them (GLC).

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.


In Wisconsin, licensed dealers are required to conduct comprehensive background checks prior to sale of handguns, including juvenile delinquency records and domestic violence protective order information (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

Lang 2016* - Lang M. State firearm sales and criminal activity: Evidence from firearm background checks. Southern Economic Journal. 2016;83(1):45-68. 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
Sen 2012* - Sen B, Panjamapirom A. State background checks for gun purchase and firearm deaths: An exploratory study. Preventive Medicine. 2012;55(4):346–350. Accessed on June 26, 2018
Swanson 2016* - Swanson JW, Easter MM, Robertson AG, et al. Gun violence, mental illness, and laws that prohibit gun possession: Evidence from two Florida counties. Health Affairs. 2016;35(6):1067-1075. Accessed on October 5, 2016
Webster 2015* - Webster DW, Wintemute GJ. Effects of policies designed to keep firearms from high-risk individuals. Annual Review of Public Health. 2015;36:21-37. Accessed on September 30, 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

Page Last Updated

September 22, 2016

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