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Background Checks and Iowa

1.22.2020

Summary

Iowa has already closed the unlicensed sale loophole for handguns, and authorities regularly stop prohibited purchasers from making illegal gun purchases. Congress should follow Iowa’s lead and require background checks on all gun sales nationally. Existing loopholes in federal law undermine Iowa’s background check laws by enabling prohibited people in other states to take advantage of the unlicensed gun market, acquire handguns illegally, and use those guns in crimes in Iowa.

Iowa has closed the unlicensed sale loophole for handguns, requiring background checks on all handgun sales in the state. Felons, domestic abusers, and other prohibited people attempt to buy guns regularly in Iowa — and are stopped only by a background check.

Iowa has long been a leader in requiring background checks for all handgun sales: For forty years, Iowa has required all handgun purchasers to pass a background check and obtain a permit from law enforcement.1Iowa Code 724.15. The permit requirement goes far beyond the federal background check law — and means that prohibited persons in Iowa ​can’t arm themselves with a handgun illegally by skipping a background check altogether.

Since 1998, nearly 14,000 firearm sales to prohibited purchasers have been denied in Iowa – including nearly 6,000 illegal sales to convicted felons and over 3,000 illegal sales to prohibited domestic abusers.2Everytown obtained state-level NICS denial data via FOIA requests for each year between 1998 and 2018. Though the majority of the transactions and denials reported by the FBI are associated with a firearm sale or transfer, a small number may be for concealed carry permits and other reasons not related to a sale or transfer.  

The Iowa Legislature has also empowered county sheriffs and the FBI, who are responsible for background checks on handgun permit to acquire applicants and long gun purchasers, respectively, to stop illegal gun purchases by requiring prohibiting mental health records to be submitted to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).3Iowa Code 724.31(1).​ Indeed, as of December 2018, Iowa had submitted over 52,000 prohibiting mental health records to NICS.4Active Records in the NICS Indices by State. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Available at https://bit.ly/2CwVOlF.

The Iowa Legislature has repeatedly rejected efforts to repeal its background check requirement, including in the 2019, 2018, and 2017 legislative sessions.


Iowa has closed the unlicensed sale loophole for handguns, meaning felons, domestic abusers, and other prohibited people cannot skip a background check and acquire a handgun simply by seeking an unlicensed seller at a gun show or online. But neighboring states have not closed this loophole and enable prohibited people to take advantage of the unlicensed gun market and get handguns illegally.

A recent study of the online gun market Armlist.com revealed a massive marketplace where unchecked gun sales are taking place between complete strangers meeting online, allowing criminals and other prohibited purchasers an easy avenue for access.

In 2018 alone, there were 10,298 Iowa ads on Armslist.com for handgun sales that would require a background check, and 4,988 ads for long gun sales that would not require a background check. 5Everytown for Gun Safety. Unchecked: Over 1 Million Online Firearm Ads, No Background Checks Required. February. ​https://every.tw/2UXjYwf.

Critics of background check laws claim they will not make a difference in how guns are sold.But Everytown’s investigation showed that laws matter. Unlicensed sellers in states that have passed background check laws show a high degree of compliance – with 84 percent of sellers from states with background check laws directly stating the sale would need a check, and ​only 6 percent of the unlicensed sellers in states without background check laws indicating a background check was required​.6lbid.

Similar to Iowa, North Carolina’s law requires a background check on all handgun sales, but it does not require a background check on sales of long guns by unlicensed sellers. The investigation found that in North Carolina, while 81 percent of unlicensed sellers of handguns in North Carolina directly stated the sale would require a background check, only 29 percent of unlicensed sellers of long guns indicated they would.7Ibid.


 Congress’s failure to close the unlicensed sale loophole nationally enables gun trafficking and the use of crime guns in Iowa.

Existing loopholes in the federal background check law are negatively impacting states, like Iowa, that require background checks on all handgun sales. Research has shown that state laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales are associated with 48 percent lower rates of gun trafficking in cities and 29 percent lower rates of gun trafficking across state lines.8Webster DW, Vernick JS, Bulzacchelli MT. Effects of state-level firearm seller accountability policies on firearm trafficking. Journal of Urban Health​. 2009. ​86(4):525–537; ​Federal law bars felons from having firearms, but does not bar misdemeanors outside the domestic violence context. ​Webster DW, Vernick JS, McGinty EE, & Alcorn T. Preventing the diversion of guns to criminals through effective firearm sales laws. In ​Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. 2013.​Vol. 9781421411118, pp. 109-121.

Between 2013 and 2017, ​nearly 2,000​crime guns​ were recovered in Iowa that originated in other states. ​Nearly 1,200 – or 67 percent – of these crime guns were traced back to states that do not have comprehensive background check laws​.​9Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Firearms trace data. https://bit.ly/2nigapL. Totals were developed using five years of most recent available data (2013 to 2017). This excludes crime guns recovered in CO and DE in 2013, WA in 2013 and 2014, and OR in 2013-2015.

And the unregulated, online marketplace has enabled prohibited purchasers to weaken state background check laws by traveling to neighboring states without these laws. Between 2016 and 2017, three individuals were arrested for trafficking an estimated 90 firearms purchased on Armslist.com and Facebook into Illinois from Kentucky. These firearms were subsequently linked to violent crimes in Illinois. 10Yablon A. Chicago felons busted for gun trafficking bought weapons via Armslist and Facebook. ​The Trace​. May 16, 2018. Available at https://bit.ly/2FJpTja.


Too many Iowans are killed with guns.

Every year, ​264 people in Iowa are killed with guns​ and thousands more are shot and injured.11Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of most recent available data: 2013 to 2017​.

State laws requiring background checks for all handgun sales – by point-of-sale check and/or permit – are associated with lower firearm homicide rates, lower firearm suicide rates and lower firearm trafficking.12Siegel M, Boine C. What are the most effective policies in reducing firearm homicides? Rockefeller Government Institute. 2019; 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; Webster DW, Vernick JS, Bulzacchelli MT. Effects of state-level firearm seller accountability policies on firearm trafficking. ​Journal of Urban Health​. 2009. ​86(4):525–537; ​Federal law bars felons from having firearms, but does not bar misdemeanors outside the domestic violence context. ​Webster DW, Vernick JS, McGinty EE, & Alcorn T. Preventing the diversion of guns to criminals through effective firearm sales laws. In ​Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. ​2013.​Vol. 9781421411118, pp. 109-121. A 2019 analysis found that states with laws requiring background checks for all gun sales are associated with a ​10 percent lower homicide rates​.13Siegel M, Boine C. What are the most effective policies in reducing firearm homicides? Rockefeller Government Institute. 2019.

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