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Background Checks and Tennessee

1.22.2020

Summary

Tennessee state authorities regularly stop prohibited purchasers from making illegal gun purchases. And yet Tennessee has not closed the unlicensed sale loophole, meaning that prohibited people can take advantage of the unlicensed gun market — and get armed illegally.

Tennessee has already been a leader in several areas relating to firearm background checks, addressing the “Charleston Loophole,” notifying local authorities of background check denials, and requiring prohibiting mental health records to be submitted to the federal background check system.

Felons, domestic abusers, and other prohibited people attempt to buy guns regularly in Tennessee — and are stopped only by a background check.

Since 1998, a total of nearly 102,000 sales to prohibited purchasers were denied in Tennessee— including more than 39,000 illegal sales to convicted felons and nearly 10,000 illegal sales to prohibited domestic abusers.1Everytown 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 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) is responsible for all background checks at the point of purchase. The Tennessee Legislature has been a leader in empowering TBI to stop illegal purchases by:

  • addressing the “Charleston Loophole” by requiring that TBI deny a sale when a background check reveals a charge for a prohibiting crime without a record of final;2Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1316(n), (o). The purchaser may request that the denial be reviewed, in which case TBI must proceed with efforts to obtain the final disposition information. If TBI is unable to obtain the final disposition information within 15 days, TBI must notify the dealer that the transaction is a “conditional proceed,” in which case the dealer may transfer the firearm to the purchaser.
  • requiring state authorities to notify local officials when domestic abusers or people prohibited due to mental illness are denied a firearm purchase, so police may investigate those illegal attempted purchases;3Tenn. Code Ann. § 38-6-109(e), (f). and
  • requiring prohibiting mental health records to be submitted to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).4Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-10-213; 16-11-206; 16-16-120; 33-3-115; 33-3-117. Indeed, as of December 2018, Tennessee had submitted more than 47,000 prohibiting mental health records to NICS.5Active Records in the NICS Indices by State. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Available at https://bit.ly/2CwVOlF.

Tennessee has not closed the unlicensed sale loophole, meaning felons, domestic abusers, and other prohibited people can skip a background check and get armed simply by seeking an unlicensed seller at a gun show or online. Recent data gives a glimpse at the size of that loophole in Tennessee.

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 83,656 Tennessee ads on Armslist.com for firearm sales that would not require a background check.6Everytown for Gun Safety. Unchecked: Over 1 Million Online Firearm Ads, No Background Checks Required. February 2019. https://every.tw/2UXjYwf.

Further investigation into those looking to purchase firearms on Armslist.com revealed that 1 in 8 prospective buyers in Tennessee would have failed a background check – a rate 8 times higher than those who fail background checks at licensed dealers or in other contexts where background checks are required.7Everytown for Gun Safety. Unchecked: Over 1 Million Online Firearm Ads, No Background Checks Required. February 2019. 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 no one in Tennessee indicating a background check was required.


Too many Tennesseans are killed with guns.

Every year, 1,103 Tennesseans are killed with guns and thousands more are shot and injured.8Centers 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.9Siegel 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.10Siegel M, Boine C. What are the most effective policies in reducing firearm homicides? Rockefeller Government Institute. 2019.


It is convenient to find a licensed dealer in Tennessee and complete a background check.

Requiring background checks on all gun sales would not be burdensome to law-abiding Tennesseans. In fact, 99.5 percent of Tennesseans live within 10 miles of a gun dealer—so it’s easy and convenient to get the background check done.11Everytown analysis of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) dealers and U.S. population. Data on licensed gun dealers were obtained from the ATF through November 2018 here: https://bit.ly/2SPLs9O . Data on census block groups were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau here: https://bit.ly/2BCfBzw. There are more than 1,400

unique gun dealers in Tennessee, four times as many McDonald’s and nearly three times as many post offices.12Federal Firearms Listings. Washington, D.C. ATF. https://bit.ly/2SPLs9O. Analyses were done to determine the latitude and longitude of each licensed dealer and duplicates by latitude, longitude, and state were removed for a total of 1,432 unique licensed gun dealers in Tennessee; Andrews, Colman. Is your state ‘lovin’ it’? A look at where the most McDonald’s are located in the US. USA Today. https://bit.ly/2vWWugb; Postmaster Finder. Washington, D.C. United States Postal Service. https://bit.ly/2qiWoOi.


Loopholes in the background check law enable gun trafficking in Tennessee.

Existing loopholes in the background check law in Tennessee are negatively impacting states that have closed the background check loophole. 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.13Webster 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 8,000 crime guns that originated in Tennessee were recovered in crimes in states outside of Tennessee – more than 3,300 of these crime guns were traced in states that have comprehensive background check laws.14Bureau 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.15Yablon A. Chicago felons busted for gun trafficking bought weapons via Armslist and Facebook. The Trace. May 16, 2018. Available at https://bit.ly/2SchxFp.

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