Background Checks

The Issue

Loopholes and gaps in the law make it possible to buy certain types of guns in Pennsylvania without a background check. This doesn’t make sense and we can fix it.


The Facts

Background checks keep guns out of the hands of criminals, those who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions, domestic abusers with active Protection from Abuse orders (PFAs), and drug abusers. Since 1998, the National Instant Check System (NICS) has blocked nearly 3 million sales to prohibited purchasers. And since its inception, the PA Instant Check System (PICS) has blocked sales to nearly 200,000 prohibited purchasers. Background checks effectively enforce the rule of law in PA by blocking firearms sales to people who are not legally allowed to buy or possess firearms.

Unfortunately, loopholes in the law enable some of these people to buy guns without background checks. Federal law governing background checks only regulates sales at federally licensed dealers, not private or unlicensed sellers. In Pennsylvania, all sales of handguns also require a background check, even private sales. But long guns (including rifles, shotguns and semi-automatic military-style rifles) can be sold in Pennsylvania without a background check as long as they are sold by a private seller. Think about it: sellers with arguably the least amount of accountability in the event of a tragedy can sell the deadliest guns–guns that can fire 100 bullets in minutes–in a parking lot, or at someone’s home, or after arranging online to meet in person without so much as asking for a name, let alone running a background check. Although long guns are used less frequently in crimes than are handguns, they are used disproportionately by domestic abusers against their intimate partners, by criminals against law enforcement officers, and in mass- and school shootings throughout the Commonwealth and the U.S.

On January 6, 2017, a bipartisan trio of state Representatives – Republican James Santora and Democrats Dom Costa (who was Pittsburgh’s Chief of Police prior to joining the state legislature) and Madeleine Dean–introduced HB 1400, the most recent bill designed to close the “long gun loophole” by treating the private sale of long guns in PA the same as the private sale of handguns; similarly, on January 26, 2017, Sens. Vincent Hughes (D) and Thomas McGarrigle (R) introduced a companion bill in the state Senate, SB 209. Each of these bills was referred to its chamber’s Judiciary committee; and like the Bills that addressed this loophole in the 2015-16 session, these Bills included a provision to make it easier for legal purchasers to buy multiple firearms at a weekend gun show.

The Senate Bill was able to pick up a dozen cosponsors, but did not generate significant activity in the Judiciary Committee. However, after working tirelessly to build support in the state House, we were able to secure 74 cosponsors, hearings on the Bill’s merits, and a vote in the House Judiciary Committee, only for HB 1400 to fail in Judiciary. Unfortunately, the Bill was voted down in Judiciary this past June by one single vote.

We’ll be starting this process afresh in January of 2018; look for updates here once the next session begins.


Federal Legislation

In addition, CeaseFirePA continues to work for reform at the federal level. Right now, the federal background checks law does not cover the private sale of firearms, so both handguns and long guns can be sold by non-licensed dealers of any stripe without a background check (as long as state law does not provide otherwise). Although the Senate failed to get a straight up-or-down vote on the Manchin-Toomey bill (S.649) of 2013, we have joined with our national partners and other state groups in pushing for renewed action in the House and Senate during each subsequent legislative session. There must be efforts to expand the federal background check system to cover commercial sales beyond those that occur at a federally licensed dealer, including at gun shows, online intrastate sales, and other commercial transactions; expansion of protections for victims of domestic abuse, and strengthened efforts to fight trafficking. Unfortunately, all of those efforts–even with horrific mass shootings like the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 (which resulted in so many courageous House members staging a sit-in to demand that Congress pass meaningful gun legislation, including background checks expansion), the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, and the Parkland High School shooting in 2018–have not resulted in any significant movement. With the advent of a new session in January of 2019, CeaseFirePA and our partners will be renewing and redoubling our efforts federally.


What Can You Do?

Urge your state representative and senator to close the long gun loophole, and urge your U.S. Congressperson and Senators to expand the federal background check law.


Issue Resources

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