Universal Background Checks

Universal background checks for gun sales could be done in a way that many gunowners could support.
Universal background checks for gun sales could be done in a way that many gunowners could support.

Universal background checks for firearms purchases is one of the more common mantras of the gun-control crowd. Currently almost all purchases of a firearm through a licensed dealer require a background check through the FBI. One exception, at least in Texas, is that no background check is required for holders of a Texas concealed carry permit. The problem, at least in the eyes of some, is that private sales between residents of the same state do not require any background check in many states. Note though that Federal law prohibits private sales between individuals from different states.

Reasonable people, even 2nd Amendment advocates like myself,  do have valid concerns about firearms falling into the hands of criminals and the mentally insane. But many reasonable people also have valid concerns about government overreach and they have the examples of the U.K. and Australia where mounting regulations, registration, and requirements for firearms purchases eventually led to bans and confiscation.

Is there a way to satisfy both demands? Is there a way to potentially satisfy the rational concern about unfit people legally purchasing firearms and the equally rational concern about government abuse of a Constitutional right “to keep and bear arms”?

There is.

Not all people will be totally satisfied but perhaps a majority can feel that not only are they doing something about gun violence, they are also not giving even more power to government. That government through the NSA has already shown little respect for individual privacy. That government through the IRS has shown a blatant willingness to inject political favoritism in the denying or delaying tax-exempt status to un-favored Conservative and Tea Party organizations.

So how could we accomplish this and meet demands of safety and not growing government? How about universal background checks? Create a system where everyone gets a background check whether or not they ever plan to buy a firearm. Encode the result on the driver’s license or state id.

On the front of my Texas driver’s license there is a line that says: “Restrictions A.” If you flip the license over that restriction is explained as “With corrective lenses”.” I have to wear glasses in order to drive a car legally in the state of Texas.

Currently we have the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This system came from the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and has been run by the FBI since 1998. If you attempt to buy a firearm from a dealer with a Federal Firearms License (FFL) that dealer must get permission from NICS to complete the sale. To be in the business of selling firearms you must have an FFL.

The purpose of NICS is to determine if there are any records that indicate an individual is not legally qualified to purchase a firearm, for example, a record of a felony conviction or involuntary commitment to a mental institution. The states are largely responsible for providing information to NICS.

NICS is far from perfect and some people with common names often have to wait several days for approval. However it has worked far better than most critics expected when it was put in place.

My suggestion is that we could streamline and improve NICS so that it could deal with universal checks. Each time a state DMV issued a driver’s license (or state ID) it would query NICS. When it issued the license there would be some sort of code on the license that indicated that a person was not legally prohibited from purchasing a firearm. Obviously that code and status could be easily changed if a person’s status changed, for example, if they were convicted of a felony. The old license would be confiscated and if re-issued it would have the appropriate restriction.

"2nd Amendment" code on back of driver's license or id.
“2nd Amendment” code on back of driver’s license or id.

With this system when a person went into a store and wanted to purchase a firearm all they would have to do is show their driver’s license or ID. There would be no need to query NICS at that point. That task would have already been taken care of.

By law require that all private individuals selling a firearm go through the step of verifying the status of a potential buyer by examining their driver’s license. Currently Federal law requires that if you sell a firearm in a private transaction that you can only sell to a person who lives in the same state. Therefore checking the driver’s license helps you obey this Federal law also.

The vast majority of private citizens have no desire to sell a firearm to a crook or crazy person. This would give private citizens a very good means to check potential buyers. If law enforcement were to conduct and publicize periodic sting operations posing as private buyers and arresting people who did not check, then compliance in private sales would most likely be very high.

Would such a system prevent illegal sales to unqualified individuals? No, it would not. But such a system would satisfy the demand for a background check without expanding current government oversight. In fact it would lessen government oversight because the government would not be tempted to build a list of potential gun owners from NICS applications. Under such a universal system the government would have no idea if a NICS request was for a person intending to buy a gun, or just a person who was getting a driver’s license.

One criticism of a code on a person’s driver’s license is that it would be an obvious stigma. On many occasions you may need to show your driver’s license as identification and an obvious code that said you were an ex-felon or a crazy person might be seen as making people wear a “Scarlet Letter.”

That objection could be easily met. A simple method would require that the code be on the back of the license so when you identify yourself – other than buying a firearm – that code is not visible. For additional protection the law could prohibit a person requiring your id for identification from turning over your card and deliberately determining a person’s status other than for an actual firearms purchase. The law could prohibit potential employers from also examining the back of your driver’s license. As a final step people who are morally or philosophically opposed to firearms ownership could opt to not have the code placed on their id (but they could not purchase a firearm with such a license or id that lacked the code).

An exception should be made for police officers though. If for example a person is stopped by police for some violation and found to possess a firearm the police could immediately use the person’s license to determine if they are entitled to own or possess a firearm. This could be a deterrent against people illegally carrying firearms (but don’t be foolish enough to think it would stop hard core criminals and psychopaths).

The NRA could not complain about law abiding citizens being delayed in making a firearms purchase. The problem of false negatives with the current NICS system that often denies a legitimate purchase would be eliminated.

Gun owners, the firearms industry, the NRA, and people who sincerely want to implement sensible checks could all work together and actually get something done. Such a system could definitely tighten up the availability of guns to people who shouldn’t have them while not burdening law abiding citizens with unnecessary or unreasonable delays.


  • Instant ability to purchase a firearm for qualified individuals.
  • Eliminates false positives in current NICS system
  • Universal background checks for private sales.
  • Less temptation for government to build an illegal database of potential gun owners.
  • Instant method for police to determine if a person is entitled to possess a firearm.


  • NICS would have to be adapted to new system.
  • Sensitivity to handling driver licenses or ids to shield a person’s status when identifying themselves.

I think we could live with the disadvantages for the very clear advantages of such a system. I know I could. How about you?

December 26, 2017 InAmerica


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