How Quickly Can You Buy a Gun?

George W. Bush said in the last presidential debate that he was for “instant background checks at gun shows” while Al Gore said he was for a “three-day waiting period.” What are the laws about buying guns?

There is no federal law today mandating a waiting period for purchasing a gun from a licensed dealer. The five-day waiting period that was required by the 1993 Brady law expired in 1998. (Several states, however, have their own waiting periods.) It was replaced by an instant background check system run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. About 95 percent of checks are completed within minutes or hours, but if a red flag appears–anything from confusion over a common name to a criminal conviction–the FBI has three working days to complete the check. Guns are prohibited from being sold to anyone who has a felony conviction, a dishonorable discharge from the military, a court adjudication of mental illness, or a domestic-violence restraining order or misdemeanor conviction. Since the Brady law, half a million would-be buyers have been refused.

Last year Gore cast a tie-breaking vote to pass Senate legislation, which would have closed a gun-show loophole. At gun shows, usually held over a weekend, licensed dealers are required to run instant checks, but private collectors selling guns are not. This new law would have made all sales at shows subject to the check. A House version of the bill would have shortened the three-day investigation period to 24 hours for any gun-show sale. Congress is not expected to pass either version. Gore also supports reinstatement of a required waiting period, in this case three days, before a gun purchase can be completed. That also has no chance of being passed into law this session.

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Explainer thanks Nancy Hwa and Naomi Paiss of Handgun Control.