Effectiveness of the Brady Act and Background Checks

President Bill Clinton signs the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act

Since the enactment of the Brady law on March 1, 1994, through December 31, 2012, background checks blocked more than 2.4 million prohibited purchasers like domestic abusers, convicted felons, mentally ill persons, and other dangerous individuals from purchasing a firearm or receiving a permit to purchase or carry a firearm.1

In 2012 alone, background checks blocked 192,043 prohibited persons from gaining access to firearms,2 including 82,000 felons or roughly 225 felons every day.3

Statistics reported by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence confirm that background checks work and have had a significant positive impact on national crime rates. Before the Brady law was enacted, America’s gun homicide rate was on a dramatic rise, increasing by 55 percent from 1984 to 1993 even as non-gun homicides were falling over this period.4 After Brady background checks were required, however, gun murders began to steadily decline and ultimately fell by 32 percent from 1993 to 2006.5 The rate of robberies and aggravated assaults committed with firearms also decreased by 42 percent over this period.6

However, the Brady law only requires background checks by federally licensed firearms dealers.  Research has found that states with more expansive background check laws experience 48 percent less gun trafficking, 38 percent fewer deaths of women shot by intimate partners, and 17 percent fewer firearms involved in aggravated assaults.7 States with universal background check requirements also have a 53 percent lower gun suicide rate, and a 31 percent lower overall suicide rate than states without these laws.8 This correlation is unchanged even after controlling for the effects of poverty, population density, age, education, and race/ethnicity.9 After controlling for these variables, universal background checks were associated with 22% fewer suicides and 35% fewer firearm suicides per capita.10

One state has also provided a tragic case study in the importance of background checks in preventing gun violence and saving lives.  In 2007, Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase handgun licensing law, which had, since 1921, required all handgun purchasers to undergo a background check and obtain a license in order to lawfully purchase a handgun from any seller.   This change eliminated mandatory background checks for handguns sold by private sellers in the state.  Johns Hopkins researchers determined that repeal of Missouri’s background check requirement was linked to a 14% increase in Missouri’s murder rate through 2012 and a 25% percent increase in firearm homicide rates.11 These researchers estimated that in tragic human terms, the law’s repeal translated into an additional 49 to 68 murders every year.12 This spike in murders in Missouri only occurred for murders committed with a firearm and was widespread across the state’s counties.13  Meanwhile, none of the states bordering Missouri experienced significant increases in their murder rates, and the national murder rate actually declined during this period by over five percent.14  Other researchers confirmed that repeal of Missouri’s background check requirement was associated with a 16.1% increase in the state’s rate of firearm suicide.15

Another state offers a sharp contrast with Missouri.  In 1995, Connecticut implemented a permit-to-purchase handgun licensing law which required applicants to pass a background check in order to purchase a handgun from any seller.  Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a study in the American Journal of Public Health in June 2015 in which they reported that Connecticut’s law was associated with a 40 percent reduction in the state’s firearm-related homicide rate.16  These researchers compared Connecticut’s homicide rates during the 10 years following the law’s implementation to the rates that would have been expected had the law not been implemented. The large drop in homicides was found only in firearm-related killings, not in homicides by other means, confirming that this law drove the reduction in the state’s overall homicide rates.17 Additionally, other researchers found that Connecticut’s Permit to Purchase handgun law was associated with a 15.4% reduction in firearm suicides.


  1. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2012 – Statistical Tables, at http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5157. ⤴︎
  2. Id. at Table 1, Estimated number of firearm applications received and denied since the inception of the Brady Act, 1994–2012. ⤴︎
  3. Id. at Table 6, Percent change in the number of applications, denials, and reasons for denial, 1999–2012. ⤴︎
  4. Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 20 Years of Brady Background Checks: The Case for Finishing the Job to Keep America Safer 1, 8-9 (Feb. 2014), available at http://www.bradycampaign.org/sites/default/files/Brady-20-years-report.pdf. ⤴︎
  5. Id. ⤴︎
  6. Id. ⤴︎
  7. See Igor Volsky, This New Study Proves That Background Checks Save Lives, Think Progress (Feb. 15, 2014), http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/02/15/3297141/study-proves-background-checks-save-lives/. ⤴︎
  8. Michael D. Anestis, et al, The Association Between State Laws Regulating Handgun Ownership and Statewide Suicide Rates, Am. J of Pub. Health (2015). ⤴︎
  9. Id. ⤴︎
  10. Id. ⤴︎
  11. Daniel Webster, Cassandra Kercher Crifasi, and Jon S. Vernick, Erratum to: Effects of the Repeal of Missouri’s Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides, 3 Journal of Urban Health 91, (June 2014). ⤴︎
  12. Id. ⤴︎
  13. Id. ⤴︎
  14. Id. ⤴︎
  15. CK Crifasi, et al, Effects of Changes in Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Laws in Connecticut and Missouri on Suicide Rates, Prev. Med. (2015). ⤴︎
  16. Kara E. Rudolph, et al, Association Between Connecticut’s Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Law and Homicides, Am. J of Pub. Health (Jun. 2015). ⤴︎
  17. CK Crifasi, et al, Effects of Changes in Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Laws in Connecticut and Missouri on Suicide Rates, Prev. Med. (2015). ⤴︎

Effectiveness of Child Access Prevention Regulation

In 12 states where child access prevention laws had been in effect for at least one year, unintentional firearm deaths fell by 23% from 1990-94 among children under 15 years of age.1

The practices of keeping firearms locked, unloaded, and storing ammunition in a locked location separate from firearms serve as protective measures that reduce youth suicide and unintentional injury in homes with children and teenagers where guns are stored.2

A study evaluating the association between youth-focused gun laws and suicides among youth found that child access prevention laws were associated with an 8.3% decrease in suicides among 14-17 year olds. Such laws reduced the risk of firearm suicide in this age group by 10.8%.3

  1. Peter Cummings et al., State Gun Safe Storage Laws and Child Mortality Due to Firearms, 278 JAMA 1084, 1084 (Oct. 1997). ⤴︎
  2. David C. Grossman et al., Gun Storage Practices and Risk of Youth Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Injuries, 293 JAMA 707, 711-13 (Feb. 2005). ⤴︎
  3. Daniel W. Webster et al., Association Between Youth-Focused Firearm Laws & Youth Suicides, 292 JAMA 594, 596-98 (Aug. 2004). ⤴︎

Effectiveness of Domestic Violence Gun Prohibitions

Laws that prohibit the purchase of a firearm by a person subject to a domestic violence restraining order are associated with a reduction in the number of intimate partner homicides.1

From November 30, 1998 – August 31, 2011, the prohibited category misdemeanor domestic violence conviction accounted for 93,805, or 10.8% of federal NICS background check denials for a firearm purchase.

[Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Denials, Reasons Why the NICS Section Denies, November 30, 1998–August 31, 2011, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics/reports/090111_Denials.pdf.]

In 2009, a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction or restraining order was the second most common reason for denial of a firearm transfer following a background check by a state (14%) or local agency (16%). For FBI background checks only (excluding state or local agency checks), a domestic violence conviction or restraining order was the third most common reason for denying a gun transfer (behind felony convictions/indictments and fugitives).

[Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 2009 – Statistical Tables, 2, 13, at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/html/bcft/2009/bcft09st.pdf.]

  1. Elizabeth R. Vigdor et al., Do Laws Restricting Access to Firearms by Domestic Violence Offenders Prevent Intimate Partner Homicide?, 30 Evaluation Rev. 313, 332 (June 2006). ⤴︎

Effectiveness of Junk Gun Regulation

Maryland’s junk gun ban resulted in an 8.6% decrease in firearm homicides in the state – an average of 40 lives saved per year – between 1990 and 1998.1

  1. Daniel W. Webster et al., Effects of Maryland’s Law Banning “Saturday Night Special” Handguns on Homicides, 155 Am. J. Epidemiology 406, 409-411 (Mar. 2002). Another study on Maryland’s ban showed that the law reduced the use of prohibited junk guns by criminals in Baltimore, finding that a junk gun prohibited in Maryland was more than twice as likely to be the subject of a law enforcement crime gun trace request in 15 other major U.S. cities combined than in Baltimore. Jon S. Vernick et al., Effects of Maryland’s Law Banning Saturday Night Special Handguns on Crime Guns, 5 Inj. Prevention 259, 261-263 (Dec. 1999). ⤴︎

Effectiveness of Licensing & Registration

States with some form of both registration and licensing have greater success keeping firearms initially sold by dealers in the state from being recovered in crimes than states without such laws.1

  1. Daniel W. Webster et al., Relationship Between Licensing, Registration, and Other Gun Sales Laws and the Source State of Crime Guns, 7 Inj. Prevention 184, 188-89 (2001). The study included jurisdictions with concealed carry permits and dealer sales reporting, which have elements of licensing or registration but are not comprehensive licensing or registration systems. ⤴︎

Effectiveness of Large Capacity Ammunition Magazine Regulation

The federal ban on large capacity ammunition magazines expired along with the federal assault weapon ban in 2004. Data on recovery of these magazines by law enforcement demonstrate that the federal ban on these dangerous devices was effective in reducing their availability and use.

While the federal assault weapon/large capacity ammunition magazine ban was in effect (1994 – 2004), the Virginia State Police experienced a steady decline in the number of firearms with large capacity magazines recovered in crimes, reaching a low of 10% in 2004. In 2005, the year after Congress failed to renew the ban, that number increased by 24%. By 2010, nearly 22% of guns recovered in crimes had large capacity magazines. Over time, it appears the prevalence of these magazines was declining while the federal law was in effect.1

  1. David S. Fallis et al., About the Project: The Hidden Life of Guns, Wash. Post, Jan. 22, 2011, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/22/AR2011012204243.html; David S. Fallis & James V. Grimaldi, Virginia Data Show Drop in Criminal Firepower During Assault Gun Ban, Wash. Post, Jan. 23, 2011, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2010/12/14/ST2010121406431.html?sid=ST2010121406431. The Washington Post analyzed the effect in Virginia of the assault weapons ban on firearms with large capacity magazines. To do this, Post journalists reviewed data from the Criminal Firearms Clearinghouse, a database maintained by the Virginia State Police that tracks guns recovered by local law enforcement across the state. The database has information on more than 100,000 firearms recovered by more than 200 local police departments since 1993. ⤴︎

Effectiveness of Restricting Multiple Sales and Purchases

As a result of Virginia’s law restricting multiple sales of handguns in a 30-day period, the odds of tracing a gun originally acquired in the Southeast to a Virginia gun dealer (as opposed to a dealer in a different southeastern state) dropped by 71% for guns recovered in New York, 72% for guns recovered in Massachusetts, and 66% for guns recovered in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined. This demonstrates that the law was effective in reducing the number of crime guns traced to Virginia dealers.1

  1. Douglas S. Weil & Rebecca Knox, Evaluating the Impact of Virginia’s One-Gun-A-Month Law, The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence 1, 4-6 (Aug. 1995). In 2004, the Virginia legislature adopted National Rifle Association-backed amendments that significantly weakened the law by allowing concealed handgun permit holders and persons who purchase handguns through private sales to purchase more than one handgun per month. See Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-308.2:2(P)(2). ⤴︎

Gun Violence Prevention Efforts Hampered by Lack of Research and Funding

A 2005 report of a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) assessed the strengths and limitations of existing research on gun violence and gun policy, finding that considerable gaps exist in research and reliable data to evaluate the effectiveness of most gun violence prevention methods.1 The NAS report concluded that a comprehensive research program must be established to effectively evaluate firearm law and policy. The NAS report also noted the critical need for increased funding of gun violence research, particularly by the federal government.2

The NRA Thwarts CDC Research Efforts

The NRA bears significant responsibility for our nation’s lack of quality research about the utility of gun laws. According to a January 25, 2011 article in the New York Times, this funding interference can be traced to a clash between public health scientists and the NRA in the mid-1990s, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were becoming increasingly assertive about the importance of studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health issue.3

Afraid of public health findings that would bolster the case for gun safety laws, the NRA influenced its congressional allies in the late 1990s to choke off CDC funding for public health studies, inserting the following language into the CDC’s appropriations bill: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” As noted in the New York Times article, “[t]he prohibition is striking, firearms researchers say, because there are already regulations that bar the use of C.D.C. money for lobbying for or against legislation. No other field of inquiry is singled out in this way.”4

  1. See Committee on Law and Justice, National Research Council, Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review (2005). ⤴︎
  2. Id., Janet Weiner et al., Reducing Firearm Violence: A Research Agenda, 13 Inj. Prevention 80, 80 (2007). ⤴︎
  3. Michael Luo, N.R.A. Stymies Firearms Research, Scientists Say, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2011), at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/us/26guns.html?pagewanted=all. ⤴︎
  4. Id. ⤴︎