How to Buy a Gun—Background Checks

Last Updated on February 9, 2024.

As of 1994, if you want to buy a gun from a gun store, sporting goods store, or other federally licensed firearms dealer, you need to complete a background check. The system is fast and simple.

How to Buy a Gun—Background Checks

Background Checks

The background system in the United States is integral to legally buying firearms from federally licensed firearms dealers. 

Know ahead of time whether you may be prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm according to federal law by familiarizing yourself with the process and the applicable state and federal laws. 


When you buy a firearm from a gun store, federal law requires that the federal firearms licensee (FFL) initiates a background check by contacting the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

This system is designed to deny the sale of firearms to criminals, domestic abusers, fugitives, and other prohibited persons, but how exactly does it work? How long does a background check take for a gun? How much does it cost?

Brady Bill

In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, known more commonly as the Brady Bill. On November 30, President Bill Clinton signed it into law. 

The Brady Bill became effective on February 28, 1994. The law requires that anyone attempting to purchase a firearm from a federally licensed dealer, manufacturer, or importer complete a background before taking possession. It also imposed a mandatory 5-day waiting period

In 1998, when the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, went online, the mandatory waiting period expired. Some states impose separate waiting periods, such as California.

How to Buy a Gun?

When you buy a gun—handgun, rifle, or shotgun—from a federal firearms licensee (FFL), such as a local gun store, you need to meet specific criteria. If you are in one of the ATF’s prohibited categories, you cannot legally purchase or possess firearms. These categories include the following, quoted verbatim:

  • convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year
  • who is a fugitive from justice
  • who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act, codified at 21 U.S.C. § 802)
  • who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution
  • who is an illegal alien
  • who has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions
  • who has renounced his or her United States citizenship
  • who is subject to a court order restraining the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of the intimate partner or
  • who has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence

Proof of ID

You will need to show proof of identification. This may be a current driver’s license or state-issued ID card, a valid U.S. passport, or other documentation. The important point is that it is a valid form of photographic ID containing your full name, current address, and date of birth that a government entity issued to you for identification. 

Some states impose more stringent requirements regarding the types of ID needed. 


Although the age at which you can possess a firearm varies considerably from one state to another, you must be at least 18 years of age to buy a long gun from an FFL. This includes rifles, shotguns, and ammunition for these weapons. You must be at least 21 to buy a handgun or handgun ammunition from an FFL.

Firearms Transaction Record

Assuming that you are not a prohibited person, are of age, and can provide proof of ID, you will be asked to fill out a Firearms Transaction Record (ATF Form 4473). 

When you fill out this form and sign it, the FFL initiates a background check by contacting the NICS, relaying your information to the NICS staff. The NICS staff will then perform a background check by cross-referencing your name and description against three national databases

1. National Crime Information Center (NCIC)

The NCIC is a central database, accessible to law enforcement agencies that the FBI describes as an “electronic clearinghouse of criminal justice information.” 

This index contains information regarding everyone from national and international fugitives from justice and terrorists to sex offenders and those who have violated protection orders.

2. Interstate Identification Index (III)

This database contains tens of millions of searchable criminal-history records. 

3. NICS Index

The NICS has a database of individuals prohibited from possessing firearms that local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies contribute. 

4. ICE

The NICS may decide to check your information against ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) databases if you are not a U.S. citizen to ensure your eligibility. 

If the NICS staff finds no records indicating that you are prohibited from buying a gun, they will inform the FFL to proceed with the transaction. 

How Long Does it Take?

You may be asking, “How long does a background check take for a gun?” According to the FBI, in 92% of background checks, the NICS staff can approve or deny a firearms purchase almost instantly. However, if there is a delay, you may have to wait up to three days. If the NICS staff does not provide a verdict within three days, the FFL may proceed with the transaction. 

Point of Contact State

In most states, the FFL contacts the FBI directly to initiate the background check. However, in some states, the state requires that the FFL contact a designated point-of-contact, which conducts the background or contacts the NICS. 

Cost of a Background Check

The NICS does not charge for its background check services, but in some states that use a designated point of contact, the POC may charge a fee to act as an intermediary. The FFL that you choose to buy a gun from, or send a gun to, will typically charge a nominal fee—$10 or $15—to initiate the background check and file the paperwork. 

A Word on Marijuana

If you smoke marijuana, whether recreationally or medicinally, you may be wondering whether you’re legally entitled to purchase a firearm. 

Unfortunately, according to the ATF, the answer is no. As far as the ATF is concerned, marijuana is illegal at the federal level and constitutes the unlawful use of a controlled substance. 

The ATF Form 4473 includes this warning: “The use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside.”

​Gun Store or Private Sale?

If you don’t want to constantly fill out paperwork and pay background check fees, you can choose in many states to purchase firearms from private sellers at gun shows or in person.  

According to federal law, the sale or transfer of non-NFA firearms between two non-prohibited residents of the same state is legal. You don’t need to keep records. States vary, however, and several states require that all firearms transactions be conducted through a licensed dealer. Always check your local laws first.

One thing that you must be weary of is when you are buying a used gun.

Even when buying on online stores, law still applies. You might want to check out the top online gun stores on this article here.

Final Thoughts

The background check system is usually fast and straightforward. Understanding how background checks work can help demystify the process of buying a gun, so you can proceed with confidence.

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