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Utah ran over 100,000 gun background checks last year; here’s how they work

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BD 030818 Smith Edwards Guns 05

Hand guns for sale in the sporting goods department at Smith & Edward in Ogden, Utah on February 27, 2018.

By SHEILA WANG • Standard-Examiner staff

In the wake of the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the nation is debating gun regulations. Again.

Invariably, both Second Amendment proponents and gun control advocates will renew the debate over background checks. The former argue law-abiding people should be able to buy and possess firearms, and the latter say the system has too many flaws to safely prevent a dangerous person from building an arsenal and committing a mass shooting.

One thing many on both sides often agree on? The laws we have aren’t always enforced or don’t always work.

Background checks compile a person’s criminal history and other information, which the state uses to determine if someone qualifies to buy a gun.

In general, Utah’s laws are similar to most states: felons as well as people deemed by a court to be mentally incompetent are prohibited from owning firearms. So are convicted domestic abusers.

While most states use the FBI’s national background check system, Utah is among the 13 states using its own process. Utah’s system draws on more data than the FBI’s, but the state doesn’t have a domestic violence database, so there is no one-stop spot to verify a clean domestic abuse record.

Utah is also one of 30 states that don’t regulate private sales.

Here is a look at how Utah’s background check system works:

Private sales vs. Federally licensed firearms sales

A prospective gun buyer has two options: go to a private seller or to a federally licensed firearm license dealer.

Going through a private seller allows the consumer to bypass the background check. The background check also gets skipped for firearms given as gifts, inheritances, a swap between friends or as a purchase at a gun show. Private (unlicensed) sellers, under federal definition, are those who occasionally sell firearms and do not depend on gun sales as a livelihood.

A January 2018 poll done by Utah Policy, a policy, polling and news site based in Salt Lake City, found that 90 percent of Utahns support requiring background checks on all firearm purchases.

Federal law requires anyone making a living dealing in firearms to be licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). But there is no “bright-line” rule — a threshold number, frequency of sales or amount of profit — to determine whether a seller needs a federal license.

Recent research from Harvard University shows that roughly one-third of American gun owners get their guns without a background check.

Federally licensed firearms dealers must run a background check on their customers. For the consumer, a licensed dealer might have more variety and brand-new firearms, but there isn’t otherwise a clear advantage for buying from either a private seller or licensed dealer. 

Licensed dealers are not hard to find. As of December 2017, Utah had more than 1,400 federally licensed sellers, an increase of 7 percent since 2014, according to the ATF.

In Ogden, there were 39 federally licensed firearms dealers as of November 2017.

Smith & Edwards, a longtime warehouse-style retailer in Ogden, is among them. Mike Vause, manager in the sporting goods department, has worked with the store for almost 30 years.

Each time the national debate over gun control comes up, Vause said he sees an uptick in interest from potential gun buyers.

“It does cause people to look and inquire and sometimes purchase,” Vause said.

He said most of his customers are already fairly familiar with the required paperwork that comes with purchasing a gun.

The Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification — the branch that oversees the state’s background checks — ran 104,770 background checks in 2017, with 1.5 percent of them denied, according to the bureau’s records. (Note: that doesn’t include those who purchased a firearm with a concealed carry permit.)

Utah Background Check System vs. FBI

Some states require a permit simply to purchase a firearm but the majority, including Utah, do not. (Utah does require a permit for concealed carry, but that’s a different topic.)

The main difference between the state background check system and the NICS is in the databases, according to Lance Tyler, director of the Brady Bill division at BCI.

The FBI launched the National Instant Criminal Background Check System — NICS — in 1998 to keep guns out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers, drug users and those otherwise prohibited by state and federal laws. It pulls information from the The Interstate Identification Index (III), The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the NICS Indices.

Both the III (pronounced “triple-eye”) and the NCIC are massive national databases on criminal convictions, crimes and arrests — they’re used for all kinds of things, not just gun sales. The NICS is a compilation of information that would specifically prohibit firearm purchase.

Utah’s system uses the three NICS databases, as well as six additional ones that show in-state warrants, protective orders, state criminal history, juvenile records, state adjudicated mental files and other court records.

“The FBI misses out on a lot of records,” Tyler said, noting that not of all the state records will enter into the federal databases, such as certain state warrant orders, protective orders and juvenile court records.

“There is always more information locally,” he added. “That’s why Utah runs its own background check system.”

Prospective buyers must first fill out a federal 4473 form, which asks a list of questions to determine if the buyer should be prohibited from receiving a firearm by federal or state law. The form needs to be filled out in the presence of the seller.

A screenshot of 4473 form below:

If someone answers “yes” to any of the questions, they can’t purchase a firearm. If caught lying on the form, the buyer could face a felony charge in federal court, punishable by as many as 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, according to However, that rarely happens.

Once the paperwork is done, the seller does a background check with the information from a state-issued identification card, typically a Utah driver’s license with a valid current address.

The dealer contacts the BCI by phone call, fax or via the internet.

The background check costs $7.50 and within a few minutes reveals one of three results: approved, denied or delayed.

The approved buyers can purchase and take the firearms home right away.

The delayed buyer cannot make the purchase until BCI contacts the dealer for a change of status.

This might happen if BCI finds a potentially prohibiting record under a similar name and needs to confirm, or BCI runs into a possible domestic conviction record but needs more information to determine whether it fits federal requirements. 

A denial immediately prohibits the person from purchasing the firearms. If a dealer sells them the firearm anyway, he could face a felony charge of selling firearms knowingly to a prohibited person, up to 10 years in prison.

Use the interactive below to explore where the licensed gun dealers were  in Utah by city, by year and by type.

Contact reporter Sheila Wang at 801-625-4252 or Follow her on Facebook @JournalistSheilaW or on Twitter @SheilaWang7.

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