When it comes to national gun laws, the United States is about as far from united as it gets. Beyond the loose set of federal regulations that everyone must follow, there are 50 unique state laws and even more individual county and city rules. It’s resulted in a confusing tapestry of gun regulations that vary drastically depending on where you happen to be. There’s variation in anything from background checks and handgun permit requirements to the sale of semi-automatic weapons and waiting periods. Even rules on allowing firearms on college campuses, in bars, or even in churches can differ across certain state lines.

Federal Gun Law

Federal regulations apply to everyone. But due largely to the intense lobbying efforts and political influence of the gun industry and gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association, these laws have been significantly stripped over the last two decades (see our gun control timeline); they’re now far and away the loosest (and most vague) of any industrialized country in the world. States must meet the basic requirements, and then have the option to enact some stricter regulations … if they choose to do so.

Federal law prohibits buying or transferring firearms across state lines, owning machine guns and other certain high capacity devices, and bringing guns onto school zones (“except as authorized”). Under the law, you also can’t buy or possess a gun if you’ve been convicted of domestic assault or other serious crimes, dishonorably discharged from the military, or if you have a restraining order against you. The prohibition also includes fugitives, drug users, illegal immigrants, and those deemed mentally ill or institutionalized.

And just as Congress has increasingly weakened federal gun regulations over the last two decades, it has also stripped the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms of much of its power to adequately enforce those laws, and even to compile comprehensive data on gun ownership rates and crimes. The bottom line is that federal gun laws, as they currently stand, are pretty lightweight. And that means it’s up to individual states to step it up if they want stricter regulations.

But that gets real tricky real quick …

The background check loophole

Advocates of strong gun laws often point to the many loopholes in federal gun law. One of the biggest is the lack of required background checks for private guns sales. Under the law, all licensed gun dealers throughout the country must conduct instant background checks (using a state or FBI database) on potential buyers. But federal law does not require those checks at gun shows and other private sales – including guns bought online- where as many as 40 percent of gun purchases reportedly occur. For these types of sales, it’s often no questions asked.

And while some states – like California and New York – have universal background check requirements extending to private sales, the majority of states do not. Closing that loophole was one of the major talking points to come out of the gun task force convened by Vice President Joe Biden earlier last month.

Advocates for stronger federal gun control laws argue that if one state has a strict gun policy but neighboring states don’t, then what’s to stop gun buyers from just going to wherever it’s easiest to buy what they’re looking for?

California is a perfect example. Even though It has some of the toughest gun regulations in the country, it borders Arizona and Nevada, both of which

have some of the loosest: they both allow the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons and don’t require waiting periods or background checks at gun shows.

The issue is of particular relevance in cities like Chicago and Oakland, which have alarmingly high gun homicide rates despite very strict local gun control measures. As one Chicago city official put it:

“Chicago is not an island. Were only as strong as the weakest gun law in surrounding states.”

The Loose Laws and Loopholes of Federal Gun Regulations 24 March,2016Matthew Green


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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