WHAT IS A FIREARM LICENSE?

Acquiring a firearm license* is much like obtaining a driver’s license. While requirements differ from state to state, the typical process often requires the applicant to apply for a license through local or state law enforcement, complete a firearm safety training course, provide detailed background information (often including fingerprints), and pass a comprehensive background check.

State firearm licensing laws vary on whether a license is required to purchase or acquire a gun, or simply to own a gun. State laws also differ in the types of guns that require a license. Firearm licensing laws differ from concealed and public carry licensing laws in that they function only to allow a person to purchase or own a gun. To learn more about carry licensing laws, visit our page on Carrying Firearms in Public.

WHY ARE FIREARM LICENSING LAWS NEEDED?

Federal law requires that anyone wishing to purchase a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer, such as a gun store, must undergo a background check. While this law is important in preventing prohibited individuals from obtaining firearms, it has many loopholes that can easily be exploited. For example, federal law does not regulate the transfer of guns between private parties (often referred to as the gun show loophole). These transfers are often private sales that take place at gun shows or between buyers and sellers who connect through online gun marketplaces.

Additionally, current background check law has a loophole allowing a federal firearms licensee to legally sell a firearm three days after a request for a background check, even if the background check is still pending.7 This “default proceed” loophole has allowed thousands of prohibited persons to acquire firearms, requiring the ATF to retrieve firearms from those prohibited persons. (To learn more about default proceed sales, visit our page on Universal Background Checks.)

Firearm licensing laws close the “default proceed” and private sale loopholes,  ensuring that background checks are conducted on anyone seeking to obtain a gun.

Firearm licensing laws enhance universal background checks by establishing a licensing application process that provides state and local officials more information about the applicant, often including their fingerprints. State and local officials use this additional information to conduct a more robust review of the applicant’s history. They can cross-check federal information with local records to ensure that the applicant is not prohibited from owning a firearm. These additional safeguards within the firearm licensing system also prevent straw purchasing*, or purchases made by a person not prohibited from owning a gun on behalf of a person prohibited from owning a gun.

Firearm licensing creates robust mechanisms of accountability among both prospective gun owners and sellers to ensure that those disqualified from firearm ownership can’t obtain a gun. Firearm licensing laws generally require those who wish to obtain a gun8 to undergo a background check and:

  • Apply in person.
  • Submit additional information, like fingerprints, directly to law enforcement.
  • Complete a firearms safety course.
  • Wait for the application to be processed before acquiring a gun.

In some states, law enforcement has discretion to deny firearms licenses to individuals who may otherwise be legally allowed to own a gun but who have a documented history of dangerousness.9 This allows law enforcement to deny applicants who have recently been arrested for crimes involving violence, firearms, or who have a recent history of risky alcohol use. However, it’s important to consider how allowing law enforcement discretion may be used in an inequitable manner. Moreover, it is important to gain an understanding of how this discretion is operationalized and whether there are procedures that minimize bias by ensuring an evaluation of clear risk factors for violence.

Firearm licensing laws are among the most effective policies at reducing both firearm homicides and suicides. While researchers have found that state universal background check laws reduce gun trafficking, they have not found consistent results that universal background checks alone reduce gun violence.10 The enhancements provided by firearm licensing laws are an integral supplement to universal background check laws.11

DO FIREARM LICENSING LAWS WORK?

Research consistently shows that firearm licensing laws – which include background checks – significantly reduce gun violence.

CONNECTICUT’S FIREARM LICENSING LAW REDUCED GUN DEATHS

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have published a number of studies on the impact of Connecticut’s firearm licensing law on homicide and suicide rates.12 Their latest study found that:

Connecticut’s 1995 handgun licensing law was associated with a 28% reduction in the state’s firearm homicide rate and a 33% reduction in the state’s firearm suicide rate from 1996 to 2017.13

REPEAL OF MISSOURI’S FIREARM LICENSING LAW INCREASED GUN DEATHS

Researchers also conducted two studies examining the impact of the 2007 repeal of Missouri’s handgun licensing law on gun violence and found the repeal was associated with:1,2

FIREARM LICENSING LAWS REDUCE FIREARM HOMICIDES IN CITIES

In another study, researchers looked at the impact of a variety of state gun laws on homicides in large urban counties and found:3

FIREARM LICENSING LAWS PREVENT GUNS FROM BEING DIVERTED FOR CRIMINAL USE

Studies have found that state firearm licensing laws reduce the flow of guns trafficked within and between states and diverted for criminal misuse. These studies found that states with firearm purchaser licensing had:17,18,19

FIREARM LICENSING LAWS HELP REDUCE MASS SHOOTINGS

A 2020 study of mass shootings across the country found:20

WHAT MAKES FIREARM LICENSING LAWS EFFECTIVE?

While research around what components make firearm licensing laws effective is ongoing, researchers have highlighted the following components:21

Enhanced background checks

Universal background checks ensure that a criminal background check is conducted on every type of gun transfer, including private transfers. Some studies have found that universal background checks alone will not reduce gun violence, but do act as the foundation of firearm licensing laws that are linked to meaningful reductions in gun violence.22 (To learn more, visit our page on Universal Background Checks). States with strong firearm licensing have enhanced background check systems in place that allow the background check to be conducted within the state instead of solely relying on the FBI’s under-resourced National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This allows state and local authorities to access more records of disqualifying conditions that may not have been reported to the FBI and to cross-check state and federal records.

For example, Massachusetts’s database of serious misdemeanors, including prohibiting domestic violence convictions, is inaccessible to the FBI.23 Firearm licensing laws allow local authorities to search such state databases for prohibiting factors. Firearm licensing laws also ensure that a thorough background eligibility determination is completed before any firearm transfer is made.24

An application process that includes fingerprinting

An application process that includes fingerprinting helps state law enforcement to screen out prohibited people who may have otherwise slipped through the cracks of the federal background check system. In some cases, errors in the background check process can misidentify applicants. Fingerprinting allows for faster and more accurate identification of the applicant and the ability to match the applicant to state and federal records. Fingerprinting may also act as a deterrent to straw purchasers* and to those who have malicious intent, who may be less likely to try to purchase a firearm if they know that it will require them to submit their fingerprints.

Researchers have found that fingerprinting is one of the vital components of firearm licensing that make these laws so effective. For example, one study found that licensing laws requiring fingerprinting were associated with a 45% decrease in interstate firearm trafficking while firearms licensing laws without fingerprinting were not linked to statistically significant reductions in trafficking.25

Proof of firearms safety training

Most states with firearms licensing require that the applicant complete an approved firearm safety course. The training requirements vary significantly by state but generally require learning how to safely handle and store a firearm, and an overview of state and federal firearm laws. Some states require more robust safety training, such as Hawaii, which requires two hours of live firing at a range. Research suggests that safety courses which teach safe storage practices may be linked to an increased likelihood that a gun owner stores their gun properly.26 This is important because safe storage practices can reduce firearm suicide and unintentional injuries, especially among children and teens.

In-person application process

Requiring some or all of the firearm licensing application process to take place in person helps deter people who may not be flagged in the background check system but are at high risk of violence or self-harm. For example, people who have malicious intent may be less likely to obtain a gun if they have to interact directly with law enforcement. These people include straw purchasers,* firearms traffickers, and those who intend to buy a gun to perpetrate violence.27 Research to date finds that in-person application processes (including fingerprinting) are linked to a 9% reduction in the firearm homicide rates of urban counties.28

However, the in-person application process raises potential racial equity concerns. Black, Hispanic and other people of color may be deterred from seeking a firearm license because of their distrust and fear of law enforcement. Policymakers should monitor this potential unintended consequence of requiring an in-person application process. Law enforcement can also work to mitigate this equity concern by building trusting partnerships within the Black and Hispanic communities they serve. Enacting meaningful police reforms and procedurally just practices within police departments can help to mitigate these equity concerns.

Some state licensing laws grant law enforcement discretion to deny a firearms license. Research suggests that discretionary denial furthers the efficacy of licensing laws. Licensing laws that include discretionary denial are associated with a 46% reduction in homicide rates in urban counties and29 a 76% lower rate of interstate firearm trafficking.30

It is important to understand what factors law enforcement use, and how much weight each is given in determining whether to approve or deny a firearm license. This is a significant area of need, as policymakers must ensure that denials are based solely on demonstrable behavioral risk factors for violence and not on the race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, or identity of the applicant.

To ensure that discretionary denials are employed in an equitable manner, states should require a transparent denial process based on an assessment that uses clear and consistent criteria. Applicants denied a firearm license should be offered an avenue to appeal their denial determination. Police departments should be required to collect and publically report population-level data on the number of denials issued, the reason for the denial and the demographics of the applicants that were issued and denied permits.

Built-in waiting periods

Waiting periods require that a firearms seller wait a stipulated number of days before transferring a firearm to the purchaser. The built-in waiting period between the time an individual submits a firearm licensing application and the time they are approved lasts, on average, 30 days.31 This gives federal authorities and state law enforcement time to complete a thorough background check. Waiting periods close the “default proceed” loophole in federal law that allows dealers to transfer a firearm after three days even when a background check is on the prospective purchaser is pending.

Built-in waiting periods help reduce gun violence by preventing individuals in crisis from immediately acquiring a gun, deterring sudden decisions to perpetrate self-directed or interpersonal violence, as suicidal or homicidal thoughts can be transient or short-lived. Putting time and space between a firearm and a person who is experiencing suicidality increases the possibility that the suicidal thoughts subside and the crisis passes before the person takes lethal action.

Research has found that states with handgun waiting periods are effective on their own on reducing gun violence. An analysis of state-level mandatory waiting periods from 1970 to 2014 found waiting periods are associated with a 17% reduction in gun homicides and a 7-11% reduction in firearm suicides.32

WHICH STATES HAVE FIREARM LICENSING LAWS?

Ten states and the District of Columbia have firearm licensing laws. However, the framework and strength of these laws vary widely across states. Eight states and the District of Columbia have relatively strong firearm licensing laws that require many, if not all, of the components* listed in the previous section. Two states (Michigan, and Nebraska) have licensing laws with loopholes or that lack many of the aforementioned components that make licensing laws effective.

The majority of state firearm licensing laws function as a license to purchase a firearm, while three states and the District of Columbia require a license to own a firearm. Two states, California and Rhode Island, do not have firearm licensing laws, though both require prospective purchasers to obtain a firearm safety training certificate before purchasing a firearm.33 These two states also have a series of laws, including an enhanced background check and waiting period, that when combined function in a similar manner to a firearm licensing law.34

License to purchase

The following states require a license to purchase or acquire a gun:

Connecticut35

Read more

Connecticut requires a handgun firearms license, called an Eligibility Certificate to Purchase a Pistol or Revolver. The process includes an in-person application with local law enforcement, fingerprinting, and submitting proof of firearm safety training. The state also requires a firearms license for a long gun, called an Eligibility Certificate to Purchase Long Guns. The application process for a long gun license is similar to that for a handgun but does not require an in-person application with local law enforcement. Prospective firearm purchasers may also purchase a firearm using a valid permit to carry a handgun.44

Hawaii (also has a gun registration requirement)36

Read more

Hawaii requires a license to obtain a firearm and for all firearms to be registered. Individuals must submit documentation, including fingerprinting and completion of firearms safety course. Applicants must also provide local law enforcement with specific details about the firearm, including the gun’s serial number. Law enforcement has discretion to deny a firearms license.46

Maryland (handguns only)38

Read more

Maryland  requires a firearm license to acquire handguns, called a Handgun Qualification License. The application process includes submitting fingerprints and proof of completing a firearms safety course to Maryland state police.47

Massachusetts (also requires a license to own)39

Read more

Massachusetts issues two different types of firearm licenses, a Firearm Identification Card (FID) and License to Carry (LTC). Firearm Identification Card allows individuals to purchase or possess shotguns or rifles. The License to Carry allows individuals to purchase, possess, and carry all lawful firearms including handguns. Both licenses require an in-person application process at the local police department that includes fingerprinting and proof of completing a firearms safety course. Law enforcement has discretion to deny a firearm license if they determine, based on reliable and credible information, that the applicant is unsuitable and that issuing a license “may create a risk to public safety.”

Michigan (handguns only, loophole)40

Read more

Michigan’s firearm licensing law only requires handgun licensing for private transactions; handguns sold from federally licensed firearms dealers can be purchased without a firearm license. Michigan’s firearm license is for handguns only and does not require fingerprinting or a safety training. Prospective firearm purchases may also use a valid concealed pistol license to purchase a handgun.52

Nebraska (handguns only)41

Read more

Nebraska requires a license to acquire a handgun. The prospective purchaser can apply to local law enforcement in person or by mail. The state does not require fingerprinting or a firearms safety course as part of the application process. Prospective firearm purchasers may also purchase a handgun with a valid concealed handgun permit. The Nebraska statute has an exemption that could allow individuals to purchase a handgun from a federally licensed firearms dealer without first obtaining a firearm license, by signing a consent form for an instant background check. This loophole in the Nebraska statute is not currently operable but it has the potential to undermine Nebraska’s firearm licensing system.49

New Jersey42

Read more

New Jersey requires a Firearms Purchaser Identification Card (FPIC) for the purchase of long guns and a separate permit to purchase a handgun. Both of these permits require an in-person application with law enforcement that includes fingerprinting. Law enforcement has the discretion to deny a permit if issuing one “would not be in the interest of the public health, safety or welfare.”50

North Carolina (handguns only)43

Read more

North Carolina requires a pistol purchase permit to acquire a handgun. Applicants must apply through their local sheriff’s office. Fingerprinting and firearm safety training are not required. The local sheriff has discretion to deny a permit based on “an applicant’s conduct and criminal history for the five-year period immediately preceding the date of the application.” Prospective firearm purchasers may also purchase a handgun with a valid concealed handgun permit.51

License to own

The following states require a license to own a gun:

District of Columbia (has a gun registration requirement)53

Read more

District of Columbia requires a person to obtain a gun registration certificate before they can possess a firearm. The registration process includes the components of firearm licensing such as an in-person application, a background check, proof of a firearm safety course, and fingerprinting. It also requires individuals to provide specific details about the firearm, such as its serial number, to local law enforcement.57

Illinois54

Read more

Illinois requires a Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card to acquire or possess any type of firearm. To obtain an FOID an applicant must submit an application to state police, but from there the process does not require fingerprinting or a firearms safety course. Prospective firearm purchasers may also use a valid concealed carry license to purchase a firearm.58

Massachusetts (also requires a license to purchase)55

Read more

Massachusetts issues two different types of firearm licenses, a Firearm Identification Card (FID) and License to Carry (LTC). Firearm Identification Card allows individuals to purchase or possess shotguns or rifles. The License to Carry allows individuals to purchase, possess, and carry all lawful firearms including handguns. Both licenses require an in-person application process at the local police department that includes fingerprinting and proof of completing a firearms safety course. Law enforcement has discretion to deny a firearm license if they determine, based on reliable and credible information, that the applicant is unsuitable and that issuing a license “may create a risk to public safety.”

New York (handguns only)56

Read more

New York requires a person to obtain a license to possess a handgun. This process includes submitting an in-person application to the local police department with fingerprinting. Law enforcement has discretion to deny a firearm license when there is good cause to do so.59

Firearm safety certificate requirements

California and Rhode Island require prospective purchasers to obtain a firearm safety certificate before purchasing a firearm. They also have a series of laws, including an enhanced background check and waiting period, that when combined function in a similar manner to a firearm licensing law.

California60

Read more

California does not have a firearm licensing law but has many components of a licensing system, including universal background checks that apply to all gun sales, an enhanced application process, a waiting period, and a requirement that the purchaser submit a firearms safety certificate. To obtain a firearms safety certificate, prospective purchasers must pass a written firearm safety test and demonstrate safe firearm handling under the supervision of a certified instructor62

Rhode Island (handguns only)61

Read more

Rhode Island requires that prospective purchasers submit proof of a two-hour firearms safety course before acquiring a handgun. The state also requires an enhanced background check process and a seven-day waiting period. Rhode Island does not require an in-person application process or fingerprinting.63

Click here for a comprehensive list of firearm licensing
requirements by state

The Need for Firearm Licensing On All Guns

Some states have firearm licensing laws that apply to handguns only. This is partly because handguns are by far the largest contributor to gun violence, accounting for roughly 70% of firearm homicides64 and firearm suicides.65 However, long guns still account for thousands of preventable gun deaths each year. Firearm licensing laws that cover all types of guns can help stop these needless tragedies.

DOES THE PUBLIC SUPPORT FIREARM LICENSING LAWS?

Nationally, over 75% of adults support handgun licensing laws, including over 60% of gun owners. Interestingly, support for firearm licensing laws among gun owners is 18% higher in states with firearm licensing than in states without firearm licensing. This finding suggests that gun owners who have gone through the licensing process do not consider such laws to be particularly burdensome or onerous.66

Gun owners who live in a state with firearm licensingGun owners who live in a state without firearm licensing
77% support firearm licensing59% support firearm licensing

Firearm licensing is a commonsense policy that places very little burden on gun owners, and is supported by a clear majority of gun owners with first-hand experience of the licensing process.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Enact and implement state firearm licensing laws and support equitable implementation through local, state, and federal funding.

States should enact and implement firearm licensing laws, including universal background checks on all gun sales, an in-person application process, fingerprinting, and proof of firearms safety training. States and localities should collect relevant data and make it publicly available to ensure there is equitable implementation and no population is being disproportionately impacted.

Congress should pass a universal background check law, requiring background checks on all gun sales (see universal background checks for complete recommendation). Congress should incentivize states to enact firearm licensing laws by providing funding to states to support robust and equitable implementation.

RESOURCES

Research

Additional Resources

Last updated February 2021