Rifles are seen on display at Ron Martin's booth at the Badger Military Collectible Show in Waukesha, Wis., on Aug. 5, 2016. Martin has been a licensed gun dealer for 33 years. Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
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The federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which took effect in 1994, required licensed dealers to subject buyers of handguns to a background check before a sale is made. The law was extended to shotguns and rifles in 1998.

Who is prohibited from purchasing a firearm?

Under state and federal law, people prohibited from buying guns include anyone who is:

  • Underage: Minimum age to purchase a firearm in Wisconsin is 18. To buy a handgun through a licensed dealer, the federal minimum age is 21.
  • Convicted or charged with a felony or another crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or found delinquent as a juvenile after April 21, 1994 for a comparable crime;
  • A fugitive from justice;
  • An unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance or ordered to alcoholism treatment;
  • Adjudicated as “a mental defective,” including anyone found to be insane, incompetent to stand trial, appointed a guardian or determined to be a danger to himself or others;
  • Committed to a mental institution;
  • An immigrant without legal status;
  • Dishonorably discharged from the military;
  • Has renounced his or her U.S. citizenship;
  • Is subject to a court order restraining him or her from harassing, stalking or physically threatening an intimate partner or family member;
  • Has been convicted of a misdemeanor for domestic violence.

What is the procedure for a background check?

For long gun purchases, buyers from a licensed dealer must fill out Form 4473, which asks about drug use, criminal history and mental health history. The dealer calls into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, triggering an FBI search of several databases for potential prohibitions. The process happens within minutes.

Wisconsin is a point-of-contact state, meaning handgun dealers must contact the Wisconsin Department of Justice to conduct a background check to sell a handgun. Wisconsin’s DOJ is required to complete the check within five days.

Which sellers must be federally licensed?

Federal Firearm Licensees (FFLs) are individuals “engaged in the business” of selling guns. Applicants must go through a background check, safety training and testing to ensure they know how to handle weapons and are knowledgeable about firearms laws. Sellers who make “occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby” are not required to be licensed.

What is the private seller ‘loophole’?

There are no background check or record keeping requirements for private, unlicensed sellers. A private party may sell a firearm to a prohibited purchaser without committing a crime, unless the seller knows or has “reasonable cause to believe” the buyer is prohibited. It is still always illegal for a prohibited purchaser to buy a firearm.

Dee J. Hall and Coburn Dukehart of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Bridgit Bowden contributed to this report. It was produced in collaboration with Precious Lives, a two-year project investigating the problem of gun violence among young people, its causes and potential solutions in the Milwaukee area and statewide. Other partners in the project are 371 Productions, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Public Radio 89.7 WUWM and The Voice 860 AM WNOV. Coverage by the Center(www.WisconsinWatch.org) of gun violence prevention issues is supported by The Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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