Federal law requires federally licensed firearms dealers (but not private sellers) to initiate a background check on the purchaser prior to sale of a firearm. Federal law provides states with the option of serving as a state “point of contact” and conducting their own background checks using state, as well as federal, records and databases, or having the checks performed by the FBI using only the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) database. (Note that state files are not always included in the federal database.)
The Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) serves as a state point of contact for NICS. Before a federally licensed importer, manufacturer or dealer transfers a firearm to an unlicensed person, the importer, manufacturer or dealer must request, by means of a telephone call, that PSP conduct a criminal history, juvenile delinquency history, and a mental health check. The licensee and the purchaser must provide such information as is necessary to accurately identify the purchaser, and the licensee must inspect photo identification of the potential purchaser or transferee. The licensee may not transfer the firearm until he or she receives a unique approval number from PSP for the purchase. The licensee must also collect from the buyer or transferee and forward to PSP a fee equivalent to the cost of conducting the background check, but not exceeding $2 per buyer or transferee, and issue a receipt containing the approval number to the purchaser or transferee.
The dealer is prohibited from transferring the firearm if PSP has issued a “temporary delay” in order to investigate whether the person has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor that disqualifies the person from firearm possession.
In addition, to sell a handgun or short-barreled rifle or shotgun, a dealer must:
- Require the purchaser to complete a purchase application, which includes a statement that the purchaser is the actual buyer of the firearm. The dealer must retain a copy of the application for at least 20 years, mail the original to PSP within 14 days of the sale, and provide one copy to the purchaser;
- Record the approval number on the application; and
- If the purchaser passes the background check, deliver the firearm to the purchaser securely wrapped and unloaded.
Upon receipt of a request for a criminal history, juvenile delinquency history and mental health record check of the potential purchaser or transferee, PSP must immediately during the licensee’s call or by return call review PSP’s criminal history, fingerprint records, juvenile delinquency and mental health records to determine if the potential purchaser or transferee is prohibited from receipt or possession of a firearm under federal or state law. PSP must then inform the licensee making the inquiry either that the potential purchase or transfer is prohibited, or provide the licensee with a unique approval number.
According to the 2013 Firearms Annual Report of the Pennsylvania State Police, PSP searches the following databases as part of a background check prior to approving a firearm transfer:
- PSP’s criminal history records;
- PSP’s juvenile delinquency records;
- PSP’s mental health records;
- PSP’s protection from abuse file (see the Pennsylvania Domestic Violence and Firearms section); and
- PSP’s wanted/missing person file.
Pennsylvania law allows PSP to issue a temporary delay of the approval of the purchase or transfer of a firearm if the criminal history or juvenile delinquency background check indicates a conviction for a misdemeanor that PSP cannot determine is or is not related to domestic violence. Federal and Pennsylvania law prohibit firearm possession by persons convicted of certain domestic violence misdemeanors. See the Pennsylvania Domestic Violence and Firearms section for further information. During the temporary delay, PSP must investigate the conviction with courts and law enforcement or related institutions as necessary to determine whether the misdemeanor conviction involved domestic violence. PSP must conduct the investigation as expeditiously as possible.
Law enforcement files concerning any child adjudicated delinquent for any criminal activity that would prohibit him or her from firearm possession must be recorded in the registry of PSP for the limited purpose of firearm background checks.
For information about the reporting of mental health information for use in firearm purchaser background checks, see the Pennsylvania Mental Health Reporting section.
Pennsylvania law requires PSP to maintain a telephone number, operational seven days a week between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., for purposes of responding to inquiries from licensees. PSP must also employ and train such personnel as necessary to expeditiously administer these requirements.
A person who has been denied a firearms transfer based on a background check may seek review from PSP and/or appeal that decision to the Pennsylvania Attorney General. The person may further appeal an unfavorable decision by the Attorney General in court.
Statistics regarding background checks for firearm transfers in Pennsylvania can be found in the 2013 Firearms Annual Report of the Pennsylvania State Police. For example, in 2013, more than 11,000 firearm transfers were denied due to prohibitions in the record of the person attempting to obtain a firearm.
For a discussion of persons prohibited by federal or state law from possessing or purchasing a firearm, see the Pennsylvania Prohibited Purchasers Generally section.
In Pennsylvania, private sellers (sellers who are not licensed dealers) may only sell a handgun to an unlicensed purchaser through a licensed importer, manufacturer, dealer or county sheriff’s office, who must initiate a background check as described above. Private sellers are not required to initiate background checks when transferring a long gun in Pennsylvania, although federal and state laws prohibiting certain persons from purchasing or possessing firearms still apply. See the Pennsylvania Private Sales section for more information.
A person violating these provisions who has already been convicted under them previously (in other words, a repeat offender), receives an enhanced punishment under Pennsylvania law.
See the section below for information regarding the Retention of Sales / Background Check Records in Pennsylvania.
See our Background Checks policy summary for a comprehensive discussion of this issue.