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 National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) database. (Note that state files are not always included in the federal database.)
Iowa is a partial point of contact state for NICS. The county sheriffs and the Iowa department of public safety serve as partial state points of contact for certain types of optional handgun background checks, with county sheriffs conducting criminal history checks on applicants for optional permits to acquire a handgun or optional permits to a carry concealed handgun. The FBI performs NICS checks on firearm purchases from licensed gun dealers to enforce the federal purchaser prohibitions referenced above.1
While local law enforcement officials in Iowa previously conducted comprehensive background checks on handgun purchasers and concealed carry permit applicants using state databases, pursuant to a 2021 law, this type of background check is now optional.2 Handgun purchasers in Iowa can avoid a background check entirely by purchasing firearms from a private unlicensed seller, and when they buy from a licensed dealer, they can elect to simply do a federal NICS check as opposed to obtaining a permit to acquire a handgun and undergoing the full state background check. In addition, a concealed carry permit is no longer required to carry concealed handguns in the state of Iowa, so a background check is not required for this either.3
For information about persons prohibited by federal or state law from possessing or purchasing a firearm, see the Firearm Prohibitions in Iowa section.
Under federal law, persons who have been issued state permits to purchase or possess firearms are exempt from background checks if those permits were issued: 1) within the previous five years in the state in which the transfer is to take place; and 2) after an authorized government official has conducted a background investigation, including a search of the NICS database, to verify that possession of a firearm would not be unlawful.4 Holders of optional permits to acquire a handgun and optional permits to carry concealed weapons in Iowa were previously exempt from background checks when purchasing a firearm. Please note that ATF’s exempt status determination is subject to change without notice.
For information about the reporting of mental health information for use in firearm purchaser background checks, see the Iowa Mental Health Reporting section.
As noted above, private transfer of firearms in Iowa (i.e., transfers by anyone other than a licensed gun dealer), including both handguns and long guns, are not subject to any background check requirement, although federal and state purchaser prohibitions still apply.
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