Despite More Records In The Gun Background Check System, Denials Are Low
Nearly 2 million records were added last year to the FBI database used to prevent criminals from buying a gun, according to a new FBI report on the operations of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
That’s an 11% increase over 2017.
NICS is used by gun dealers to search for reasons to prohibit someone from buying a gun, such as prior felony convictions. The system is rife with holes, however, because the information submitted by states is voluntary. A criminal can only be barred from buying a gun if their prior criminal conviction is in the database at the time of purchase.
That wasn’t the case with the shooter at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017. The Air Force failed to report his domestic abuse convictions, which should have prohibited him from legally purchasing a gun, to the database.
"It shows that law-abiding citizens are trying to follow the rules. If I knew I had the slightest impediment, I'd never go to a dealer."
The federal government and states have since sought to add more information to the the NICS system through the Fix NICS Act, which requires states and federal agencies to come up with plans to improve what they report to the database.
Despite additional records, many states say they need to pass new legislation to allow the sharing of additional data, according to the FBI report. Some states say they need to be better informed about mental health prohibitions and what should be entered into the NICS database.
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In 2018, the FBI’s federal NICS Section denied just 1.2% of the 8.2 million transactions it processed, according to the FBI report.
The entire system, which includes state-based systems, performed more than 26 million background checks in 2018, a 4% increase over 2017.
So why such a low percentage of denials?
The background check system processed millions of perfectly legal transactions. Many private sales are generally exempt from background check rules, but it varies by state.
Geoffrey Corn, a criminal law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said people often won’t try to buy a gun through a dealer if they think they’re going to be denied.
“It shows that law-abiding citizens are trying to follow the rules,” Corn said. “If I knew I had the slightest impediment, I’d never go to a dealer.”
KERA is part of Guns & America, a national reporting collaborative of 10 public media newsrooms focusing attention on the role of guns in American life. You can find more Guns & America coverage here, and learn more about the collaboration here.