March Madness Fuels Record Q1 For Firearm Background Checks In The U.S.

April 2, 2021

By Anand Vasu

A substantial surge in March, a month which had several mass shootings as the United States began returning to business as usual, resulted in the FBI conducting more background checks for individuals wanting to buy firearms in the first quarter of 2021 than over corresponding periods in the five previous years.

The FBI ran more than 12.45 million background checks in the period between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2021, significantly more than the 9.24 million checks run over the same period in 2020 and almost double the 6.86 million background checks run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), in Q1 of 2019. The first quarter of 2018 saw 7.13 million checks through the NICS, while there were 6.71 million in 2017 and 7.68 million in 2016.

The 4,691,738 background checks run between March 1 and 31 — exactly a year after the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic threw life into a tailspin — is also a record in its own. We looked at NICS data back to December 1998, the first month for which the permanent provisions of background check requirements under what’s called the Brady Act kicked in, and March 2021 appears to be the highest ever month on record for firearm background checks run through the NICS. The only other month that crossed 4 million was January 2021, which saw 4,317,804 background checks run.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the NICS was created because of requirements under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (Brady Act). The Brady Act was enacted in 1993 to provide a method for blocking transfers of firearms to prohibited persons. It required criminal history background checks by the FBI and state agencies on anyone who attempts to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer. It basically necessitated a national namecheck system for licensed gun shop owners, pawn shop dealers, and other gun retailers who registered as Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs). FFLs utilize the NICS to determine whether a person can legally buy or own a firearm.

What’s even more interesting is that despite these somewhat staggering numbers reflecting an American obsession with firearms, they don’t really reflect the whole picture. These numbers are only for background checks initiated through the FBI-operated NICS, and not the actual number of firearms purchased in the United States in any given period. All purchases do not go through the NICS, that really depends on different state laws and purchase options.

As Brady United points out, there are loopholes. “Today, one in five gun sales are conducted without a background check — through gun shows, private sales, and over the internet in online sales,” a report called “Gun Laws, Loopholes, and Violence,” states.  

So, How Does This Entire Process Work?

If you want to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer, you need to fill out a 4473 Form, also called a Firearms Transaction record. As a first step, an FFL initiates a NICS check by contacting either the FBI or a point of contact (POC) agency designated by the state government in question. According to the FBI, the NICS Section provides full service to FFLs in:

  • 30 states,
  • five U.S. territories, and
  • the District of Columbia.

The NICS Section conducts long gun background checks in seven states. The remaining 13 states conduct their own firearm background checks through the NICS. Twenty-five states issue ATF-qualified alternate permits that may substitute for a NICS background check. Before issuing or renewing an alternate permit, which is only valid for a specified time, the state has to complete a NICS background check. A person with an active qualified permit is not required to have another NICS background check.

The FBI and the POC agencies always check three major federal systems: the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the Interstate Identification Index (III), and the NICS Index. If the transferee is not a citizen of the United States, the NICS will query Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) records. A POC may also check additional state records, depending on the state in question’s requirements. A check may include contacting an agency that maintains a record that the FBI or POC cannot access directly.

A Quick Explainer: The Different Background Checking Systems

  • Interstate Identification Index (III): The III maintains subject criminal history records.
  • National Crime Information Center (NCIC): The NCIC contains data on persons who are the subjects of protection orders or active criminal warrants, immigration violators, and others.
  • NICS Indices: The NICS Indices, a database created specifically for the NICS, contain information contributed by local, state federal and tribal agencies pertaining to persons prohibited from possessing or receiving a firearm pursuant to state and/or federal law. Typically, the records maintained in the NICS Indices are not available via the III or the NCIC.
  • ICE: The relevant databases of the ICE are searched by NICS for non-US citizens attempting to receive firearms in the United States.    

After a search of available federal and state records, the checking agency responds with a notice that says one of the following to the FFL:

  1. The transfer of a firearm may proceed.
  2. It may not proceed.
  3. It has to be delayed pending further review of an applicant’s record.

If a further review of a record indicates that the transfer would not violate federal or state law, the checking agency notifies the licensee that the transfer may proceed. If the licensee does not receive a response within three business days, a transfer may proceed at the licensee’s discretion but do look at the Q&A below for more clarity. A person who is not allowed to proceed may appeal to the FBI or POC and submit information to correct the record on which the denial was based.

What Can Disqualify You From Buying A Gun?

According to a 2008 study for the Department of Justice (DOJ), “NICS checking agencies most often block the transfer of a firearm or a permit to a person whose records indicate a felony indictment or conviction, a fugitive warrant, unlawful drug use or addiction, a mental defective adjudication or an involuntary commitment to a mental institution, illegal or non-immigrant alien status, a domestic violence restraining order, or a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. These and other prohibitors are stated in the Gun Control Act (GCA), 18 U.S.C. 922. A NICS denial may also be based on a state law prohibition.”

According to the FBI, you cannot buy a gun if you fulfill any of the criteria below:
1. If you were convicted of a crime that carried a sentence of more than one year, or a misdemeanor that carried a sentence of over two years.
2. If you are a fugitive or an addict, are diagnosed mentally ill or reside in the US illegally.
3. If you have been discharged dishonorably from the military or have a restraining order against you in place.
4. If you have been convicted of domestic violence or if have renounced US citizenship.

However, while these are all federal statutes, they have to be read in conjunction with state laws, which vary substantially.

Is it easier to buy a gun in the U.S. than anywhere else?

On the face of it, it appears that the process of buying a gun may be shorter in the U.S. than in most other countries. This New York Times report looked at the ease of buying guns in 16 different countries.

  • In Japan, for example, you need to take a class and pass a written exam that is only held thrice a year.
  • In New Zealand, you have to provide character references, among other things, and then wait for approval for a license, which could take months.
  • In South Africa, the process also takes months, beginning with firearm safety training and passing a written test and practical assessment. This is followed by providing references, being fingerprinted and waiting on a federal license.
  • In Canada, you are required to prove that you practice at an approved shooting club or range or show that you are a gun collector. You are then required to take a written and practical test, apply for a permit and wait 28 days before processing begins.

The difference, though, is that most other countries do not have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. According to reports, Americans reportedly own almost half of all firearms purchased by civilians globally, while on a per capita basis, the United States has far more guns than any other nation. What’s also interesting is that the only country with similar procedures to the US is Yemen, which has the second highest gun ownership rate in the world. In Yemen, apparently all you need to do to buy a gun legally, is go to a licensed dealer and register it with authorities.

Yemen, incidentally, ranks in the top five of the most dangerous countries in the world, according to the 2020 Global Peace Index report, released annually by the Institute for Economics & Peace. The Index looks at 23 different indicators across 163 countries, including political terror, deaths from internal conflict, and murder rates. Yemen also has the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.