“2019 gun sale background checks highest since system launch in 1998,” screams the headline of an article published in The Hill on January 6th. The story focuses on the more than 28 million background background checks conducted last year via the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)—the highest on record.
That seems like front page news. But dig a little deeper. It turns out that only 12,346,527 of the checks are associated with the sale of handguns, long guns, multiple gun sales, and a variety of other firearms, such as frames and receivers.
In fact, more than half of the NICS checks—14,808,148—were conducted for the purpose of permitting for licenses such as concealed carry. But that didn’t stop the headline from becoming a gun lobby talking point about gun sales skyrocketing.
How did we get here?
Since 1998, the FBI has published publicly accessible data detailing the volume of NICS background checks processed in relation to firearms. In these reports the FBI cautions that “it is important to note that the statistics…represent the number of firearm background checks initiated through the NICS. They do not represent the number of firearms sold.” Nevertheless, each year, various media sources and the gun industry disregards this clear guidance and uses NICS data to inappropriately characterize gains or declines in gun sales.
How do I know?
When I was the Special Agent in Charge of the Firearms Division at ATF, it was my responsibility to supervise the branch that receives NICS denial information from the FBI, critical intelligence relating to persons unlawfully attempting to purchase firearms. I had the opportunity to become an expert on the background check process. It was more like taking a convoluted logic course in college than learning something straightforward like times tables.
Why it’s complex
FBI NICS presents annual data that divides the total number of background checks into 24 categories, only four of which are associated directly with firearm sales. The other 20 categories involve permitting, pawn shop activity, rentals, and even a few private transactions. But it’s no surprise that gun manufacturers and lobbyists are ready and willing to seize the opportunity to promote a storyline that gives the false appearance of strength in an industry suffering from stagnation and decline.
The real story
Back to the data. So, what should a journalist have reported about NICS checks in 2019? First, relying on experts rather than industry lobbyists would have likely changed the headline. An article could have focused on a trend that began in 2018, when more NICS checks were conducted for permits like concealed carry rather than gun sales.
As evidence of this fact, one needs only to look to the 3,851,765 NICS permit checks conducted on behalf of the State of Kentucky in 2019. This one state is responsible for 13.75% of all NICS volume for the entire year—solely for permit checks unrelated to gun sales. Kentucky sought FBI support conducting NICS checks for only 230,269 actual gun sales.
The highest number of NICS checks related to gun sales occurred in 2016 with 14,917,869. Rather than the record-breaking year suggested by The Hill, 2019 actually represents a decline of over 2.5 million background checks related to gun sales compared to the decade-high in 2016. 2019 ranks only 6th for the volume of NICS checks relating to gun sales during the past decade.
The shameless gun lobby is more than happy to take a break from opposing lifesaving background checks by trumpeting The Hill’s misleading headline as evidence of an industry victory. “The firearms industry had reason to celebrate in 2019. NICS checks are now increasing,” wrote Larry Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the lobby located in Newtown, Connecticut.
If he used the real numbers, that celebration would come to an abrupt end.