Current background checks stop very few firearm purchases

Percentage of denials hits low under Obama

Federal background checks are denying gun purchasers under President Obama at about half the rate they did under President Clinton and also at a slower clip than during President George W. Bush’s administration, according to data obtained by The Washington Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

The federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System is designed to weed out would-be gun buyers with criminal records or histories of mental health problems. Gun control advocates have pushed for the system to be expanded in the wake of mass shootings as a way to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.


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But statistics provided to The Times show that almost everyone who applies under the system is approved and it hardly matters which party controls the White House.

In 1999 and 2000, the two full years during which the system was operational under Mr. Clinton, just 0.83 percent of applicants were denied. During Mr. Bush’s eight years in office, the denial rate was about 0.67 percent.

Under Mr. Obama, the denial rate has dropped to 0.46 percent — and was even lower in the six months after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that renewed the focus on the system.

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The total number of denials is publicly available, but monthly totals obtained by The Times show rates varying from as high as 1 percent, in February 1999 to as low as 0.33 percent in January 2013.

All told, about 171,028,000 federal background checks were run — with about 1,024,000 denials — from Jan. 1, 1999, to June 30, 2013.

Thomas Baker, assistant professor of criminology at the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the denial rate in the early years of NICS likely was higher because some people didn’t realize they were legally barred from buying guns.


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The NICS has a dozen categories of red flags, including convictions of certain crimes, status as a fugitive from justice or illegal immigrant, or a dishonorable discharge from the military.

Mr. Baker said a bigger factor is that political rhetoric in recent years has convinced many law-abiding citizens that they may need to buy guns now or never. As a result, purchases from federally licensed dealers under Mr. Obama, and thus the number of checks, have reached levels not seen during the Clinton or Bush administrations. Because the new buyers are law-abiding citizens who cannot be denied guns, the refusal rate has dipped.

In 1999, he said, there were 80,490 denials and 9,138,123 checks. By 2012, denials had increased by 10.5 percent to 88,920 while the number of checks had more than doubled to more than 19.5 million.

He noted a flip side.

“The unfortunate fact is that political rhetoric on gun control is likely increasing firearm purchases by those legally prohibited from owning firearms, too,” Mr. Baker said. “The only difference is that with the private-sale loophole, these sales go entirely undetected.”

Federally licensed dealers are required to submit each gun sale to a NICS check, but guns bought from private sellers do not have to undergo the checks.

A run on guns by first-time buyers wouldn’t cause a lower denial rate if the customers were flagged by the system. But John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who studies firearms issues, said it’s unlikely that the most recent gun-buying craze would include people with criminal background or mental health issues.

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