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Instead, he said, it created a market for people simply looking for protection, such as parents and single women.

“They’re more likely to be able to get through the NICS system,” he said.

Any government program implemented likely will improve over time, Mr. Hudak said. He agreed with Mr. Baker’s theory about a higher Clinton-era rate of denials to those who didn’t know they could not own guns legally.

What also has changed since Mr. Obama was elected and in the wake of mass shootings like the ones at Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., he said, is the flood of information about background checks and the NICS in general — providing more information about ways to get around the system.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, Mr. Obama called for all firearms transactions to be subject to background checks, setting off a debate that gripped Capitol Hill for the first five months of 2013. But that proposal stalled in Congress over questions about transfers between family members and friends, and logistics questions about purchases from private sellers at gun shows.

Mr. Obama has since turned to using executive actions to make it easier for states to turn over more mental health records to the national database. Some members of Congress are embracing these actions as a way to try to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill.

NICS “is dependent almost entirely on reporting from states,” Mr. Hudak said. “The quality of data states are reporting on varies quite dramatically. If these sorts of errors are compounded over time where data is getting less reliable/available, then you’re going to get a drop-off in denial rates over time.”

Gun control advocates argue that NICS checks have kept 1.5 million of the “wrong people” from getting guns and that the number will increase with broader background checks and better reporting from states.

Both sides of the gun control debate say the low number of denials is to be expected, particularly after the surge in gun purchases during last year’s debate.

John Wilburn, an executive member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said first-time buyers are more likely to go to gun shops.

“I can’t tell you how many concealed-carry permit students I have who are first-time buyers because the political climate is telling them not to wait any longer,” Mr. Wilburn said in an email. “That group has grown tremendously.”

Gun rights advocates agreed that criminals may avoid looking for guns from dealers because they know they would have to submit to background checks.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, agreed that first-time buyers — and repeat buyers — are more likely to be processed through the system without incident.

But he said the NICS numbers include millions of routine checks of gun permits, which tend to have much lower denial rates than gun purchases.

“You’re talking about a huge increase in permits,” he said. “You’re just going to have less denials.”

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