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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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“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.
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.”
Mr. Horwitz pointed out however, that permit checks do not reflect weapon purchases because they include state-level monitors of concealed-carry permits.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation and some other groups subtract such permit checks from monthly totals to provide clients with closer estimations of the gun marketplace.