National Instant Criminal Background Check System

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Emblem of the NICS

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is a U.S. system for determining if prospective firearms or explosives buyers are eligible to buy. It was mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Law) of 1993 and launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1998.

After a prospective buyer completes the appropriate form, the Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) initiates the background check by phone or computer. Most checks are determined within minutes, but the FBI has up to three business days to make a determination. After that, the transfer may legally proceed anyway.

Background checks are not required for transfers between private parties. After the 1999 Columbine High School massacre there were many calls to close the "gun show loophole": to create a federal law making all gun-show gun sales - whether by FFLs or private parties - subject to background checks. No such law was passed. After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting there were more calls to create a federal "universal background check" law, making all gun sales (not just gun-show sales) subject to background checks. No such law was passed.


Running background checks was discussed as early as the 1930s.[1] The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) mandated that individual and corporate firearms dealers have a Federal Firearms License (FFL). It also created a system for keeping prohibited persons from buying guns that relied upon buyers answering a series of "yes/no" questions such as, "Are you a fugitive from justice?". However, sellers, including FFL dealers, were not required to verify the answers.[2]

Coordinated efforts to create a national background check system did not materialize until after the March 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. White House press secretary, James Brady, was seriously wounded in the attack, and afterward his wife, Sarah Brady, spearheaded the push to pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Act) of 1993. When signed into law in November of that year, the Brady Act included a GCA amendment that created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).[1][3]

The Brady Act mandated that FFL dealers run background checks on their buyers. At first, the law applied only to handgun sales, and there was a waiting period (maximum of five days) to accommodate dealers in states that did not already have background check systems in place. Those dealers were to use state law enforcement to run checks until 1998, when the NICS would become operational and come into effect. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled against the five-day waiting period, but by 1998 the NICS was up and running, administered by the FBI, and applied to all firearms purchases from FFL dealers, including long guns.[1][2]

How it works[edit]

After the prospective buyer completes and signs a Firearms Transaction Record (ATF Form 4473),[4] the FFL contacts the NICS by telephone or Internet.[5] When the background check is initiated three databases are accessed: the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the Interstate Identification Index (III), and the NICS Index.[6] According to the FBI, checks are usually determined within minutes of initiation. If there is no match in any of the checked databases, the dealer is cleared to proceed with the transfer. Otherwise, the FBI's NCIS Section must contact the appropriate judicial and/or law enforcement agencies for more information. Per the Brady Act, the FBI has three business days to make its decision to approve or deny the transfer. If the FFL has not received the decision within that time it may legally proceed anyway.[6]

States may implement their own NICS programs. Such states become the point of contact (POC) between their FFL dealers and the NICS. A few partial-POC states run FFL handgun checks, while the FBI runs long gun checks. FFLs in other, non-POC states access the NICS directly through the FBI.[6]

Authorized local, state, tribal, and federal agencies can update NCIS Index data via the NCIC front end, or by electronic batch files. In addition, the NICS Section receives calls, often in emergency situations, from mental health care providers, police departments, and family members requesting placement of individuals into the NICS Index. Documentation justifying entry into the NICS Index must be available to originating agencies.[7]

Firearm denial appeals[edit]

A buyer who believes that a NICS denial is erroneous may appeal the decision by either challenging the accuracy of the record used in the evaluation of the denial or claiming that the record used as basis for the denial is invalid or does not pertain to the buyer.[8] The provisions for appeals are outlined in the NICS Regulations at Title 28, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 25.10, and Subsection 103 (f) and (g) and Section 104 of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993.

Prohibited persons[edit]

Under sections 922(g)[9] and (n)[10] of the GCA certain persons are prohibited from:

  • Shipping or transporting any firearm or ammunition in interstate or foreign commerce;
  • Receiving any firearm or ammunition that has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.[7]

A prohibited person is one who:

  • Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  • Is under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  • Is a fugitive from justice;
  • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
  • Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
  • Is illegally or unlawfully in the United States;
  • Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
  • Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship;
  • Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner;
  • Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.[7]

Universal background check[edit]

"Universal background check" is a term used by gun-control supporters that means requiring background checks for all gun sales.[11]

In November 1998, President Bill Clinton directed the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and the U.S. Attorney General (A.G.) to provide recommendations concerning the fact that 25 percent or more of sellers at gun shows are not required to run background checks on potential buyers. This was called the gun show loophole.[12]:3,12[13][14]:27 Two months later, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice released their report, Gun Shows: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces.[12] The secretary and the A.G. made seven recommendations, including expanding the definition of "gun show," and reviewing the definition of "engaged in the business." One recommendation said:

"Require that all firearms transactions at a gun show be completed through an FFL. The FFL would be responsible for conducting a NICS check on the purchaser and maintaining records of the transactions. The failure to conduct a NICS check would be a felony for licensees and nonlicensees."[12]:20

Two months after the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, Representative Bill McCollum (R-FL), introduced H.R. 2122, the "Mandatory Gun Show Background Check Act." A highlight of the bill was that it would have required background checks "of all buyers of guns at gun shows that involve or in some way affect interstate commerce, with at least 50 firearms for sale and 10 firearm vendors present."[15]

In the August 5, 2010, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers Garen J. Wintemute, Anthony A. Braga, and David M. Kennedy, wrote, "In fact, there is no gun-show loophole as such."[16] They say it would be more effective to make all private-party gun sales go through the screening and record-keeping processes that FFL dealers are required to do. Their report concluded:

"Drawbacks with respect to expense and inconvenience notwithstanding, 83% of self-reported gun owners and 87% of the general population endorsed regulation for all private-party gun sales in a 2008 poll that was conducted for the advocacy organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Gun owners gave stronger support to this all-inclusive approach than to a gun-show-only proposal in a 2009 poll conducted for the same organization. Either proposal would face tough sledding on Capitol Hill. It would therefore seem preferable to move forward with the version that is most likely to reduce the rates of firearm-related violence."[16]

After the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut there were numerous calls for universal background checks.[17][18][19] In an essay published in 2013, Wintemute said that comprehensive background checks that included private sales would result in a simple, fair framework for retail firearms commerce.[20]:103 In February 2014, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research reported that after the 2007 repeal in Missouri of a long-standing law that required all handgun buyers to pass a background check there was a 23 percent increase in firearms homicides.[21] However, statistics from FBI Uniform Crime Reports for Missouri show that the difference in homicides between 2007 and 2008 was consistent with year-to-year fluctuations seen in homicide rates in that state over a 20-year period, and that, in fact, the rate dropped back to the level of 2007 by 2009, and was even considerably lower in 2011,[22] indicating that the difference between 2007 and 2008 was merely part of the normal fluctuations in murder rates, and not actually due to a change in gun laws.

Numerous reasons are given by those who oppose universal background checks, including these:

  • the government does not prosecute enough of the attempted buyers who are turned away by the current system;
  • there are already enough gun laws;
  • background checks are an invasion of privacy;
  • what constitutes a "transfer" might be defined too broadly;
  • criminals do not submit to background checks;
  • they do not stop criminals from committing violent crimes;
  • the only way to properly enforce a universal system would be to require a registration database.[23][24]

A July 2014 Quinnipiac University poll reported that 92 percent of Americans support universal background checks, including gun owners;[25] however, these results are disputed.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Carroll, Walter F. (2002). "National Instant Criminal Background Check System". In Carter, Gregg Lee. Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture and the Law (1st ed.). Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. pp. 431–432. ISBN 9781576072684. OCLC 50643991. Retrieved June 20, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Vernick, Jon S.; Webster, Daniel W.; Vittes, Katherine A. (2011). "Law and Policy Approaches to Keeping Guns from High-Risk People". In Culhane, John G. Reconsidering Law and Policy Debates: A Public Health Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-19505-8. 
  3. ^ "FBI: NICS Celebrates 10 Years of Operation". U.S. Department of Justice. November 30, 2008. Retrieved June 20, 2014. 
  4. ^ "Firearms Transaction Record". U.S. Department of Justice. April 2012. Retrieved June 30, 2014. 
  5. ^ "FBI: NCIS Fact Sheet". U.S. Department of Justice. 2014. Retrieved June 30, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c "FBI: NCIS Overview". U.S. Department of Justice. December 2013. Retrieved June 22, 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c "FBI: Index Brochure". U.S. Department of Justice. December 2013. Retrieved June 18, 2014. 
  8. ^ Davidson, Charlie. "FBI Background Check Denial Appeal Process". Retrieved 25 April 2012. 
  9. ^ "U.S. Code, Title 18, Part I, Chapter 44, § 922 - Unlawful acts (g)". Legal Information Institute. August 13, 2013. Retrieved June 22, 2014. 
  10. ^ "U.S. Code, Title 18, Part I, Chapter 44, § 922 - Unlawful acts (n)". Legal Information Institute. August 13, 2013. Retrieved June 22, 2014. 
  11. ^ Martinez, Michael (January 28, 2013). "'Universal background check:' What does it mean?". Cable News Network. Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  12. ^ a b c U.S. Department of the Treasury, U.S. Department of Justice (January 1999). "Gun Shows: Brady Checks and Crime Gun Traces". Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  13. ^ "Gun Show undercover". October 2009. p. 11. Retrieved June 26, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Firearms Trafficking: U.S. Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges". United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). June 2009. GAO-09-709. Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  15. ^ McCollum, Bill; Hyde, Henry J. (June 18, 1999). "H.R. 2122 (106th): Mandatory Gun Show Background Check Act (1999; 106th Congress H.R. 2122)". Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  16. ^ a b Wintemute, Garen J.; Braga, Anthony A.; Kennedy, David M. (August 5, 2010). "Private-Party Gun Sales, Regulation, and Public Safety". The New England Journal of Medicine (Massachusetts Medical Society) 363 (6): 508–511. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1006326. Retrieved June 27, 2014.  Published online at on June 30, 2010.
  17. ^ Hartfield, Elizabeth (December 24, 2012). "In Gun Control Debate, Arguments for Tougher Background Checks, Better State Reporting". ABC News Internet Ventures. Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  18. ^ Sullum, Jacob (January 11, 2013). "4 Questions About 'Universal Background Checks' for Gun Purchases". (Blog) (Reason Foundation). Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  19. ^ More universal sources:
  20. ^ Wintemute, Garen J. (2013). "Comprehensive Background Checks for Firearm Sales: Evidence from Gun Shows". In Webster, Daniel W.; Vernick, Jon S. Reducing Gun Violence in America. JHU Press. pp. 95–107. ISBN 9781421411101. OCLC 823897002. Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  21. ^ Webster, Daniel (February 18, 2014). ID Check Repeal Prompts Spike In Murders, Study Finds. Interview with Audie Cornish. All Things Considered. NPR. Retrieved June 30, 2014. 
  22. ^ "Missouri Crime Rates 1960 - 2012". Disaster Center. 2013. Retrieved August 5, 2014. 
  23. ^ Good, Chris (April 10, 2013). "The Case Against Gun Background Checks". ABC News Internet Ventures. Retrieved June 30, 2014. 
  24. ^ G&A online editors (May 28, 2013). "NRA Members: Universal Background Checks 'Not a Solution'". Guns & Ammo (Intermedia Outdoors). Retrieved June 30, 2014. 
  25. ^ "July 3, 2014 - Iraq - Getting In Was Wrong; Getting Out Was Right, U.S. Voters Tell Quinnipiac University National Poll; 92 Percent Back Background Checks For All Gun Buys". Quinnipiac University Connecticut. Retrieved 17 November 2014. 
  26. ^ Pratt, Erich. "The 92 percent myth". Gun Owners of America. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 

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