According to an Everytown FOIA exclusively obtained by Politico, the National Instant Criminal Background Check system (NICS) is overwhelmed due to surging gun sales during the pandemic–– leading to a likely “increase in gun purchases by people who can’t legally own them.” The FOIA, which was submitted to the FBI in April and received by Everytown earlier this week, reveals that “twice as many gun background checks were immediately delayed in March 2020 than March 2019” and 53% more checks than normal are taking longer than three days to process. This is significant because it means that more guns are likely being sold to prohibited purchasers due to the Charleston loophole––a gap in federal law (named after the loophole the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooter exploited to acquire his firearm) that allows gun sales to proceed if a background check has not been completed within three business days.
John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, is quoted in Politico’s story on the FOIA, saying, “This FBI data confirms our fear that America’s background check system is completely overwhelmed, which means that more guns are slipping through the cracks and being sold to prohibited purchasers. Mitch McConnell can stop this by taking action to close the Charleston loophole, but he’s too scared of the gun lobby’s waning political power to do anything, even as gun violence rises in the midst of a pandemic.”
The data, which captures the month of March and was published in full by Politico, is alarming:
- The NICS system is completely overwhelmed. As a share of all transactions, 53% more background checks were delayed past 3 days in March 2020 than in March 2019. This means that––in March alone––76,558 gun sales could have proceeded without a background check being finished, which is more than January through March 2019 combined.
- It’s estimated that at least 245% more guns were transferred to prohibited purchasers (due to the Charleston loophole) in March 2020 than in an average month: In March 2020 alone, it’s estimated that at least 1,138 delayed background checks resulted in a gun being transferred to a prohibited purchaser due to the Charleston loophole––a 245% increase over the average month. And, with the magnitude of delayed checks and delays at state and local offices, it’s likely the number is much higher.
- It’s estimated that over 54,000 of the delayed, uncompleted background checks from March have already been purged. All uncompleted federal background check records are purged after 90 days, meaning that most of the delayed records from March––an estimated 54,000––are now lost forever. With the large increase in background checks, the number could be even higher.
- Tens of thousands more prohibited buyers are trying to buy guns: According to Politico, “In March 2019 and February 2020, the NICS system blocked about 9,500 and 9,700, respectively. But in March 2020, it blocked more than double that amount: a whopping 23,692 gun sales.”
Over a year ago, the House of Representatives passed House Majority Whip James Clyburn’s (D-SC) bipartisan legislation to address the deadly Charleston loophole, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has failed to even bring the bill to the floor for a vote. This inaction has grown even more dangerous during the pandemic, when even President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice has asked for more money to perform background checks and retrieve firearms that should not have been sold.
This data from the FOIA only applies to March, but the trend has likely continued since then as gun sales have continued to rise. In June, for example, 3.9 million background checks were conducted––71% more than in June 2019. That translates to an estimated 2.3 million guns sold, an increase of 149% over last year.