Politico

Blocked gun sales skyrocket amid coronavirus pandemic


Internal FBI data reveal a jarring new stat: The number of people trying to buy guns who can’t legally own them has skyrocketed. That came as part of a surge in gun purchases in the first three months of 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019. And the change has raised concerns about gun safety.

In March 2019, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) ran background checks on 823,273 attempted gun buys (the system immediately greenlights the vast majority of transactions). This past March, however, NICS processed more than 1.4 million background checks––a massive spike. The most dramatic shift, though, might be in how many people the system blocked from buying guns.

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.

Everytown for Gun Safety — a group that advocates for tighter gun laws — obtained the numbers through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared them with POLITICO.

NICS’s website says it only blocks gun sales for a narrow number of reasons: because the would-be purchaser has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, for instance, or because the potential buyer is subject to a restraining order for stalking an intimate partner. Federal law bans people in these categories from buying guns. But the NICS background check system has gaping loopholes (even the gun industry’s lobby group has pushed for reform). And those loopholes mean any spike in gun purchases likely includes an increase in gun purchases by people who can’t legally own them.

The Justice Department intimated as much in May, when it asked Congress for more funding to deal with retrieving guns from people who slipped through the background check system and bought them illegally. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms––responsible for the sometimes dangerous work of retrieving those guns––will likely face more strain in the coming months as a result of the surge in purchases. If NICS can’t finish someone’s background check in three days, the gun sale can proceed. The data shows that more than twice as many gun background checks were immediately delayed in March 2020 than March 2019. The surge in gun purchases came as the coronavirus pandemic surged in the U.S. An FBI spokesperson told POLITICO that NICS “has reallocated resources to address the incoming volume of NICS transactions.”

“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,” John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown, said in a statement. “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.”

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