Gun Background Checks Spike During Obama Presidency

When a prospective buyer wishes to legally purchase a firearm from a licensed seller, the vendor runs a background check through the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Otherwise known as NICS, this system was used to conduct 1,098,964 firearm background checks in Nevada from Nov. 30, 1998, through Dec. 31, 2012, according to the FBI.

Some 488,224 checks were related to handguns and 449,578 were used for rifles or shotguns. Most of the other checks involved gun permits or prospective multiple firearm purchases. But background check statistics don't equate to the number of gun sales.

Background checks in Nevada spiked to a then-record 13,436 in November 2008, the month President Barack Obama was elected to his first term. There had been widespread fear, as reported in the national media, that Obama and what was then a Democratic-controlled Congress would seek to approve gun control measures.

An additional 13,454 background checks were performed in Nevada in December 2008. That number was exceeded in December 2011 and again last November, when Obama won his second term. But those record months were shattered by the 22,420 background checks performed in Nevada last December.

The number of background checks slipped to 18,361 in January, but that represented a Nevada record for the first month of the year, a time that is normally slow for such checks. The record January, which nearly doubled the number of background checks performed in January 2012, occurred while Congress is still debating potential new gun control measures in response to the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. 

NICS, launched on Nov. 30, 1998, was mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. The purpose is to instantly determine whether a prospective customer has a criminal record or is otherwise ineligible to purchase firearms or explosives.

More than 100 million such checks have been performed nationally over the past decade, resulting in more than 700,000 denials.

Over the last five years, according to the Nevada Department of Public Safety, the number of times individuals were denied firearms based on background checks in Nevada included: 1,575 in 2008, a rejection rate of 1.7 percent; 1,399 in 2009, a 1.3 percent rejection rate; 1,460 in 2010, a 1.4 percent rejection rate; 1,560 in 2011, a 1.3 percent rejection rate; and 1,924 in 2012, a 1.3 percent rejection rate.

Over those five years combined, 7,918 denials were issued from 572,487 background checks, a rejection rate of 1.4 percent. 

But a major flaw in NICS was exposed in 2007 when a student previously diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder shot and killed 32 individuals and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech. The gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, had been cleared through NICS to buy firearms despite being previously diagnosed with mental illness and involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital.

The massacre prompted Congress to strengthen NICS by expanding the background check system to include individuals who have been adjudicated as mentally ill. Nevada, in turn, became one of the nation's first three states in 2009 to receive federal funding to improve its data collection system to transfer relevant court records to NICS. Nevada's share of the funding was $798,471.

The Nevada Legislature in 2009 also passed Assembly Bill 46, which requires state courts to transfer records to the state criminal history repository that include orders regarding the involuntary admission of individuals to mental health facilities. Courts also are required to submit records of individuals who have been appointed guardians due to mental illness or have been determined to be incompetent to stand trial. Such individuals are prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms.

In November 2011 the gun control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns ranked Nevada 25th among the states with 17.9 mental health records submitted to NICS per 100,000. As of October 2011, Nevada had submitted 484 mental health records to NICS.

The organization quoted an unnamed Nevada Department of Public Safety official as saying that only the Clark County District Court had been sending mental health records to the state. But before the mayors' report was released the department -- which coordinates gun-related background checks in Nevada -- had begun sending letters to courts throughout the state reminding them of AB 46 and the need to transfer relevant records.

As of Jan. 16, Nevada submitted 1,013 mental health records to NICS, according to Julie Butler, the department's records bureau chief. But those only represent roughly half the records of individuals prohibited from purchasing firearms that the state has forwarded to NICS since receiving the federal grant.

Other forwarded records as of Dec. 31 included 614 for individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, 226 for individuals with protective or restraining orders, 72 connected to individuals convicted of felonies, 50 for people who used, possessed or distributed illegal drugs, and two for people who were dishonorably discharged from the military.

The reason only 72 felony records have been forwarded, according to Butler, is that her department already relies on another FBI database, the Interstate Identification Index, to search criminal histories. The triple-I, as this database is known, stores in Butler's estimation hundreds of thousands of records on Nevada felony convictions and arrests as well as outstanding warrant information from other states. The 72 records represent those that somehow weren't already in the triple-I database.

The background checks used by her department also include the state's own criminal database, records kept by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI's National Crime Information Center, of which the triple-I database is a part. The information center also has records related to individuals on supervised release, sex offenders, foreign fugitives, known or suspected terrorists, gang members and identity thieves.

If an individual has been arrested on a felony charge but has not yet been convicted, Butler said that person will be denied the ability to purchase a firearm until the case has been adjudicated. But if the status of an individual is unknown following a felony arrest, the public safety department has three business days from the time of the possible gun sale to independently determine through background checks whether that individual should be denied from acquiring the firearm.

Butler said that if her department cannot come up with a definitive answer, it is left up to the gun dealer to decide whether to sell the firearm to the customer.

As for getting mental health records from the courts, Butler said more could be done.

"The state could do a better job of trying to educate the courts about providing information to us," she said.

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