Our Work

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System


What is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System?

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is the federal system that checks available records to determine if a prospective firearm purchaser is legally permitted to receive a firearm. This system, which was created by the Brady Bill, is essential for keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who should not possess them and is a vital tool for Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to ensure that gun sales are legal. NICS is operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and tracks data related to each Brady Background Check initiated. Since it was established in 1998, there have been more than 300 million Brady Background Checks initiated through the system.

NICS tracks Brady Background Checks that are initiated, but that does not equate to a sale. It also does not account for every transfer, as private sales, like those at gun shows, are not all subject to Brady Background Checks. Additionally, background checks are also initiated for actions other than the sale of a weapon, such as for permit and license applications.

More importantly, NICS data includes background checks that resulted in a denial as well as those initiated but not finished within three business days. If the Brady Background Check shows that the purchaser has prohibitive criteria, such as a felony, the FFL cannot legally proceed with the sale, butNICS would still count that background check.Similarly, the vast majority of background checks initiated result in an almost instant proceed or deny decision, but can result in a delay in cases where more information is needed to make the determination. In these situations, the FFL may move forward with the sale (state law permitting) three business days after the background check was initiated. Again, these background checks would be counted but may not necessarily result in a sale.

How and Why do we use NICS data?

While the number of Brady Background Checks initiated through NICS is not equivalent to the number of guns sold, it does provide insight into US firearm sales.. NICS data can be broken down by month and by state, and can show broad trends related to gun sales. In fact, we have seen surges in background checks during periods of uncertainty like the coronavirus pandemic, out of fear of increased regulations after high profile mass shootings — such as the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting — and leading up to presidential elections.

These surges in background checks tend to correlate with increases in gun sales. Using methods similar to those used by The New York Times, the Small Arms Survey, and National Rifle Association, Brady uses specific data sets included in NICS’ monthly reports to generate estimates of gun sales for a given period.

How does Brady Determine Gun Sales from NICS Data?

NICS data includes category breakdowns. Brady’s gun sales estimates are calculated by adding together the number of checks listed under “handgun,” “long gun,” “multiple-gun,” and “other.” The number of “multiple-gun” checks is multiplied by two in the calculation, as each “multiple-gun” check represents at least two impending firearm purchases. This methodology excludes additional categories, including “permit,” “permit recheck,” and “pawn shop redemption.” Importantly, this data only reflects gun sales where background checks are initiated.

Many private sales occur without any background check and these are not included in the NICS data. Additionally, some background checks result in a denial, meaning that the transfer to the prospective purchaser cannot legally proceed.

The categories of firearms are defined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as follows:

  • Handgun — (a) any firearm which has a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand; and (b) any combination of parts from which a firearm described in paragraph (a) can be assembled
  • Long Gun — a weapon designed or redesigned, made or remade, and intended to be fired from the shoulder, and designed or redesigned and made or remade to use the energy of the explosive in (a) a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore for each single pull of the trigger; or (b) a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each single pull of the trigger
  • Other — refers to frames, receivers, and other firearms that are neither handguns nor long guns (rifles or shotguns), such as firearms having a pistol grip that expel a shotgun shell, or National Firearms Act firearms, including silencers.

To calculate percent increases in gun sales per capita, Brady uses U.S. Census data from the last day of each month to determine the size of the U.S. population.

Why NICS Data is Important

Brady utilizes data-driven approaches to prevent gun violence. As we saw during the coronavirus pandemic, surges in gun sales can overwhelm the federal system and state-level background check systems. For us to best assist FFLs and help ensure that gun sales are safe, we need clarity into what is actually occurring. We know, too, that many of these surges in purchases correlate with an increase in gun violence, including unintentional shootings. Similarly, studies show that gun ownership is associated with a much higher risk of death by suicide. Each of these real consequences is connected to the availability and prevalence of guns in our homes and communities. Brady is committed to preventing gun violence in all of its forms. To achieve that goal, it is necessary to see the full picture of what is going on in our nation.

Month/YearTotal Brady Background ChecksBrady's Firearm Sales EstimatePercent Change in Estimated Firearm Sales Over Same Month Previous Year (Population Adjusted)
January 20192,165,094940,823+3%
February 20192,053,8861,048,314-13%
March 20192,644,8511,262,677-13%
April 20192,334,249950,005-8%
May 20192,349,309867,077+1%
June 20192,312,309880,567+3%
July 20192,030,661777,9430%
August 20192,366,8241,051,949+15%
September 20192,207,312964,908+10%
October 20192,393,6091,050,602+10%
November 20192,574,7521,291,549+1%
December 20192,936,8941,516,637+4%
January 20202,702,7021,121,407+19%
February 20202,802,4671,230,792+17%
March 20203,740,6882,344,535+85%
April 20202,911,1281,631,298+71%
May 20203,091,4551,565,836+80%
June 20203,931,6072,165,863+145%
July 20203,639,2241,825,853+134%
August 20203,115,0631,659,957+57%
September 20202,892,1151,600,244+65%
October 20203,305,4651,732,019+64%